Growing up as an anxious child, one of the biggest conflicts between my parents and me was my tendency to procrastinate on absolutely everything. It wasn’t until I finally sought help for my anxiety many years later, that I learned that procrastination is actually a relatively common symptom of anxiety. It is something I still struggle with to this day, which is why I was particularly interested when I came across a new study, published in the Journal of Personality, where researchers examined this very phenomenon.
Neuroticism and Inaction
Neuroticism is classified as one of the “Big 5” personality traits, along with openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Neurotic people are more likely to experience anxiety disorders, depression, anger, irritability, and feelings of guilt. They are also more likely to become frustrated and overwhelmed by everyday situations, and to struggle with taking action.
The new study — a collaboration by researchers from Texas Tech University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Battelle Center for Analytics and Public Health – surveyed nearly 4,000 participants from 19 countries on their mental health, their feelings on individualism vs. collectivism, and their feelings on action vs. inaction.
The researchers found that neurotic people largely have negative feelings toward action, and that anxiety is the primary reason for this. Additionally, more collectivist-minded people (who are more likely to consider the social consequences of their actions) also preferred inaction.
Minimizing the Consequences of Neuroticism
Procrastination and inaction due to anxiety can have an incredibly destructive effect on a person. I learned this firsthand during my struggles – I would feel too overwhelmed and anxious to take action, and then the consequences of my procrastination would lead to even more anxiety, and that cycle perpetuated itself until my life felt completely out of my control. I finally reached a place where I had to accept that my procrastination habit was only compounding my stress and anxiety, even though I was procrastinating in order to avoid stress and anxiety in the first place. This may seem fairly obvious to many people, but it’s a familiar story to those who could be classified as neurotic.
“People who are interested in reducing the harmful consequences of neuroticism in their own lives should think about how their attitudes toward action might be affecting their behavior,” the authors of the study wrote. “These findings lay the groundwork for finding new methods of studying and ultimately preventing the negative consequence of neurotic action avoidance.”
While it is hard work, the researchers believe that it’s possible for neurotic people to learn to become more proactive and willing to take action. In fact, studies have shown that when neurotic people also rank highly in the Big 5 trait of conscientiousness (characterized by being thorough, disciplined, and organized), they may actually have an advantage in the areas of physical and mental health.
If you’re like me and would like to become more conscientious, a great place to start is by reading Dr. Alice Boyes’ tips on overcoming inaction due to anxiety. In her Psychology Today article, she outlines six different kinds of anxiety-related procrastination, with strategies for how to get through them and how to be kinder to yourself in the process.