Short-term anxiety is a distressing (if subclinical) emotional state that most individuals go through during their life. Symptoms of anxiety may briefly occur when an individual feels like their health, money, or safety is being threatened. An individual may remain hypervigilant and fearful for a short time, even when the potential danger is no longer present. If this adverse reaction occurs more frequently with or without threats, the individual may become vulnerable to high levels of anxiety. Personality traits are some of the many factors that can increase an individual’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder throughout their life.
Read on to get a closer look at four personality traits of a person with anxiety—neuroticism, low extraversion (or introversion), shyness, and conscientiousness—as well as between different personality traits and anxiety.
Neuroticism is a personality trait related to negative emotional states and is highly associated with several anxiety disorders, including various phobias, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder. An individual with high neuroticism struggles to manage frustration and perceives ordinary stressors as overwhelming.
One study examined anxiety and the impact of neuroticism and three distinct diagnostic factors: psychological inflexibility, shame, and emotional dysregulation. The study found that neuroticism and each of the above diagnostic factors were associated with anxiety in an adolescent inpatient population. While just one study, it sheds light on the many ways high anxiety personality traits such as neuroticism can impact an individual.
Extraversion is a personality trait that exists along a continuum and reflects the degree to which a person seeks social interaction and excitement. Individuals with high levels of extraversion are often seen as energetic, sociable, and emotionally warm. High extraversion is also connected with more positive emotion and resiliency. Those with low extraversion, also known as introversion, are more likely to seek enjoyable experiences in solitude. Extraverts often enjoy a lot of positive attention, but the quiet nature of introverts has benefits, too. Introverts tend to be creative, highly observant, attuned to themselves and others, and prioritize close, high-quality relationships.
Very low levels of extraversion are among several clinical and psychological characteristics that predict persistent anxiety disorders, particularly social phobia and agoraphobia. Research addressing the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that introverted individuals turn inward to cope with challenges, and often seek less help from others. These activities may contribute to isolation and perpetuate internal behaviors such as rumination and worry, two foundations of anxiety.
Shyness and introversion are often referred to as interchangeable attributes, but one key difference sets them apart. Individuals with high levels of shyness avoid social interaction because of discomfort, tension, and awkwardness, whereas introverts remain self-assured about their quiet nature and low interest in social interaction.
Extraversion is expressed along a spectrum, existing separately from shyness. This means that individuals with high and low levels of extraversion can also experience shyness. Anxiety is associated with shyness in the presence of low extraversion, meaning that higher levels of extraversion may have a protective effect.
Rumination is associated with social anxiety and seems to play a significant role in shyness. Some research suggests that social anxiety and shyness are different expressions along the same continuum, with social anxiety the more intense version of shyness. In that light, findings about social anxiety may be applicable to shyness as well.
In an attempt to avoid emotional distress, an individual with high levels of shyness may ruminate over the possible negative outcomes of a social situation, using it as a strategy to learn from previous bad experiences. However, rumination often reinforces negative emotions and self-criticism, compounding anxiety symptoms instead of alleviating them.
Conscientiousness is defined as being careful, principled, and highly self-disciplined. An individual with high levels of conscientiousness is able to delay gratification and is less likely to act without a plan.
Once again, extraversion may offer a protective effect for a personality trait that is otherwise linked with anxiety. For individuals who are more conscientious, higher extraversion weakens the link to anxiety. Also, conscientiousness promotes self-regulation, an aspect that in and of itself may buffer an individual from emotional difficulties.
The interaction between personality traits and psychological disorders has been well researched, with many studies revealing long-standing patterns and connections. The overlap of high neuroticism and low extraversion increases a person’s chance of developing either a depressive or anxiety disorder. And because these disorders often occur together and have overlapping symptoms, the chances of comorbid depression and anxiety increase.
With a better understanding of personality traits and how they interact with anxiety, clinicians may find ways to improve treatment outcomes. Interventions that influence specific personality traits may help reduce an individual’s vulnerability to anxiety and prevent relapse.