Be glad you're neurotic


Neurosis [noo-roh-sis] is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations, whereby behavior is not outside socially acceptable norms. Those suffering from it are said to be neurotic. The term essentially describes an ‘invisible injury’ and the resulting condition. The American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has eliminated the category of ‘Neurosis,’ reflecting a decision by the editors to provide descriptions of behavior as opposed to hidden psychological mechanisms as diagnostic criteria.

Neurosis should not be mistaken for psychosis, which refers to loss of touch with reality, or neuroticism, a fundamental personality trait characterized by an enduring tendency to experience negative emotional states.

Neurosis was coined by the Scottish doctor William Cullen in 1769 to refer to ‘disorders of sense and motion’ caused by a ‘general affection of the nervous system.’ For him, it described various nervous disorders and symptoms that could not be explained physiologically. The term was most influentially defined by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud over a century later.

There are many different specific forms of neurosis: pyromania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety neurosis, hysteria (in which anxiety may be discharged through a physical symptom), and a nearly endless variety of phobias. Symptoms include: anxiety, depression, anger, mental confusion, phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy, repetition of thoughts, habitual fantasizing, cynicism, dependency, aggressiveness, perfectionism, isolation, and culturally inappropriate behaviors.

As an illness, neurosis represents a variety of mental disorders in which emotional distress or unconscious conflict is expressed through various physical, physiological, and mental disturbances, which may include physical symptoms. The definitive symptom is anxieties. It has perhaps been most simply defined as a ‘poor ability to adapt to one’s environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality.’

According to psychoanalytic theory, neuroses may be rooted in ego defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are a normal way of developing and maintaining a consistent sense of self (i.e., an ego), while only those thoughts and behavior patterns that produce difficulties in living should be termed ‘neuroses.’ Carl Jung found his approach particularly fitting for people who are successfully adjusted by normal social standards, but who nevertheless have issues with the meaning of their life:

‘I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. ‘

‘The majority of my patients consisted not of believers but of those who had lost their faith.’

‘[Contemporary man] is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by ‘powers’ that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food – and, above all, a large array of neuroses.’


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