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How Personality Influences Mental Health

Personality, that unique set of characteristics and behaviors that define how we perceive, interact with, and think about the world and ourselves, plays a critical role in our physical – and mental – well-being. Here’s how personality influences mental health.

 

Understanding personality

Personality is often thought of in terms of traits—enduring qualities or tendencies that guide how individuals react across various situations. 

 

Psychologists typically view personality through various lenses, primarily focusing on traits that are consistent and measurable across different contexts. The most prominent model to assess and describe personality is the Five Factor Model, also known as the “Big Five” personality traits. 

 

These include Openness (willingness to experience new things), Conscientiousness (level of reliability and organisation), Extraversion (preference for social interaction and external activities), Agreeableness (orientation towards cooperation and social harmony), and Neuroticism (tendency toward emotional instability and negativity). Everyone’s personality is made up of different degrees of these traits.

 

How does personality affect mental health?

Personality is one of many factors that influence our vulnerability to mental health struggles by shaping how we respond to discomfort and distress. 

 

Personality profoundly contributes to how we handle stressors and adapt to life’s challenges. For instance, personality traits like resilience and optimism can buffer against stress and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. Or, highly conscientious people may use problem-focused coping strategies, addressing their distress directly and seeking practical solutions.

 

On the other hand, people whose personality is high in neuroticism might rely on emotion-focused coping, which can include avoidance and rumination – behaviours that make them more prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Can personality cause anxiety and depression?

No. Personality doesn’t cause anxiety or depression, nor does it prevent them. It’s one of many factors at play. 

 

However, certain personality profiles can make us more prone to these issues than others. People with an “anxious personality” often exhibit traits that include high reactivity to stress, excessive worry, and a tendency toward fearfulness. These personality traits can make individuals more vulnerable to struggles with anxiety. 

 

The Big Five traits can also make us more or less prone to anxiety and depression, depending on the breakdown of our personality. Here’s how:

 

Neuroticism: People whose personality is high in neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions more intensely and frequently. They are more prone to stress, worry, and feelings of vulnerability. They may perceive everyday challenges as overwhelming, leading to chronic anxiety. 

 

Someone who is high in neuroticism may focus more on potential threats and failures, interpreting ordinary situations as overwhelmingly negative. This persistent negativity can erode self-esteem and increase the likelihood of developing depression. The underlying emotional instability can also make it difficult to manage emotions effectively.

 

Extraversion: People who are more introverted – who score low in extraversion – might be more prone to social anxiety and depression, especially if they feel isolated or misunderstood.

 

People who are more introverted may find social interactions draining or stressful, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety and isolation. By contrast, people with a more extraverted personality may overcommit to social activities or be reluctant to spend time alone as a way of distracting themselves from anxious or depressed thoughts and feelings.

 

Agreeableness: People high in agreeableness typically have better mental health because this trait is closely linked to positive relationships and cooperation. 

 

However, excessive agreeableness can cause stress if a person prioritises others’ needs over their own, potentially resulting in anxiety or burnout. Highly agreeable individuals might hide their true feelings to maintain harmony, leading to internalised stress and anxiety.

 

Openness: Extreme openness to experiences can sometimes coincide with mood conditions like bipolar disorder; both can prompt a person to pursue novel and intense experiences. 

 

And while openness to new experiences is generally a positive trait, when it prompts us to constantly seek new experiences in order to avoid dealing with deeper issues, it can become a mask for anxiety or depression.

 

Conscientiousness: In extreme cases, high conscientiousness can lead to perfectionism, contributing to anxiety. The constant pursuit of impossibly high standards and fear of failure can also result in chronic stress and depressive symptoms.

 

Personality doesn’t cause anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles – just as our mental health doesn’t determine our personality. Rather, personality is a factor that influences our mental health landscape, shaping how we respond to our psychological state. 

 

Recognising the interplay between personality and mental health is vital for therapy – whether app-based and self-led, or one-on-one sessions.

 

Therapy can be immensely helpful in understanding how your personality traits affect how you respond to stress and emotional challenges. It can also help you develop techniques to manage stress, choose healthier coping behaviours, and improve overall well-being. 

 

For anyone observing changes in their typical behaviour or feeling overwhelmed by traits they thought were just part of their personality, it might be time to seek help. Early intervention can help address these issues before they develop into more significant problems.

 

 

SOURCES

  • McCrae RR, John OP. An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. J Pers. 1992 Jun;60(2):175-215.
  • Power RA, Pluess M. Heritability estimates of the Big Five personality traits based on common genetic variants. Transl Psychiatry. 2015 Jul 14;5(7):e604.

 

Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is Mitsu’s senior clinical psychologist. She has 5+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.

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