The impact that depression, anxiety disorder or similar condition has on a woman’s life is muted by certain personality traits, researchers have found. And fascinatingly, the protective effect discovered was found only in women.
This surprising discovery emerged from information acquired in the British Household Panel Survey, a study sponsored by the University of Essex Institute for Social and Economic Research. Almost 3,000 men and women were selected to participate in this research project, which queried its subjects over a period of years on a variety of topics related to their health, happiness and attitudes about life. As part of the study, the personalities of participants were evaluated and cross-correlated with the data to see if they had any impact.
Which, it turns out, they did.
Poor Mental Health and the Big Five Personality Traits
For the purposes of this research, personality was classified using the Big Five Model of Personality Traits. This framework for analysis has been around for decades and has received wide acceptance within the broader field of psychology. It has frequently been used to interpret human behavior and to explain the diversity of human emotional experience.
The five personality traits elevated to elite status under this model include:
- Openness to experience: (inventive/curious consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized easy-going/careless)
- Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate analytical/detached)
- Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous secure/confident)
Everyone falls on one side of the dividing line or the other, registering positive or negative for all five of these traits. As might be expected, in general, falling on the “good” side of the line promotes health and happiness. And in fact, women who possessed a high degree of agreeableness were among those who weren’t hit as hard by mental health troubles.
But in this instance, the picture is decidedly more complex; women assessed as being low in conscientiousness were the other group able to make a smooth adjustment to the onset of mental illness. None of the other five personality traits was associated with improved coping skills, but the relationships with agreeableness and conscientiousness were measureable and easily established.
Psychologists Look for Answers
Researchers looking at the data have tried to come up with sensible reasons to explain why agreeableness and a lack of conscientiousness might help reduce the impact of depression or anxiety disorders.
With respect to agreeableness, much of the speculation has centered on the constructive role strong social support networks can play in the healing process. People who measure high in agreeableness tend to have more friendships and better relationships with family members, giving them opportunities to reach out and ask for help when they are feeling overwhelmed. Because they are not alone, they have plenty of emotional and practical support, allowing them to avoid isolation and loneliness as they attempt to manage their personal affairs in troubled times.
As for conscientiousness, those who lack this trait generally live lives filled with chaos and uncertainty. Consequently, the arrival of a mental illness may not be as disruptive as it is for those who prefer a more structured, predictable path and are intensely disturbed by breaks in routine. People low in conscientiousness usually suffer from emotional upset even in the best of times, so if more serious mental health problems develop, the changes may seem relatively small and not anything like the scary fall into a deep dark abyss that many victims of mental illness experience.
It is a bit of a mystery why men do not demonstrate the same type of resistance to mental health difficulties based on personality traits. The British study did rely on self-testimony to diagnose mental health troubles, and some have suggested that men may have been less likely to tell the truth about their emotional states. Even in 2015, many men may still believe expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness and that psychological problems are shameful and embarrassing. If this is true, the results of this survey may have been somewhat skewed or deceptive. But this is just speculation, and a lot more research will be needed to produce definitive answers.
Personality Traits Are Not a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card
It is important to note that personality traits don’t keep anyone safe from mental health disorders. They only limit the life-altering effects of those disorders in some instances.
But even in limited form, mental health disorders cause suffering, reduce a person’s sense of safety and security and can impact important relationships in highly destructive ways. Men and women diagnosed with any type of mental health disorder can benefit tremendously from counseling and treatment, regardless of any personality characteristics they may or may not possess. And women who score low on the conscientiousness scale may have other serious problems that need addressing, no matter how well they survive their encounters with depression or anxiety.