Neurosis is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations. Neurotic behavior is typically within socially acceptable limits. Neurosis may also be called psychoneurosis or neurotic disorder.

History and etymology

The term 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." Cullen used the term to describe various nervous disorders and symptoms that could not be explained physiologically. However, the meaning of the term was redefined by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud over a century later. It has continued to be used in psychology and philosophy.[1]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has eliminated the category "neurosis" because of a decision by its editors to provide descriptions of behavior rather than descriptions of hidden psychological mechanisms.[2] This change has been controversial.[3]

According to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary, neurosis is "no longer used in psychiatric diagnosis."[4]

The term is derived from the Greek word νεῦρον (neuron, "nerve") and the suffix -ωσις -osis (diseased or abnormal condition).

Symptoms and causes

There are many different neuroses: obsessive–compulsive disorder, obsessive–compulsive personality disorder, impulse control disorder, anxiety disorder, hysteria, and a great variety of phobias.

According to Shippensburg University, the symptoms of neurosis may involve:

Neurosis may be defined simply 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."[5]

Jung's theory

Carl Jung found his approach particularly effective for patients who are well adjusted by social standards but are troubled by existential questions.

Jung found that the unconscious finds expression primarily through an individual's inferior psychological function, whether it is thinking, feeling, sensation, or intuition. The characteristic effects of a neurosis on the dominant and inferior functions are discussed in Psychological Types.

Jung saw collective neuroses in politics: "Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic." (Jung (1964) p. 85)

Psychoanalytical theory

According to psychoanalytic theory, neuroses may be rooted in ego defense mechanisms, but the two concepts are not synonymous. Defense mechanisms are a normal way of developing and maintaining a consistent sense of self (i.e., an ego). But only those thoughts and behaviors that produce difficulties in one's life should be called neuroses.

A neurotic person experiences emotional distress and unconscious conflict, which are manifested in various physical or mental illnesses. The definitive symptom is anxiety.

Neurotic tendencies are common and may manifest themselves as acute or chronic anxiety, depression, an obsessive–compulsive disorder, a phobia, or a personality disorder.

Neurosis should not be mistaken for psychosis, which refers to a loss of touch with reality. Neither should it be mistaken for neuroticism, which is a fundamental personality trait according to psychological theory.

Horney's theory

In her final book, Neurosis and Human Growth, Karen Horney laid out a complete theory of the origin and dynamics of neurosis.[6]

In her theory, neurosis is a distorted way of looking at the world and at oneself, which is determined by compulsive needs rather than by a genuine interest in the world as it is.

Horney proposed that neurosis is transmitted to a child from his or her early environment and that there are many ways in which this can occur:

The child's initial reality is then distorted by his or her parents' needs and pretenses. Growing up with neurotic caretakers, the child quickly becomes insecure and develops basic anxiety. To deal with this anxiety, the child's imagination creates an idealized self-image:

Once he identifies himself with his idealized image, a number of effects follow. He will make claims on others and on life based on the prestige he feels entitled to because of his idealized self-image. He will impose a rigorous set of standards upon himself in order to try to measure up to that image. He will cultivate pride, and with that will come the vulnerabilities associated with pride that lacks any foundation. Finally, he will despise himself for all his limitations. Vicious circles will operate to strengthen all of these effects.

Eventually, as he grows to adulthood, a particular "solution" to all the inner conflicts and vulnerabilities will solidify. He will be expansive and will display symptoms of narcissism, perfectionism, or vindictiveness. Or he will be self-effacing and compulsively compliant; he will display symptoms of neediness or codependence. Or he will be resigned and will display schizoid tendencies.

In Horney's view, mild anxiety disorders and full-blown personality disorders all fall under her basic scheme of neurosis. These are considered to be variations in the degree of severity and in the individual dynamics.

The opposite of neurosis is a condition which Horney calls self-realization, which is a state of being in which the person responds to the world with the full depth of his or her spontaneous feelings, rather than with anxiety-driven compulsion. Thus the person grows to actualize his or her inborn potentialities. Horney compares this process to an acorn that grows and becomes a tree.

See also


  1. ^   See also Kirsten Jacobson, (2006), "The Interpersonal Expression of Human Spatiality: A Phenomenological Interpretation of Anorexia Nervosa," Chiasmi International 8, pp. 157–74.
  2. ^ Horwitz and Wakefield (2007). The Loss of Sadness. Oxford.  
  3. ^ Wilson, Mitchell, (1993), "DSM-III and the Transformation of American Psychiatry: A History". The American Journal of Psychiatry, 150,3, pp. 399–410.
  4. ^ The American Heritage Medical Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin. 2007.  
  5. ^ a b Boeree, Dr. C. George (2002). "A Bio-Social Theory of Neurosis". Retrieved 2009-04-21. 
  6. ^ Horney, Karen (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-393-30775-7.
  7. ^ Horney, p. 18.
  8. ^ Horney, p. 22.


  • Angyal, Andras. (1965). Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory. Edited by E. Hanfmann and R.M. Jones.
  • Fenichel, Otto. (1945) The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated by James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953–74.
  • Horney, Karen. Neurosis and Human Growth. Norton, 1950.
  • Horney, Karen. Our Inner Conflicts. Norton, 1945.
  • Horney, Karen. The Collected Works. (2 vols.) Norton, 1937.
  • Horwitz, A.V. and J.C. Wakefield. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-531304-8.
  • Jung, C.G. et al. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-05221-9.
  • Jung, C.G. (1966). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, vol. 7. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01782-4.
  • Jung, C.G. [1921] (1971). Psychological Types. Collected Works, vol. 6. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01813-8.
  • Jung, C.G. [1961] (1989). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage Books. ISBN 0-679-72395-1
  • Ladell, R.M. and T.H. Hargreaves (October 1947). "The Extent of Neurosis". Br Med J 2 (4526): 548–549.  
  • McWilliams, Nancy (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.  
  • Russon, John. (2003). Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-5754-0
  • Winokur, Jon. Encyclopedia Neurotica. 2005. ISBN 0-312-32501-0.

External links