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Neurotic? Then nothing is more stressful than peace and quiet, research shows

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

When you’re incredibly stressed and have a million things to sort out there can be nothing more annoying than zen yoga and deep breathing and people who tell you to chill.

A paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggest that such irritation isn’t simply irrational, as researchers found that neurotic people find anxiety-inducing environments more restorative than traditionally calm ones.

While it may seem strange that anyone could find crowded sidewalks more relaxing than the forest, the research say it makes sense that we would find it easier to be in environments that match our personality.

“Environments are restorative when individuals interacting with them require less directed attention resources,” they write. “It is possible that environmental compatibility, or the extent to which salient cues in the environment are compatible with an individual’s motivational orientation, affects the amount of attentional resources necessary to interact within an environment.”

For example, someone neurotic like Woody Allen could find a forest “very off-putting rather than rejuvenating,” co-author and Providence College professor Kevin Newman said in a statement.

Though the authors didn’t look at anyone with a clinical neurotic disorder, participants took a neurotic personally survey, answering questions such as how worried or irritable they are. Participants that tested as more neurotic were found to get more restorative benefits from stressful environments.

The authors came to their conclusion by conducting three studies, involving 455 participants in total. In the first, participants were given a thought-suppression test (they were told not to think of a white bear), which used up self-control, and also completed a neuroticism test. Participants were then given anagrams to solve of words that related to either nature or of urban environments. Lastly, they were given an unsolvable anagram. How long each participant spent trying to complete the unsolvable anagram was taken as a measure of self-control, and researchers found that neurotic people who were given urban-related anagrams showed greater self control than those given natural words.

The second study repeated the results but tested for specifically anxiety-inducing and calm words, rather than urban vs. nature. They found that typically anxiety-inducing but natural words, such as “spider,” were restorative for neurotic people. Meanwhile more relaxed participants could still find calm in an urban environment, and were restored by words such as “bookstore.”

The final test measured self-control by asking participants to plan a safari holiday and say how much they would put on a credit card. The results showed that people made more financially sensible decisions after they were given words that matched their personality.

Of course, participants were only exposed to words associated with a particular environment, rather than the environment themselves. So it’s likely that even the most highly-strung person might find it difficult to relax with a giant tarantula crawling up their arm.

But the study does suggest that the zen mantra, “be at one with the world,” does hold true. It’s just that for neurotic people, it’s best if that world is stressful mayhem.

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