I am extremely introspective and there is not a personality test out there I have not explored- just to see what it can reveal about who I am compared to my reflection of myself. Of course, I am the one doing the test so one has to expect that isn’t perfect. I can tell you that according to MBTI (Myers-Briggs) I am an INTP. According to Enneagram I am a 5w4. According to the Big 5 test I rank highest to lowest: Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Extroversion.

It is hard to say to what extent any of those tests actually reveal about anyone’s entire personality. It is a Type so that means it has to be categorized with other Types… and that is very limiting. I won’t even get into the flaws listed about any of the above because they literally all are flawed, some more than the others.

Text: Chronic Illness: It sure has a lot of personality 

Image: Man in tux pulling of white face mask

Research and personality

Most research involving personality traits uses the Big 5 theory of personality, being as they consider it the most valid theory at this time. It works well for research because it isn’t really a well developed personality theory per se but rather a way to organize personality traits on a spectrum. And it is a theory not a fact. And some criticized it for the fact 5 traits seems rather simplistic. An alternative presented is HEXACO. But simplistic and descriptive and a way to organize traits… works well for research so I can see why it is so adhered to even though I can see a lot of flaws in it functionally.

Take the Big 5 test yourself

Traits

  • Conscientiousness: impulsive, disorganized, careless vs. disciplined, careful, organized, hardworking- under this category are factors of Self-Efficacy, Orderliness, Dutifulness, Achievement-striving, Self-Discipline, Cautiousness
  • Agreeableness: suspicious, uncooperative, critical vs. trusting, helpful, empathetic: under this category are Trust, Morality, Altruism, Cooperation, Modesty, Sympathy
  • Neuroticism: calm, confident, even-tempered, secure vs. anxious, pessimistic, unhappy, prone to negative emotions- under this category are factors of Anxiety, Anger, Depression, Self-Consciousness, Immoderation, Vulnerability
  • Openness to Experience: prefers routine, practical, conventional vs. imaginative, spontaneous, independent, curious, wide range of interests- under this category are factors Imagination, Artistic level, Emotionality, Adventurousness, Intellect, Liberalism
  • Extroversion: reserved, thoughtful, withdrawn, quiet vs. sociable, outgoing, warm, seeks adventure- under this category are factors of Friendliness, Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Activity level, Excitement-seeking, Cheerfulness

What is is said about the Big 5

  •  The traits are extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Each is on a spectrum that the individual would fall under.
  • It is suggested that the Big 5 is essentially stable through life
  • Influenced significantly by genes and the environment, with an estimated heritability of 50%
  • And obviously it can be used in research to predict specific outcomes… such as health

I am not so sure about that stability over time. In my personal experience my openness has never changed, and my introversion has never changed. I can’t say that about any of the others through various life changes. They have actually changed.

They found that overall agreeableness and conscientiousness increased with age. There was no significant trend for extraversion overall although gregariousness decreased and assertiveness increased.

Openness to experience and neuroticism decreased slightly from adolescence to middle adulthood. The researchers concluded that there were more significant trends in specific facets (i.e. adventurousness and depression) rather than in the Big Five traits overall.

Simple Psychology

And, well, I can attest to the fact my agreeableness and conscientiousness has increased with age. Especially agreeableness which I would say was a bit lacking and is now rather high.

Personality research and chronic illness

I am hesitant and reluctant about research suggesting anything about a personality factor and chronic illness. Because I think some facets of our personality, like our self-identity, and sense of self, are very malleable. Not all traits… but some. I wouldn’t think you can say much long term when it comes to the Big 5 which is what is used.

However, I know our personality affects how we cope and even how we approach different ways to cope. Obviously, different types of people approach illness differently and adapt differently initially. I know for me, I was prone to pushing myself beyond my limits to try and achieve my excessively high standards and perfectionism, which led to depression, chronic stress, chronic insomnia. It doesn’t surprise me at all that my initial pain condition as a child was compounded by fibromyalgia and then chronic migraine simply due to the way I dealt with stress and the fact I rarely, if ever, got decent sleep. So I would say that some of my beliefs, personality traits, ways I approached stress and my coping strategies could have ‘primed’ me for chronic stress and illness. I wouldn’t Blame my personality for my chronic illnesses.

But personality in the limited way it is defined by science are just the traits we develop very young in response to stimuli and stressors… so basically, our habitual responses that develop ways we interact with the world and learn how to Be in the world. Obviously then specific traits have certain habitual responses that are going to be less beneficial in coping with stressors, or more sensitive physically to certain stressors. And some traits that are beneficial in some scenarios can cause rumination and overthinking in other scenarios as well. None of which mean ‘we are going to get A, B, and C illness’. Or mentally ill. Only that we deal with stresses a certain way typically and if we never learn how to work with our personality and adapt to the best way we function in the world then we can consistently put ourselves in the exact environments or situations that work against us without any strategies to deal with it. While others learn quite well how to work with the personality they have and how they deal with stress and how to handle that. I never did. Not when I was young. Not in my 20s. Not in my 30s. Sort of just got the hang of that now.

There are numerous studies that suggest specific traits have a lot to do with illness (I often see high neuroticism referenced for that one in risk factors for certain illnesses) or how we change over time with illness. And maybe the reason high neuroticism is referenced for a risk factor for some illnesses is that I would think it may make us more prone to negative thinking, more likely to get deep into chronic stress, have anxiety, depression and all these can affect sleep… so you can see how all these can affect ones overall well-being over time. Definitely when I was younger I ranked a lot higher in neuroticism on the Big 5 than I do now. But I also had clinical depression… so I would.

Neuroticism seems to be a risk factor for many health problems, including depression, schizophrenia, diabetes, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and heart disease (Lahey, 2009).

People high in neuroticism are particularly vulnerable to mood disorders such as depression. Low agreeableness has also been linked to higher chances of health problems (John & Srivastava, 1999).

There is evidence to suggest that conscientiousness is a protective factor against health diseases. People who score high in conscientiousness have been observed to have better health outcomes and longevity (John & Srivastava, 1999).

Researchers believe that such is due to conscientious people having regular and well-structured lives, as well as the impulse control to follow diets, treatment plans, etc.

Simple Psychology

Over time my Neuroticism score has dropped because I had clinical depression and now I don’t (although I still have depression associated with chronic pain). And my conscientiousness increased, but it was pretty high anyway. So perhaps that suggests conscious adaptation. However, research suggests the opposite. That illness really doesn’t change much in the way of our personality and if it does, sort of in a bad way. Not a good way.

I found one study on personality that looked to answer:

  1.  Are personality traits associated with an increased risk of significant disease?
  2. As people develop significant illness, does their personality change? 

Individuals high in neuroticism and low in conscientiousness were more likely to already be living with a serious chronic disease at baseline and facets of these traits were the strongest predictors of developing disease/additional diseases over time. Disease, however, was primarily unrelated to changes in personality; illness burden was only associated with declines in openness and one facet of extraversion. Thus, personality traits were largely resistant to the effect of disease.

Personality Traits and Chronic Disease: Implications for Adult Personality Development

So again they noted the high neuroticism and low conscientiousness to be a chronic illness factor and even to developing comorbidities over time. What astonishes me was the lack of changes when someone has become chronically ill. Certainly, my test results have changed over time. For one, with the treatment of clinical depression with medication and therapy. But also, I assume, with various pain management strategies. The noted decline in openness I can understand. It isn’t something I have seen in my results. My openness is my most dominate trait and is quite high and remains very high. But I can see how it would decrease with the intensity of chronic illness.

Our hypothesis that individuals may come to view themselves differently as they develop serious chronic diseases was largely unsupported. Indeed, we only found support for the effect of disease burden on changes in openness to experience: As participants got sick, they preferred more familiar environments and their emotional responses became more muted. ….people tend to invest less in gathering information, seeking novelty and learning new things. They focus instead on deepening the relationships and interests they deem important…. In this study, as individuals developed disease, they increased in the tendency to be more conventional and less exploratory. With illness, people may be more inclined to stick to the tried and true rather than to explore new things.

Personality Traits and Chronic Disease: Implications for Adult Personality Development

I find the opposite to be true for me. This might be because my Openness trait is so high to begin with. But for me exploration, creativity, learning are literally fundamental to my nature. And when it comes to chronic illness and my well-being I simply apply the same things to that as well. Exploring new coping methods and strategies, learning new ideas or theories or information I need, and definitely keeping up with my creative side as a coping mechanism.

What I think is that the Big 5 is just too limited to measure all the changes we go through with chronic illness, chronic pain and disability that affect our personality development over time. Because there isn’t a detailed personality test that can adequately define us yet. Or how such chronic stressors impact our growth long-term. I can say our growth long-term is pretty profound. But perhaps that growth isn’t measured in personality changes but in the depth of experience, wisdom, introspective self-awareness, and philosophical depth we gain. I know who we are isn’t written in stone, I can tell you that. Sure how we respond to stress is on auto-pilot when we are young but we can figure out how we are, how to adapt, and what coping strategies are best for us. I firmly believe what we cultivate in ourselves we can encourage to flourish. It is like when I see references to introversion as a Negative… I do not in any way see my introversion as some sort of malfunctioning extrovert. I see a great deal of value in my introverted nature. In fact, I rather like my personality overall. I am aware of my flaws but because I am aware of them, I can work on them or with them. But I am also aware of my virtues to appreciate them.

Source: Lim, A (2020, June 15). The big five personality traits. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/big-five-personality.html
https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/68/6/912/656920

See more posts

Regulating emotions with chronic pain
The neuromatrix theory of how pain becomes chronic and its use for pain management
Chronic pain and personality

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