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Introversion - a Health Risk?



Are you one of the introverts among our personality types? (Take our free personality test, if you're not sure!) If that is the case, you are a person who prefers to recharge his/her batteries during his/her alone time – you are one of the famous “still waters”. Because you won’t let others get truly close to you, for them it is probably not all that easy getting to know you better. You are a better listener than speaker and take your time to think before you talk. Because too much company tires you, you probably prefer a few selected friends. As opposed to the extroverts, you manage social contacts better in homeopathic doses. Retreating and being by yourself are your elemental sources of energy.

So far so good. In many respects introversion is a very positive character trait. The introverts are very reflective, profound personalities who contemplate a lot about themselves, others and the world. Added to this is their uncanny ability to concentrate and often unusual creativity combined with the capacity to withdraw into themselves when they are preoccupied with something. No wonder that many famous inventors, poets and thinkers are introverts! In interpersonal relationships they are also usually more thoughtful than the extroverts. Although they maintain a smaller number of contacts than extroverts, their friendships are usually closer, long-lasting and more resilient during times of crisis. Because they are centered within themselves and are less dependent on feedback from others introverts are often more balanced, mature and independent personalities than extroverts.

Introverts have to deal with increased health risks

Unfortunately, research shows that the characteristic introversion also carries a few down sides with it. As compared to the extroverts, introverts are subject to increased psychological and physiological health risks. For instance, a study by the University of North Carolina demonstrated that they run a significant higher risk of depressions than extroverts do. By the way, here the male Sensitive Doers ranged on top of the scale. It appears that the preference combination introverted/feeling/perceiving represents a risk factor for depression. Apart from the Sensitive Doer this also applies to the Dreamy Idealist. But then all other introverts also proved to be more at risk. Another study by the same university also established that introverted persons are subject to a higher suicide risk factor than their extroverted counterparts. This apparently especially affects introverted-perceiving personality types (namely the Sensitive and Individualistic Doers, the Analytical Thinkers and Dreamy Idealists).

Studies also reveal significantly more frequent affective disorders (such as mania, unipolar and bipolar depression) in connection with alcohol- and drug abuse. Here the combination introverted/feeling/perceiving proved to represent an elevated risk factor. On the other hand, the extroverted/thinking personalities among the alcohol- and drug patients were primarily those without affective disorders.

Reduced Life-Satisfaction – Introversion’s Down Side?

It is not yet clear, how introversion causes this increased susceptibility for affective disturbances. Maybe this tendency for depressive disorders by introverts is nothing more than the down side of their magnified introspection and capacity for reflective behavior: Whoever focuses too much and too intensively on him/herself and his/her very own feelings trying to get to the bottom of things and is always prepared to question everything in his/her life naturally rather more risks to be confronted with something unpleasant or depressing. To put it in other words: Depressions occur probably more easily with those sitting all by themselves behind closed doors constantly pondering the meaning of life and humanity’s existential trajectory, than with others (like many extroverted folks) preferring to occupy themselves with social contacts, party- and entertainment activities. The latter escapes from the great enigma of life (and thus frequently from the missing answers) as well as the world’s negative sides while the former primarily tends to glaringly and without mercy focus on everything making life difficult and incomprehensible. For feeling personality types many of the resulting musings are probably especially difficult to deal with.

Research by the University of Houston-Victoria during the year 2001 actually established that introverted personalities suffer from a significantly lower level of subjective well-being and reduced psychological well-being combined with an increased self-awareness (in terms of self reflection) than extroverted persons. It is entirely possible that the increased alcohol- and drug abuse observed with depressive bi-polar Sensitive Doers or Dreamy Idealists, respectively is nothing but their desperate attempt to “treat” overwhelming negative emotions in this manner or at least to make them a little more bearable. Drugs (and especially alcohol) increase the brain’s serotonin level that is too low during depressions and in that way generate an increased sense of well-being.

The Introverts’ increased depression- and especially the increased suicide risk can well be rooted in the fact that at times of crises introverts tend to react by retreating more than extroverts. That is their usual coping strategy and an essentially thoroughly sound reflex to stressful situations considering that they actually do require peace and alone-time in order to re-charge their batteries. Here the problem arises that with introverts this basically helpful mechanism can occasionally run off the track – i.e. they isolate themselves from the people around them and at some point are unable to help but rather hurt themselves. Innumerable studies have demonstrated that especially at times of crises, social support by family and friends provides an extremely important protection factor from stress and depression.

In that situation the saying “sorrow shared is sorrow halved” is absolutely correct. The feeling to be able to speak to others about problems and receive moral and perhaps even material help and the feeling of being picked up and supported by a social net is existential for every human being and aids enormously in coping with stress. Extroverts who already profit more from the company of others than from being alone during the good times, instinctively utilize this mechanism during the bad times, but introverts often don‘t. On the other hand, the introverts discount the psychological and physical help by others and therefore leave that resource lie idle. Under certain circumstances and at some point this can lead to an imagined or actual total isolation - resulting in feelings of despondency and hopelessness becoming overwhelming.

Introverts cope with Stimuli and Stress less well than Extroverts

Comparative brain measurements of extroverts and introverts demonstrate that introverted people sense all stimuli more intensely than their extroverted counterparts. Demonstrating increased cortical stimulation, researchers measured higher electric brain activity with introverted subjects at rest as well as during the solution of cognitive tasks. Psychologists speak of an “optimal stimulation level”, the balance between too much and too little stimulation that we instinctively strive for in order to feel well. This optimal stimulation level differs with every person and herein may well lie the explanation for the different preferences of introverts and extroverts: In order to counteract a sensory overload, the introverts must regularly withdraw from their environment, while the extroverts need exactly those sensory stimuli in order to avoid their brain’s lack of sensory stimulation. Psychologically as well as physically introverts have a lot more difficulties coping with too many stimuli: It has actually been proven that the immune system of introverts reacts more sensitively to stress overload and sensory overload than that of extroverts. In 2003 AIDS researchers discovered that this makes them more susceptible to infectious diseases and chronic illnesses affecting introverts often take a more serious course.

The fact that introverts have a harder time coping with stress than extroverts may also well be a contributing factor to their suffering from burnouts more frequently than the extroverts. In addition to the already mentioned critical behavior in crises situations – exaggerated retreat and thus lack of social support – it also favors the introvert’s propensity for sleep disorders, the development of burnout and other stress related disorders. Due to their propensity for exaggerated brooding the introvert frequently has trouble to sleep at night or even get any rest at all – or else he/she wakes up in the middle of the night getting entrapped in endless mind games. In a certain way the introverts’ sleep disorders are also “home made”: Because the day‘s world appears to be too noisy and overwhelming and in order to dwell on their thoughts in peace, they prefer the night’s comparative quiet. However, since the every day rhythms are not exactly night owl friendly and most introverts are still forced to get up early in the morning, this often leads to a spiraling lack of sleep, chronic fatigue and increased susceptibility to infection (because sleep withdrawal naturally also weakens the immune system).

What can Introverts do?

You have already taken the most important step to counteract all those special health risks inherent in the introversion character trait: You have taken the ipersonic personality test and found out that you are one of the introverts. Therefore you are now well aware that in many respects you must be especially careful dealing with yourself – in any case at least more careful than an extroverted personality type must be. Not a reason for exaggerated concerns but at any rate be alert and just a tiny bit self deprecating when observing your own behavior in certain situations (particularly crises).

Always be aware that particularly for you it is extremely important to maintain a good balance between too many and not enough social contacts and external stimuli. On one hand in order to feel well, you absolutely must have alone-time and peace and cannot expose yourself to hyper-stimulation. On the other hand you should watch out that your need to retreat especially in times of crises does not end up taking on a life of its own and that you deprive yourself of important resources to cope with them. Social relationships of introverts are characterized by a special thoughtfulness and closeness and certainly can handle stress. Introverts maintain considerably fewer friendships than extroverts (many say of themselves that they only have one or two true friends) but then these few friendships are of very high quality. Therefore don’t be shy to ask something of your friends during phases when life appears to be particularly trying. Instead of hiding behind closed doors and quietly suffering all by yourself, permit yourself to ask others for help and support.

During normal times you should occasionally take inventory by asking yourself how things are going and how your social net is doing. I already mentioned that it is quite alright that you, the introvert don’t collect telephone numbers and don’t tour the pubs with someone else every night (only thinking about a life like that probably already exhausts you, doesn’t it?). Still, you should be sure not to let your social net shrink to nothing, which is something that sometimes happens to introverts (for instance when changing the residence or place of work and familiar contacts are suddenly not readily available any longer). Don’t become the victim of virtual contacts. Although for introverts on one hand the telephone, the E-mail and the Internet may be a blessing – most of them really appreciate regulating and maintaining their social contacts by these means – on the other hand it also can be a curse: When you scroll through your social contacts and realize that all those who are truly close and important to you actually live 200 km away, then that is not a good thing.

At least one or two of your friends should be reachable without problems at any time and in person. Don’t kid yourself, it may be great to have a soul mate on the other end of the state but he/she is hardly going to be all that effective supporting you in an emergency at 03:00 in the morning. As wonderful as hour-long telephone conversations and profound E-mail contacts may be, they still can’t replace occasionally simply getting together face-to-face over a cup of coffee or being able to do something fun together. When you realize that for you things are getting tough with the existing social contacts, take the initiative to expand your network a little. Particularly for introverts common interests are often the best entrée into new relationships – so, pull yourself together and take a course that interests you, get engaged in a project close to your heart or talk to someone whom you already had wanted to get to know for some time!

Last but not least: In case of doubt, seek professional help and that sooner better than later. This means: When you sense that your mood continues to worsen over an extended period of time, your drive dwindles, you feel drained more quickly, things you normally enjoy fail to be of interest or you can’t stop brooding --- just remember that you belong to a special risk group particularly for unipolar depressive disorders and burnout. Even experts sometimes have a difficult time recognizing the borderline between temporary emotional disturbance and the onset of a depression or a burnout. Therefore, don’t take a chance and discuss your situation as soon as possible with a psychotherapist. If you are actually on the way into an affective disorder you can be helped easier and more effectively the earlier that is diagnosed and treated. No one wins if you are needlessly any longer miserable than you have to be. Looking for help in a situation like that is not a sign of weakness, on the contrary it shows strength and life skills. So, get a grip – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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