Being perfect isn't so good for you

Perfectionists' high standards are self-imposed

Perfectionists show greater sensibility to psycho-social stresses than their more relaxed peers, a responsiveness that may have health consequences.

This content was published on May 4, 2007 - 08:16

They have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and are also more likely to feel fatigued, irritable and demoralised, according to a Swiss study.

Fifty middle-aged men were tested for the study by Petra Wirtz of Zurich University and her colleagues, a number sufficient to make the results statistically relevant.

The group was chosen by selecting candidates who measured the highest levels of perfectionism after answering a questionnaire.

"There were 35 questions such as whether the person who replied felt he was well organised at work, got angry with errors or considered it a failure to complete some goals," Wirtz told swissinfo.

A perfectionist is usually characterised as someone who sets excessively high standards for performance while by being extremely self-critical.

The researchers then sought to determine whether perfectionist tendencies might influence how a person's nervous and hormonal systems respond to stress.

Study participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test, in which they are given ten minutes to prepare a job application speech in front of two or three people.

Afterwards, they were asked - still in front of the "committee" – to count backwards from 2,083 to zero in increments of 13, and were told they would have to start over again if they made a mistake.

Blood pressure

Throughout the test, the level of cortisol in study participants' saliva was measured, and blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of two other hormones in the blood - epinephrine and norepinephrine - were also checked.

The researchers found the greater a person's perfectionist tendencies, the higher his cortisol secretion. "Our results suggest there is a correlation between the two," added Wirtz.

They also identified another possible link between perfectionism and vital exhaustion, defined as a sense of feeling fatigued, irritable and demoralized. Wirtz said more research would be needed to confirm the findings.

Perfectionists' high standards are self-imposed according to psychologists. By finding a way to bring these standards closer to reality, Wirtz reckons perfectionists may be able to strengthen their confidence and possibly become less reactive to social stressors.

"I think we can help people with perfectionist tendencies by using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)," she said. CBT is a psychotherapy based on modifying everyday thoughts and behaviour, aiming to positively influencing emotions.

"There are examples of persons who experienced a severe burnout period combined with health problems and who consequently changed their behaviour towards less perfectionism," Wirtz added.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The Trier Social Stress Test is a psychological procedure that researchers use to induce stress under laboratory conditions.

What is unique about the procedure, developed in the 1990s, is that people's stress levels can be compared despite individual differences such as personality.

The test is designed to induce stress in as many people as possible, by using a wide range of methods.

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Cortisol is a hormone that is involved in the response to stress. It increases blood pressure, blood sugar levels, may cause infertility in women, and suppresses the immune system.

Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline. This hormone rapidly prepares the body for action in emergency situations, boosting the supply of oxygen and energy-giving glucose to the brain and muscles. It plays a central role in the short-term stress reaction.

Norepinephrine is another hormone released into the bloodstream when physiological changes are activated by a stressful event. Like epinephrine, it can directly increase heart rate, trigger the release of glucose, and improve muscle readiness.

But it can also act like a drug, slowing a person's heartbeat below normal levels.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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