Perfectionists are more sensitive to psychosocial stresses than their more relaxed peers, and this greater responsiveness to stress may have health consequences.
In a study of 50 middle-aged men, those who measured highest on tests of perfectionism also secreted more of the stress hormone cortisol while undergoing a stressful public speaking task, Dr. Petra H. Wirtz of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues found.
Perfectionists also showed more symptoms of vital exhaustion, defined as a sense of feeling fatigued, irritable and demoralized. This state is itself a risk factor for heart disease.
The researchers 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 10 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 0 in increments of 13, and were told they would have to start over again if they made a mistake.
Throughout the test, the researchers measured the level of cortisol in study participants’ saliva, and also tested blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in the blood.
The greater a person’s perfectionist tendencies, the higher his cortisol secretion, the researchers found. They also identified a link between perfectionism and vital exhaustion.
In an e-mail to Reuters Health, Wirtz pointed out that perfectionists’ high standards are self-imposed. By finding a way to bring these standards closer to reality, she added, perfectionists may be able to strengthen their confidence and possibly become less reactive to social stressors.
“It is possible to change perfectionist tendencies by cognitive behavioral therapy,” Wirtz said. “There are examples of persons who experienced a severe burnout period combined with health problems and who consequently changed their behavior towards less perfectionism,” she added.