Why Perfectionism Isn't Perfect

Stress Hormone Rises Higher in Perfectionists Under Pressure

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 04, 2007

May 4, 2007 -- Perfectionism may be an exhausting pressure-cooker, a new study shows.

The study demonstrates that in trying situations, perfectionists tend to get more stressed than people with more attainable standards.

The study comes from Swiss and German researchers including Petra Wirtz, PhD, of the clinical psychology and psychotherapy department at Switzerland's University of Zurich.

They studied perfectionism in 50 physically and mentally healthy men who were 42 years old, on average.

In a lab, the men completed psychological and personality surveys including a 35-item perfectionism questionnaire about personal standards and concern over mistakes.

The perfectionism questionnaire shows that 24 men were highly perfectionistic. They tended to be more anxious, neurotic, and exhausted than the remaining 26 men, who had low levels of perfectionism.

The men also provided blood and saliva samples. The researchers measured saliva levels of the stress hormone cortisol and blood levels of other stress-related chemicals.

No major differences were seen in the men's blood and saliva samples -- but that changed when the researchers put the men in two stressful situations.

Perfectionism Under Pressure

The men took two stressful tests: a mock job interview and a five-minute oral math quiz in front of an audience of a man and a woman.

The researchers monitored the men's blood pressure and heart rate during the tests.

Afterward, the men spent an hour in a quiet room, providing blood and saliva samples several times during that hour.

Saliva cortisol levels in highly perfectionistic men rose higher during the test and kept rising for 20 more minutes, peaking about 10 minutes later than the less-perfectionistic men.

An hour after the tests, the highly perfectionistic men still had higher saliva cortisol levels than the mellower men.

Perfectionism wasn't linked to any other stress-related chemicals, according to the study, which appears in Psychosomatic Medicine.

The researchers don't rule out the possibility that factors other than perfectionism influenced the results.

They call for future studies to track ties between stress response, long-term health, and perfectionism.

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