From Heart Attacks To Suicide, How Being A Perfectionist Can Impact Your Health

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According to Professor Gordon Flett, of the Department of Psychology at York University in Canada, about two in five people are perfectionists, and they typically fit into three main categories: The self-oriented perfectionist is the type who sets their own high personal standards of perfection, while the other-oriented perfectionist exacts high standards on others. Then, there is the socially prescribed perfectionist, who was forced into the mold by the other-oriented perfectionist holding them to higher standards. They all have one thing in common: every area of life is held to the exact same, impossible standard…
… it signals to your amygdala, the fear center in your brain, and the fight-or-flight center kicks in,” she said. “Perfectionists likely have an overactive fear center. In your brain, too much energy going to your fight-or-flight center means not enough energy going to everyday operations.”

As a result, we become exhausted, and this leaves us vulnerable to a whole list of things …

…You’ll Run Yourself Down

Perfectionism has long been linked to exhaustion and subsequent susceptibility to disease, better known as burnout. In a recent study, British researchers examined 43 studies conducted over the past two decades pertaining to perfectionistic-linked burnout. They found burnout was more rampant within the work environment, where inner levels of perfectionism were also supported by external pressures and a lack of validation.

But becoming run down physically and emotionally often sets you up for even greater physical health issues. “By thinking that you have to be perfect, you may be putting yourself at a level of stress that means you’re not going to be protected from health problems and, in fact, exposed to increased risk.”

A 2006 study conducted by Danielle Molnar of Brock University in Canada found that perfectionism and eventual burnout leads to more sick days. After evaluating participants for their levels of perfectionism, they found that those who experienced socially prescribed perfectionism had poorer overall physical health. This translated into more visits to the doctor, taking more days off from work, and experiencing a wide variety of health problems that compelled them to rate their own personal health as low.

But perfectionism-related stress not only leaves you more vulnerable to health issues, it can also slow your recovery. In Flett’s own research, he and his colleagues looked at 100 heart attack patients, and found the perfectionists were slower to recover and more susceptible to future cardiac issues. Slower recovery was also observed in perfectionists with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

“Our studies show that when someone has a serious illness, like heart disease, that perfectionism… is a magnifier of difficulties and stressors. And if you don’t give up on the perfectionism, it’s going to hinder your recovery,” he said.

More alarmingly, a 2009 study found that earlier mortality was also more common among perfectionists. Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada, examined 450 adults aged 65 and older for 6.5 years. The participants were initially given a questionnaire to assess their levels of perfectionism, and then researchers observed their health for the follow-up years. Ultimately, they found that those with high perfectionist tendencies were 51 percent more likely to die earlier than those with lower perfectionist scores. They reasoned that this was likely due to the high levels of stress and anxiety they found in these people.

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