How Do Narcissists React under Stress?

We all know that stress is a major factor in becoming ill. As a person’s level of stress rises so does their level of a hormone called cortisol and this can compromise their immune system.

It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to believe that partners or children of narcissists are highly stressed.

After all, they are living in an environment filled with screaming, lying, manipulating, demeaning, and humiliation.

But what about the effects of stress on the narcissist himself (or herself)?

Do Narcissists Have Stress?

Theoretically, having narcissistic traits- with all its grandiosity, boasting and bragging, and lack of empathy toward others- would suggest that narcissists are less likely to feel the effects of stress.

A ‘benefit’ of being a narcissist is that when turmoil and disaster surround them (often because of their own doing), they don’t feel doubts or remorse.

Narcissists’ lives are often described as chaotic and turbulent, with people coming in and out of their lives as if in revolving doors.

Some authors believe that narcissism has side benefits such as being happier (because of their frequent use of denial and feelings of superiority),

less likely to be depressed, sad or anxious, and in research rate their subjective well-being more highly.

Do Narcissists Have High Stress Levels?

These authors state that narcissists are less reactive to stress and appear to recover more rapidly from it.

One might hypothesize that their levels of cortisol would be lower than other people in a stressful situation.

However, recent studies have shown that this is not the case.

A 2012 study by Sarah Konrath and David Reinhard (University of Virginia) along with William Lopez and Heather Cameron (University of Michigan) showed that narcissistic men have higher health risks (due to higher cortisol levels) compared to narcissistic women.

Konrath et al focused their research on the subjects who scored high on a test measuring traits of narcissism.

The researchers measured men’s and women’s’ cortisol levels while they were engaged in stress-free activities.

The study showed that narcissistic men had three times higher cortisol levels compared to the narcissistic women.  

Cortisol is a hormone that indicates stress level in humans; it is released by the body when as a reaction to emotional or physical stress such as going through an intense activity.

Cortisol can have some positive benefits—it leads to an energy surge, helps the body burn fat, and boosts memory.

Chronic stress, however, causes too much cortisol which has negative effects including high blood pressure, lowered immunity and high levels of abdominal fat.

Too much chronic stress (continuously high cortisol levels) can also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks;

it makes it more difficult to survive cancer, diabetes, and a number of other chronic diseases.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Narcissism

The researchers also looked at “healthy” versus “unhealthy” narcissism.

They discovered an association between higher cortisol levels and unhealthy narcissism in men, but the association in women was insignificant.

There was no association found between higher cortisol levels and healthy narcissism in men or women.

“So we can infer that narcissistic guys are under more constant stress than the average person,” says study author Sara Konrath.

Reinhard stated “Even though narcissists have grandiose self-perceptions, they also have fragile views of themselves, and often resort to defensive strategies like aggression when their sense of superiority is threatened”.

It is Konrath’s belief that narcissists are under chronic stress because they are constantly trying to close the mental gap between their own unrealistically high expectations for themselves and their actual average or below-average performance.

“It’s hard to keep up that image of themselves when reality keeps slapping them in the face.”

Healthy amounts of self-esteem  and self confidence are desirable but too much of those traits can have negative effects.

With narcissists, their over-confidence and lack of empathy toward others results in a tendency to respond with aggressive behavior to even the slightest perception of criticism.

In Konrath and Reinhard’s study, the more negative aspects of narcissism (such as aggressive reacting) strongly correlated with high cortisol levels.

Overall, the study showed that mental or physical stress can put a strain on the cardiovascular system especially in narcissistic men.

Link Between Stress, Narcissism and Cardiovascular Health

Therefore, the link between narcissism, stress and cardiovascular health cannot be overlooked.

Narcissistic men may be more at risk for health problems as they appear to have perpetually higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol even when they’re not under pressure.

Moreover, their choice of defense mechanism (responding aggressively) contributes to an even higher stress level. The higher stress level increases health risks in the individual.

Another study completed at the University of British Columbia studied the effects of stress on female narcissists and found a more significant result than the Konrath study.

The research addressed the issue of whether narcissism was associated with increased physiological reactivity to emotional distress among women.

The researchers predicted that in light of the “fragile-ego” theory the narcissists would show heightened physiological stress in response to everyday frustrations.

Their results supported that prediction as narcissistic females did show elevated output of cortisol and alpha-amylase (both biomarkers of stress) as they experienced negative emotions.

The subjects who scored low in narcissism did not show an association between the biomarkers and emotions.

The authors state,” These findings suggest that narcissists’ stress-response systems are particularly sensitive to everyday negative emotions, consistent with the notion that narcissism comes with a physiological cost.”

The studies mentioned above indicate that narcissists, both male and female, are more reactive to chronic stress, with its concomitant higher levels of cortisol, because of everyday frustrations.

Being ‘emotionally tough’ along with an ability to cope with everyday frustrations are important determinants of psychological and physical health.

Unfortunately, most narcissists do not possess these abilities.

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Alexander Burgemeester

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. Want to know more?

4 thoughts on “How Do Narcissists React under Stress?”

  1. I applaud this site. I can think therapist in america-need to catch a clue about narcissism. My NMother raised me in so much stress and turmoil I have been suffering anxiety since I was a small child. Of course I am her scapegoat so she had convinced many drs that I was bipolar. I am in fact not bipolar and I had a swab taken of my mouth and turns out I am highly allergic to antidepressants. All those years she did this to me. One older psych dr caught on to her and asked her why she was scapegoating me..she jerked me up and out and we NEVER went back to any dr. I have been through so much always blaming myself. I am at No Contact with her..and she is now abusing me by proxy. My drs say I have multiple ptsds and my cortisol level is so high. I have lupus&thyroid issues.If I don’t take anxiety meds…I don’t eat..sleep or function.I imagine it is stressful to be a narcissitic person. All their bs floating around…so many lies from their smear caampaigns…my mother wil not. Allow ANY of her grown children to be together. She has caused havoc within the whole family….but I stood up to her…so its all my fault. As usual. I have no sympathy for narcissists…they are child abusers,liars and worse. You cannot Love a cannot help them. All you can do is walk away. Thanks for this site!

  2. You cannot get anything from a narcissist except grief. Their brains do not function like ours. They are born with having no conscience for the hurt they cause to make them feel superior. The only way to respond is walk away forever and not look back.

  3. Its said that a Narcissist person has no soul, I must say after meeting a few and being married to one its true, your soul is your conscience…and with no conscience and not careing what you do or who you hurt.I do know that no matter how many years you are married to one. they can leave you broke Homeless and destory all that you had and not care out all..they will stay with you as long as they can take from you. and when you have had enough they will go tell every one that it was you who done them it was a nightmare … I had to devorce the one I was with thur missing persons..and after that I will never marry again..I lost every thing cause of a Narcissist person,

  4. I’ve observed my covert narc OH after he’s been shouting abuse/ threatening to leave (again)…he may be watching TV, but he’s not focussing…his hands are clenched and he has a sort of bonkers expression. Wish the cortisol would do its work once and for all…


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