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) had a strong correlation most 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.