The Three Musketeers of Distress: Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism
Guest Post By: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Five-Year-Old Tanya Makes Mistake, Sets Up Lifetime of Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism. In psychology and counseling, there’s a technique in which people uncover life-long limiting beliefs by creating a headline representing events and themes in their lives. Without a doubt, the mistake I made (using the wrong colors on a kindergarten worksheet) set me on a quest for perfection that created long-term angst in the form of anxiety and stress.
Angst, indeed. Perfectionism has mental health consequences. It is associated with multiple mental health disorders as well as the subjective experience of stress and feeling unwell. Perfectionism, anxiety, and stress are the Three Musketeers (not the candy bar, unfortunately) of distress. They really are mean in that they can severely interfere with our ability to create and live a quality life.
According to experts at Healthline.com, stress and anxiety are frequently inseparable. While not identical, they do share similar symptoms, signs, and sometimes causes. Further, they contribute to and escalate each other. The third Musketeer, perfectionism, is often the “one for all” of the group. When perfectionism is present, almost without exception, so are anxiety and stress.
When we compel ourselves to be perfect in any situation, we feel pressured to perform flawlessly. Because this is an unattainable goal, anxiety, worry, and fear can skyrocket. I have found myself plagued by anxious thoughts while working on something, criticizing the quality of what I’m doing (am I making the square the wrong color?) and fearing the consequences of mistakes—before I’ve even completed what I’m doing.
How Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism Hurt Us
With their sharp rapiers, the Musketeers strike us in both mind and body. This breakdown can help you target just how anxiety, stress, and perfectionism are hurting you.
Physical effects include, but aren’t limited to
- Feeling jittery
- Nervous energy that causes a need to move, even if it’s confined to bouncing a leg up and down
- Internal pressure, like one’s insides are a balloon inflating and trying to escape
- A heavy feeling, as if the above-mentioned balloon were filled with mercury rather than helium
- Gastroenterological problems, especially acid reflux or GERD
- Breathing difficulties
- Sleep disturbances
Emotional and cognitive effects include such experiences as
- Excessive worry
- Fear of failure
- Hypersensitivity to criticism, perceived rejection, and even indifference
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
Behavioral reactions can include
- Paralysis; difficulty moving forward for fear of making mistakes
- Erratic work habits; jumping from one task to another before a task is completed, often because of stress over having many incomplete tasks
- Apologizing too much, often before one’s work has even been examined
- Making excuses to explain why the work isn’t perfect, again before someone has had the chance to evaluate it
What to Do About Perfectionism, Stress, and Anxiety
Undoubtedly, the Three Musketeers negatively impact our lives in multiple ways. However, you can banish them from your kingdom. Anxiety prevention takes many forms. As a starting point here, let’s return to the headline exercise.
- Create a headline to represent what you want in life. You can write as many headlines as you wish, just stick to one goal per headline.
- Write a short article to accompany the headline in which you write why it’s important, what your life will be like when you achieve it, and what steps you will do to get there.
- Create headlines announcing your strengths. People who experience perfectionism and the accompanying anxiety and stress often have a difficult time seeing their own strengths. Reflect on yours and write them down.
- Again, write an article about how you show each of your many strengths.
- Create headlines and articles about things big and small that you’ve done well.
- Write headlines and articles about overcoming obstacles and challenges.
There’s no limit to what you can include in your newspaper. The idea is to shift your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors away from your worries and fears about not being good enough and onto all of the ways you are already more than good enough. This will, in time, expel anxiety, stress, and perfectionism from your life.
Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental illness/mental health and a self-help book about acceptance and commitment therapy. She writes extensively for HealthyPlace.com, has a radio show called Wellbeing & Words that is broadcast on numerous radio stations as well as online, and has a curriculum about toxic relationships based on her novel Losing Elizabeth that she takes to schools and community programs. She speaks locally and nationally about mental illness, brain injury, mental health, and wellbeing. Connect with Tanya at www.tanyajpeterson.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer, activist, and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. Gabe runs an online Facebook community, The Positive Depression/Bipolar Happy Place, and invites you to join. More great information can be found on his website, GabeHoward.com.
Howard, G. (2017). The Three Musketeers of Distress: Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/dont-call-me-crazy/2017/06/the-three-musketeers-of-distress-anxiety-stress-and-perfectionism/