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Stress & anxiety

Are you someone who:

  • Feels like what you accomplish is never quite good enough? 
  • Feels you must give more than 100 percent on everything you do or else you will be mediocre or even a failure?
  • Often puts off turning in papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?

If so, rather than simply working toward success, you may be trying to be perfect, and there exists quite a difference between aiming for a successful life and trying to achieve perfection.

What's the difference between a perfectionist and a "healthy striver"?

Perfectionist Healthy striver

Sets standards beyond reach and reason

Sets high standards, but just beyond reach

Is never satisfied by anything less than perfection

Enjoys process as well as outcome

Becomes dysfunctionally depressed when experiences failure and disappointment

Bounces back from failure and disappointment quickly and with energy

Is preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval — this can deplete energy levels

Keeps normal anxiety and fear of failure and disapproval within bounds — uses them to create energy

Sees mistakes as evidence of unworthiness

Sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning

Becomes overly defensive when criticized

Reacts positively to helpful criticism

Perfectionism: How does it feel?perfectionism_grouptx.jpg

Of course we all want to be successful and produce good work in our everyday lives. Setting high expectations can be motivating and quite healthy. However, when taken to the extreme, our productivity can actually decrease. Perfectionists frequently experience many of the symptoms listed below:

  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • All-or-none thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective. For example, a "straight A" student who receives a "B" might believe, "I am a total failure."
  • Overemphasis on "shoulds." Perfectionists' lives are often structured by an endless list of "shoulds" that serve as rigid rules for how their lives must be led. With such an overemphasis on shoulds, perfectionists rarely take into account their own wants and desires.
  • Believing that others are easily successful. Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

The vicious cycle of perfectionism and self-esteem

If you are a perfectionist, it is likely that you learned early in life that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved, meaning you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people's approval. Thus your self-esteem may have come to be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense. Below is a cycle that perfectionists often find themselves experiencing and some other consequences of perfectionism.

  1. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals, failure is inevitable.
  2. They fail to meet these goals because the goals were impossible to begin with.
  3. The constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce productivity and effectiveness.
  4. This cycle leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming which results in lower self-esteem. It may also lead to anxiety and depression.
  5. Perfectionists may give up completely on their goals and set different goals thinking, "This time if only I try harder I will succeed." Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.

Consequences of perfectionism

  • Depression
  • Performance anxiety
  • Test anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Writer's block
  • Obsessiveness
  • Compulsiveness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loneliness
  • Impatience
  • Frustration
  • Anger

What to do about perfectionism

The first step in changing from perfectionistic attitudes to healthy striving is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism. Some of the following strategies may help:

  • Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment.
  • Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task. Recognize that there can be value in the process of pursuing a goal.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, "Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?"
  • Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, "What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?"
  • Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask, "What can I learn from this experience?" More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.
  • Avoid all-or-none thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to discriminate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort.

Once you have tried these suggestions, you are likely to realize that perfectionism is not a helpful or necessary influence in your life. There are alternative ways to think that are more beneficial. Not only are you likely to achieve more without your perfectionism, but you will feel better about yourself in the process.

Additional resources

Source: Some content used with permission from University of Michigan Counseling Center.

 


 

Feeling anxious about your job prospects after school?  You're not alone.

photo of graduating students in cap & gown During uncertain economic times, graduate students are faced with increased anxiety about the current job market and economy, as well as the challenges of graduating.


What is anxiety?

All of us are prone to feel some anxiety in our lives. But when anxiety affects our day to day functioning and enjoyment of life, it becomes an illness. Many people with anxiety disorder do not recognize it. You may have an anxiety disorder if you worry too much on most days for at least six months. Your anxiety may make it hard for you to live life normally. You might find it difficult to get a job, go to classes or make friends.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?broken, chewed pencil to show anxiety issues

The symptoms of an anxiety disorder can vary from person to person and can include the following:

  • Excessive worry and anxiety on an almost daily basis for 6 months or more.
  • An inability to control your worries.
  • The anxiety can be associated with other symptoms,  including restlessness, fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances. Some people also experience headaches and body pain with no medical explanation.
  • Panic attacks involving sweating, shaking, racing heart, shortness of breath,nausea, tightness in the stomach or jaw may also occur.
  • These symptoms can cause significant impairment in your ability to function.

How is anxiety diagnosed?

Many people with anxiety are embarrassed to tell their clinician about it. An anxiety disorder is commonly diagnosed by your medical or mental health provider by asking you questions about your symptoms. There are several rating scales or questionnaires that are used to diagnose anxiety, such as the one below.

 rating scale or questionnaire that isused to diagnose anxiety

If you scored higher than 5 on this self-assessment, you may want to consider talking to your health care or mental health provider about your symptoms.

What treatments are available for anxiety?

It is important to realize that the treatment of anxiety usually takes time. You may not be "cured," but your symptoms will subside and your quality of life will improve with treatment.  Treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective for the treatment of anxiety. Cognitive therapy works by helping you understand and change the thoughts and behaviors that may contribute to anxiety.
  • Medications. Classes of drugs called anti-depressants, Beta-blockers and anti-psychotics have been used to treat anxiety. Brand names you may recognize include Celexa, Prozac and Zoloft.  Anxiolytics (benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium and non-benzodiazepines like Buspar) are also used. However, benzodiazepines are highly addictive, especially when used without medical supervision. Herbal remedies like Kava, Valerian and St. John's wort have also been used to allay anxiety. 
  • Meditation and relaxation training: We really do not know how these work, but they are effective in treating anxiety and have no known harmful effects. Mindfulness meditation is the oldest known technique to deal with anxiety. It teaches us to be aware of anxious thoughts as just thoughts passing through our awareness and we can learn to see them as mental events without having to react to them or try to get rid of them.

Are there other types of anxiety disorders?

Yes. There are other conditions that have similar symptoms:

  • Panic attacks are characterized by a sudden intense fear or discomfort in the absence of real danger – as if something terrible is about to happen. These feelings may be accompanied by sweating, difficulty breathing, feeling light headed, a pounding heart, shaky hands and can last 30-60 minutes.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs in people who have either witnessed or lived through a potentially life threatening event such as an accident, natural disaster, war or intimate partner violence. Symptoms may develop weeks, months or years later in some cases. PTSD is characterized by anxiety, with flashbacks of the threatening event, nightmares, jumpiness, irritability or physical symptoms like digestive problems, aches and pains.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  People with OCD suffer from disturbing thoughts (obsessions) and images that are difficult to shake off and which they know are ridiculous. They may indulge in repetitive behaviors or rituals to ward off the accompanying anxiety. Such behaviors may take a lot of time to complete. Common examples are fear of germs or dirt, checking door locks, arranging and re-arranging objects for hours.
  • Phobia is the fear of something, such as an animal (spiders), a situation (riding in elevators) or open places (agoraphobia). People with a phobia will do anything to avoid the fearful stimulus. This can make life very difficult.

Getting help

Help at the University of Washington

Hall Health Mental Health Clinic

Offers both medication and talk therapies for students, faculty and their families, as well as referrals to outside providers.

To make an appointment, call (206) 616-2495

UW Counseling Center

Many free counseling, assessment and crisis intervention services for UW students

(206) 543-1240

External resources

National Institute of Mental Health resources on anxiety disorders

Anxiety Disorders Association of America

Center for Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) resources on anxiety disorders

 

Authored by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff

Authored by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014


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