Narcissism develops as a result of childhood experiences that caused psychological trauma. The narcissist relegated those traumatic events to their unconscious mind because they simply couldn’t face them. But those old wounds prevented the narcissist from fully developing a sense of self, and as a result, they are dependent upon other people to prop up their self-esteem. That puts them in a precarious position that can cause problems for their health in the long run.
The chronic anxiety created by narcissistic personality disorder can put some narcissists at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Higher levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, in the blood can cause other problems as well, and the consequence may well be an earlier death.
If you have a narcissist in your life, you’ll want to learn about the possible risk factors that can result in an earlier age at death, particularly for narcissistic men. Let’s explore the science behind the health effects of narcissism.
The Defensive Narcissist
While pathological narcissists frequently appear to have high opinions of themselves, the reality is they can project those grandiose ideas while simultaneously possessing very fragile beliefs about themselves. They buried what they came to believe was their truly worthless self long ago as a result of the psychological trauma they experienced in childhood.
Research conducted by psychologists at the University of Bern has shown that individuals who score highly on the narcissism scale will experience feelings of worthlessness when they perceive a threat to their ego. Those individuals who do not score high in narcissism don’t have the same feelings.
When a narcissist is triggered by a threat to their projected sense of superiority, they use certain defensive strategies, like devaluation and even aggression, to cope with that stress. This also causes them to favor the people in their life who help to enhance their self-image, even over more caring family and friends.
How Does the Narcissist’s Body React When They are Triggered?
When your body is triggered into a defensive state for any reason, there are certain physiological responses that occur. Basically, perceived threats of any kind are treated by the brain equally. It stimulates a fight or flight response because your very survival might be at stake.
Your brain can’t afford to distinguish between a threat that is real and one that is simply a product of your imagination. The physiological response that occurs is the same in either case.
Your body responds to a perceived threat by activating what is called the sympathetic nervous system. This is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA. This is your body’s fight or flight system that is designed to gear you up for the possibility of either fleeing a threat or physically fighting a threat.
To prepare your body, the HPA triggers the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, that cause your heart to beat faster, your blood pressure to rise, your eyes to dilate, and your muscles to tense. A number of studies have shown that these kinds of defensive responses — when they occur in a chronic fashion — are predictors for elevated blood pressure, increased cardiovascular reactivity to mental stress, and overall poorer outcomes related to cardiovascular disease.
The Relationship Between Narcissism and Defensive Strategies
Since narcissism is associated with defensive strategies and defensive strategies are associated with these kinds of physiological responses and consequences, it follows that narcissists may have more highly reactive physiological systems. It also follows that they might have more long-term consequences for their health than people who are not narcissists.
Moreover, psychological stress, which narcissists experience chronically, can cause an increase in the HPA reactivity. In essence, it can put your body into an almost constant state of stress, and that can negatively affect your health.
But is there any proof of this? Well, one study conducted by experts at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan studied the role of narcissism on basal cortisol concentration levels in an undergraduate population.
The study consisted of 106 undergraduate students and included both males and females. All of the participants were assessed using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and their basal cortisol levels were collected using samples of saliva. The researchers found that there was evidence that the HPA axis was chronically activated in males with pathological narcissism.
What are the Health Implications for Chronic Stress and Narcissism?
There are a number of health implications for people who experience chronic stress. Narcissistic males suffering from a chronically activated HPA axis would be at increased risk for these health problems:
- Mental health problems – depression and anxiety;
- Cardiovascular disease – heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and abnormal heart rhythms;
- Eating Disorders – obesity;
- Sexual dysfunction – impotence, premature ejaculation, and loss of desire;
- Skin and hair problems – acne, eczema, psoriasis, and hair loss;
- Gastrointestinal problems – gastritis, ulcerative colitis, irritable colon, and acid reflux.
Will These Health Problems Result in Early Death?
While you can’t say for certain if a particular narcissist suffering from any of these conditions will die earlier, they are certainly at more of a risk for early death. All of these problems that result from chronic stress can develop into serious conditions that increase the risk for either suicide or death from disease conditions.
As it turns out, it doesn’t even matter if the cause of the stress is something major or minor. A study conducted by the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University found that chronic stress did predict mortality, and this was true even when the researchers excluded health-related events as a cause of the stress.
The researchers also found that people who perceived their lives to be stressful on a daily basis were perhaps even more likely to die early than those who felt stress due to major life events like divorce or the death of a loved one. It seems there is wisdom in the colloquial saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Narcissists, particularly male narcissists, are at greater risk for early death than people who are not narcissists. It’s unclear why female narcissists don’t incur the same risks, but it may be due to differences in gender roles. Women are encouraged to value relationships and seek social support which may reduce the activation of the HPA axis, and therefore, reduce their stress load.
It is also true that the people around a narcissist are likely to experience more stress as a result. That’s why it’s vital that you take good care of yourself if you have a narcissist in your life. There might not be much you can do to help the narcissist, but you can save yourself.
One thing that enhances stress for both the narcissist and you are old wounds that crop up time and again when you’re triggered. What’s more, the narcissist can use your emotional triggers against you which can create more stress in your life. To stop them, use my 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers so you can regain control over your own emotional responses and learn to live a happier, healthier life.
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