As it turns out, narcissism may create health hazards. Narcissists are notoriously bad at relationships but now a new study has revealed health concerns on their list of unique challenges.

Researchers at the Universities of Michigan and Virginia recently analyzed 106 undergraduate men and women and found that those with certain narcissistic personality traits (in particular, entitlement and exploitativeness) had elevated levels of cortisol—the primary stress hormone. The study was published in the January 2012 journal PLoS One. The over production of cortisol from chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, lower immunity, and increased levels of abdominal fat.

Testing Me-ness

Researchers relied on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory—a widely used questionnaire designed to measure narcissism in social psychological research—to help them measure the self-love of each participant. A score was generated from the responses to 40 statements such as: "I will be a success," "I find it easy to manipulate people," "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," and "The thought of ruling the world frightens me." Leadership, self-sufficiency, and authority traits scored lower than traits of entitlement and exploitativeness. Higher scores indicated higher levels of narcissism.

Though narcissism exists equally in men and women, study authors said the cortisol stress response was not found in female participants. Cortisol levels were determined by saliva tests. "Given societal definitions of masculinity that overlap with narcissism—for example, the belief that men should be arrogant and dominant—men who endorse stereotypically male sex roles and who are also high in narcissism may feel especially stress[ed]," said study co-author Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan in a news release.

Eve Kilmer, PhD, a Boulder-based psychologist says the study's results make sense given the psychological dynamics of narcissism. "Good self-esteem can be a healthy expression of narcissism; unhealthy expressions are an exaggerated sense of importance and lack of empathy for others," she explains. Underneath the unhealthy narcissism lurk unbearable feelings of worthlessness. "The narcissist needs to constantly defend against these painful feelings. Vigilantly guarding against threats to their fragile self-esteem is definitely stressful."

Narcissists feel pressure to attain or maintain positions of power, status, wealth, beauty and/or fame, according to Kilmer. "They constantly seek the admiration of others in order to conceal their deep insecurities," says the expert adding that unfortunately, narcissism is alive and well in America. "Our culture rewards individual achievement so narcissists really thrive here."

The rise of reality TV and social media outlets also intensifies the problem. "Both are appealing to narcissists as they are vehicles for them to 'go viral' and achieve their 15-minutes of fame," says Kilmer who has more than 20 years experience treating people with personality disorders like narcissism. "Reality TV is full of narcissists. Their behavior and rage is absolutely fascinating to watch."

How to Get Less of Me

One of the best buffers against stress is having a close, supportive relationship, but unfortunately narcissists don't have these. "On one hand, they are dependent on others to shore up their fragile self-esteem, yet in intimate relationships narcissists need to control, exploit, and dominate," Kilmer explains. "Eventually, they end up alienating those that care most about them."

Therapy can work wonders but narcissists rarely go. "Therapy is about helping someone own responsibility for his problems in a safe, nonjudgmental environment so he can change them," Kilmer says. "Narcissists however need to see themselves as perfect.  The problems in their lives are almost always caused by others."

For narcissists open to therapy, finding a skilled therapist is essential. "Therapy can help narcissists have a more realistic view of themselves and vastly improve their connections with others," the expert says. "This, of course, would also have tremendous health benefits."

Until more is known about how hormones correlate to narcissism, study authors recommend finding ways to reduce stress. "Going to the gym more frequently, or participating in low-key activities such as yoga or tai chi can be beneficial," said Konrath in the press release. Many men find golf a relaxing diversion. So put that mirror down and grab your clubs—your health may depend on it.




Interview with Eve Kilmer, PhD, Psychologist in private practice, Boulder, Colorado

PLoS ONE (Jan. 2012)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)