Anxiety Treatment: Extreme perfectionism toying with minds

/ June 15th, 2011/ Posted in Mental Health / No Comments »

Extreme perfectionism toying with minds

Psychologists think they may have found a catch-all treatment for anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

They say breaking down the habits of Australia’s many ‘clinical perfectionists’ – those who strive for perfection to the point of self sabotage – actually reduces the prevalence of accompanying, destructive disorders.

Twenty-five-year-old ‘Sarah’, as she wishes to be called, knows all too well what happens when perfectionism is taken to the extreme.

She hit rock bottom at the age of 11. Now a professional runner, she is in a much happier place, but says it took a lot of hard work to get there.

“Even as a young child my room was immaculate and I used to line up my stuffed toys in perfect order,” she said.

“My room had to be not touched and I remember I used to get quite upset when my sisters would come in and mess it up.

“Then at school I used to be the first person to want to finish my assignments and get good marks, just going that one step further with my projects.

“I was a high achiever and I wanted to do well. I wanted to push the boundaries. I enjoyed doing it, if you know what I mean, it was just me.”

But Sarah says being perfect wasn’t an easy quest, and by Year Six it began to take its toll.

“I started to withdraw a lot from my family and from school life and I used to get quite worked up so I had, almost like depression, at such a young age,” she said.

“I was striving to succeed in everything and it all became too much.”

I wanted to push the boundaries. I enjoyed doing it, if you know what I mean, it was just me.

Sarah now considers herself a “refined perfectionist”, but admits she is in a constant struggle with her old self.

When congratulated on a recent run she did, her response was: “I was actually disappointed with it… I did meet my goal, but my real goal was not that.”

Healthy versus unhealthy

Professor Tracey Wade from Flinders University, in South Australia, is presenting at an Australian Psychological Society conference in Coolum, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, this week.

She says clinical perfectionists have a habit of setting goals which, when met, they put down to being too easy.

“Healthy perfectionism is aiming for high standards, a lot of people do that, but it becomes unhealthy depending on how you manage that process,” she said.

“When you don’t achieve your standards all the time and you criticise yourself, then that tends to become associated with depression and anxiety and possibly eating disorders.

“So unhealthy perfectionists, even when they attain their goal, they think it couldn’t have been hard enough, so they raise the bar a bit higher.

“Healthy perfectionists can take pleasure in their achievements, they’re disappointed when they don’t achieve but they don’t judge themselves as not being worthwhile whereas an unhealthy perfectionist, if they attain their goal they don’t take much pleasure in it and if they don’t attain their goal they criticise themselves as a person and basically see themselves as being worthless.”

Kimberley Hoiles from Curtin University, in Western Australia, is doing her PhD on clinical perfectionism.

She is trialling an eight-week treatment program on a group of 40 self-confessed perfectionists.

Ms Hoiles says the aim is to reduce perfectionism while also reducing anxiety and depression, without specifically targeting those symptoms.

She says she is amazed at how widespread clinical perfectionism is.

“We’re all perfectionist and we all have certain things we do that are a bit funny here and there, but when it starts to interfere in our lives and we start to get anxious or depressed, then that’s when it starts to become more clinical perfectionism,” she said.

“I had this one woman who would spend hours cleaning this room she knew people would be sitting in.

“We did an experiment with her where we asked her to leave a dirty spoon in the sink, and she just couldn’t do it because she was too anxious about it.

“This other man I know was a handy man, in the process of renovating his bathroom.

“He was so anxious about painting the wall and putting the tiles up that he couldn’t actually do it, so he was avoiding doing it, avoiding that fear of failure, so he actually now showers outside.

“Usually perfectionists also have quite dichotomise standards in terms of dieting, so if they eat that one piece of chocolate then they’ve ruined their diet and they become very depressed.”

Unhealthy perfectionists, even when they attain their goal, they think it couldn’t have been hard enough, so they raise the bar a bit higher.
Professor Tracey Wade

Compassion over criticism

Professor Wade says clinical perfectionism is becoming more and more widespread in Australia. She suspects up to 30 per cent of the population may be vulnerable to the disorder.

“I think we have become more of an achievement-oriented society,” she said.

“Particularly schools are focussing on getting students to be competitive and to do well, sports can be quite competitive, so there’s a message out there that you have to be better than the next person.

“Certainly we want people to achieve and to do well but there are different ways of doing it… whether it’s through criticism, or though encouragement and self compassion.”

She too is working on a study of clinical perfectionism, attempting to develop resilience in a group of 1,000 13 to 15-year-olds.

“We have noticed that when we help people to overcome unhealthy perfectionism, it often helps to alleviate other disorders, such as anxiety and depression,” she said.

“It may be that helping to break the unhealthy perfectionism habit is a helpful catch-all treatment.”

Professor Wade says the key to overcoming unhealthy perfectionism is to see failures in context.

“Focus on your whole life and avoid the temptation to define yourself by a list of achievements,” she said.

“Self-compassion and kindness is also important, because criticism and abuse is not the way to get the best out of anyone, including yourself.”

Sarah has her own advice.

“I think a lot of it is to do with managing it,” she said.

“Sometimes when things get really hard in your life you may fall back on those traits initially, but when things settle down you know that that’s not the way to go anymore.

“Sometimes I just need to take a deep breath, and then I’m OK.”

What’s at the root of our tooth anxiety?

From those “teeth falling out” dreams to fear of the dentist, we do a lot of worrying about our pearly (or not-so-pearly) whites. So why all the anxiety about teeth? We’ll drill into it this week.

Read on to find out what’s on the show. You can also listen to the podcast by clicking the player below (or download it here, or from iTunes). (Originally aired Oct. 16, 2010)

If a stranger came up to you on the street and asked you to look into your mouth, would you say yes? What if that stranger was Sook-Yin Lee, and she had a microphone? Tune in to see who opens wide, and who doesn’t. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

A perfect set of pearly whites… that’s the image we’re sold in commercials. Everyone’s supposed to want that. But what if you don’t? Lisa Rundle tells us her story of orthodontic rebellion. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

Former Maple Leaf Todd Warriner tells us what it’s like for a hockey player to lose his teeth… and sports writer James Mirtle chats with Sook-Yin about the culture of “spittin’ Chicklets” in hockey. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

Raina Telgemeier has a lot of experience saying “ahhh.” When she was eleven years old,
she had an accident that led to four-and-a-half painful years of extreme dental treatment.
And she turned her traumatic tooth experiences into a graphic novel called Smile. She’ll tell us why the experience was so life-altering, and how it inspired her art.

Lots of people dislike going to the dentist because of concerns about physical pain. For Erik White, it was more about hurt feelings than hurt gums. He’ll tell us about his falling out with his childhood dentist.

So what’s fear of the dentist like from the other side? Sook-Yin sits down in the reclining chair to ask her dentist, Dr. Goldberg.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds like an urban legend: two teenagers with braces share an innocent (okay, relatively innocent) kiss, and wind up locked together by wires. But Jean Freeman lived that particular story… and she’ll tell us how she got out of it. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

The Tooth Fairy may seem harmless enough… and hey, who doesn’t love finding money under their pillow? But there’s a lot of anxiety around the good ol’ TF – mostly from the parents. Diane Flacks finds out why.

And what is it like for the kids when those chompers drop out? Sook-Yin talks with nine-year-old Max, who really just wants his two front teeth. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

The one-man band known as Bahamas (a.k.a. Afie Juryanen) probably isn’t the first Canadian musician to write an ode to hockey teeth. But he might be the first to write a song about hockey teeth that isn’t actually about missing chiclets. Bahamas will drop by the studio to tell us what the song is really about, and play it for us.

As an adult Jennifer Gee was always a bit anxious about her smile, so she went to see an orthodontist about getting braces. He tried his best to prepare her for all the potential pit-falls
but he forget to mention one pretty important thing… something her high school students took note of. She’ll reveal the one thing you really need to know when you’re getting braces.

Whiter! Brighter! Straighter! Is our quest for “perfect” teeth really healthy? Kirsten Bell has a unique perspective on that, since she’s an Australian ex-pat… and a cultural anthropologist. She’ll tell us what she’s observed about Canadian teeth, and why she thinks a dentist’s office is like a church. (Also heard on Your DNTO)

Most people who have bad teeth try to hide them by keeping their mouth shut, even refusing to smile. But not Jason Jones. He’ll tell us the story of his painfully bad teeth, and what happened when they appeared on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Canada. (And you can check out his before and after pics.) (Also heard on Your DNTO)

Anxiety reduction chemical identified

Researchers have pinpointed the action of a particular brain chemical in a specific area of the brain as key in regulating anxiety.

“We hope our finding will help pave the way for developing more selective treatments for anxiety disorders,” says Janet Menard, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

Dr. Menard’s team found that increasing levels of the brain chemical Neuropeptide-Y (NPY) in an area of the brain known as the lateral septum reduces the normal anxiety responses that occur in stressful situations. This discovery suggests that drugs selectively targeting NPY receptors in the brain could be more effective in treating anxiety than current treatment options and be less prone to abuse.

Dr. Menard’s new anxiety regulation findings were published in a recent issue of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour.

Other groundbreaking research by researchers in the Behavioural Neuroscience group at Queen’s Department of Psychology includes:

• Richard Beninger, Head of Psychology – the role played by particular brain chemicals in the control of normal behaviour and in disorders such as schizophrenia and drug addiction.

• Cella Olmstead – recently pinpointed the area of the brain that controls impulsive behavior and identified mechanisms that affect how impulsive behavior is learned.

• Hans Dringenberg – how our brains develop during early life and how they continue to adapt and store new information.

• Niko Troje – the function behind the head-bobbing behavior frequently observed in pigeons and other birds.

These brain, behavior and cognition researchers are supported by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and have recently benefited from laboratory renovations and infrastructure enhancements facilitated by an equipment grant from the federal funding agency.

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