Psychophysiological Processes in the Connection Between Perfectionism, Stress, and Emotional Distress
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The perfectionism-stress connection is frequently studied, yet research in this area often overlooks the role of physiological processes. This research helps address this gap by testing two psychophysiological models of perfectionism, stress, and emotional dysfunction in daily life. Study 1 tested the impact of perfectionism on diurnal cortisol levels through stress generation, stress reactivity, and depressive symptoms. A sample of undergraduates (N = 127) completed questionnaires and provided samples of salivary cortisol twice daily over three days. Results suggested self-critical perfectionism influences diurnal cortisol through multiple pathways. People high in self-critical perfectionism are vulnerable to depressive symptoms, especially during periods of high stress, and depressed symptoms showed a blunting effect on diurnal cortisol intercept (i.e., waking cortisol). People high in self-critical perfectionism also demonstrated elevated cortisol intercept, relative to people lower on this trait, during periods of low stress. These findings suggest self-critical perfectionists find themselves vulnerable to HPA-axis dysregulation directly through stress reactivity and indirectly through depressive symptoms. Study 2 expanded on Study 1 by disentangling the unique effects of neuroticism, perfectionistic strivings, and self-critical perfectionism on emotional distress, fatigue, vigor, and heart rate variability through stress generation and event-focused rumination. I used a multi-method experience sampling design in a sample of 100 working professionals over a 7-day period. Multilevel path analysis showed neuroticism uniquely predicted stress-reactive rumination and emotional distress, whereas self-critical perfectionism uniquely predicted daily stressors. Perfectionistic strivings showed no unique effects beyond other personality traits. Within-person results showed daily stressors uniquely predicted emotional distress and fatigue, while stress-reactive rumination uniquely predicted emotional distress, decreased vigor, and increased heart rate variability. Between-person results showed stress-reactive rumination predicted emotional distress, fatigue, and decreased heart rate variability. Results suggest neuroticism and self-critical perfectionism function uniquely and synergistically to produce negative stress sequelae through stress generation and event-focused rumination. Together, these studies support stress generation and stress reactivity as key processes in the relation between perfectionism and psychophysiological stress. This research highlights the benefit of studying day-to-day processes and elucidates the importance of psycho-physiological measurement in understanding the effects of personality on stress processes. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.