Are You Running the Show or is the Show Running You?

There are all sorts of formal definitions for what stress is, but one of the basic criteria that characterize stress is: do you feel in control of your life, or do you want the world to just stop while you catch your breath?

When we feel a sense of control in our lives, we experience much less stress. It is when we feel that events are spiraling out of our control that those familiar symptoms start creeping into our lives. Stress headaches, indigestion, palpitations, a sense of dread, endless worrying, an inability to sleep well, loss of appetite and plain outright panic. Sound frightening familiar? Then you probably have an external locus of control.

The terms internal and external locus of control are used by psychologists and other mental health workers to accurately express how much control over their lives a particular person feels. When a person expresses that things are getting on top of them, that there are too many stresses in their lives and that their health, both physical and mental, is suffering, then it is time to take action.

It is well known that persons who report having a strong internal locus of control, i.e. they feel in control of their own destiny and are not being blown around by the winds of fate, lead happier, healthier lives. The opposite is true when a person reports that they feel they have little control over what happens to them.

So how can we exchange an external locus of control for an internal one? First, we must remember that no-one is in complete control of their lives. We cannot control the behaviors of others, nor can we control events such as natural catastrophes. We must accept that we can’t control everything. Yet there are people who, because they can’t control everything, become so distressed that they create more stress, anxiety and ultimately depression for themselves.

But we don’t have to remain caught in a trap of choicelessness and stress.

Tips to increase your sense of personal control:

  1. Become aware that in every situation, no matter how dire, you do have choices. You may not like either or any of the choices that are available to you, but reminding yourself that you do have choices can loosen the feeling that you are trapped and thus partially lower your stress levels.

    Sometimes it is only your attitude that you can change. Yet, that too, is a choice and therefore a way to improve the situation. Attitude is often the difference between happiness and depression, and making the decision to think differently about a given situation is a choice open to each and every one of us. We are never completely trapped.
  2. Get those possible choices out of your head and onto paper. Make a list of all the possible ways you can deal with the situation at hand. Often by deliberately brainstorming in this way, even more options will come to you, all of which may be explored as possible solutions or ways to better deal with your current problem. Ask a friend to help to increase your options.
  3. Once your list is complied, go through it and look at how feasible all your options are. Going through the process of listing all the alternatives can slowly open your mind to the reality that there are ways that we can deal with our problems if we can just give ourselves some room to move and not just panic. Even if you still choose the initial plan that you thought of before you started the brainstorming process, you will at least be more reassured that you are taking the very best action that you could in the given situation.
  4. Get rid of thoughts and words such as “I have no choice.” These statements encourage thinking inside the square and this is exactly what you don’t want when you find yourself in a tough position. Expand your mental horizons and you will find that your physical horizons will turn a nicer shade of blue.

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