Stress and the Need for Control

You’ve probably heard the saying – was it uttered by Ben Franklin or by Churchill? –   that there are only two sure things in this life: death and taxes. However, could we add stress to that list, as well? Nearly all of us know what stress feels like; we’ve all felt it in our own unique ways. Now, here’s the thing: is it possible that our behavior and attitude could play a role in the amount of stress we experience?

This article aims to address that very question. So, please consider the following: does your habitual way of responding to stressful events and situations ever make things worse?

Stress comes from all directions. Work. Family. Traffic. Politics. Climate. Other people’s behavior. Technology and machinery. What do these things have in common? They impact our lives, and over them we have little or no control. In fact most of the events and situations we encounter lie beyond our ability to control. Even so, many of us get stressed out and frustrated in precisely those kinds of situations. How does that happen?

For the sake of discussion, we can categorize frustration scenarios into four types:

1) You want to acquire something, do something or achieve something, and you don’t get it or you can’t do it. 2) You get something you really do not want. 3) You have a strong desire to communicate, to share something, and you can’t  – you don’t know how, or you’re scared, or nobody’s listening, or you have no one to talk to. 4) You have a legitimate expectation that something will happen, but it doesn’t. All of these situations can produce frustration that leads to uncomfortable thoughts, actions, sensations and emotions.

As you may already know, the event itself is not the actual problem; the problem lies in the way we respond to it. When stress piles up and we feel overwhelmed, every aspect of our lives can be affected: attitude, emotions, our physical health, relationships, self-confidence and behavior. What about you? How do you respond when you feel stressed? Please keep in mind that any response can affect any of the other responses. An emotional response affects your speech and behavior; a mental response, such as thinking, “just my luck” affects your emotions. A killing tension headache will impact our attitude and emotions.

Since it was discovered that stress influences health, the social and medical sciences have created lots of treatment options. Among these are increased use of supplements like vitamins, proper nutrition, exercise, diet and sleep, activities to improve our outlook and attitudes and, if necessary, medication.

In addition to these options, here’s an idea for your consideration: I propose that our experience of stress – physical, mental, emotional, behavioral – is directly linked to our need for control. The more control we demand, the more we are liable to feel frustrated. On the other hand, when we are willing and able let go in situations beyond our control, we can be comparatively free of stress reactions.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. In attempting to reach our goals we are bound to face obstacles. And I’d suggest that one major obstacle lies within in our minds: the belief that letting go makes us vulnerable or weak. It violates our self-image as a world-beater, a champ, a winner! No one wants to go there. So, the alternative is to hold on to your need for control …and notice how that works out for you.

If you’re interested, some of the world’s major religions teach the paradox of letting go: that contrary to one’s expectation, letting go is actually the way to have control. If you’d care to explore that, please feel free to contact me.

Yet another idea for your consideration: we may never perfect this willingness and ability to let go. I’d call it a life-long growth process. And you can start growing right now by reminding yourself every morning that today, as in The Serenity Prayer …

“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

… regardless of your spiritual beliefs, just for today, you will notice the things you can control, and distinguish the things you can’t. In the situations you can’t control – another person’s behavior, for example – you will remind yourself: “I can do nothing about that person’s negative attitude and actions. As for me, I’m just grateful I can stay positive, retain strong boundaries and let his stuff be his stuff.” Just start there, and see how that affects your day.