Stress and the Need for Control

Winston Churchill said that life includes only two sure things: death and taxes. Could we add stress to that list, as well?

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. And yet, 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 get something or do something, and you don’t get it or you can’t do it … 2) You get something you really don’t 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] or … 4) You have a legitimate expectation that something will happen, and it doesn’t. All these can produce frustration that leads to stressful thoughts and feelings.

As you may know, the event itself is not the problem; it’s our response to the stressor that creates or worsens 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? Remember that any kind of response affects the others. An angry response affects behavior; a thought like “just my luck” affects our emotions. A killing tension headache will impact our attitude. Does your response to stressful events and situations actually make things worse?

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.