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Fight stress by examining what you try to control

By Amy Agronis on November 15, 2004 in University

The Oxford English Dictionary begins its definition of the word "control" with "the act or power of directing or regulating; command; regulating influence." Somehow "control" has become a pejorative word in our language. We use it in such contexts as, "he or she is a control freak," and "you must control your emotions." In other words, do not show anybody how you feel. In actuality, control is also defined in other more neutral ways to mean "a guide or a check."

My interest here comes from the word control and its connection to stress-producing situations.

One of the major factors in determining whether a certain situation is stressful is called the "locus of control." Locus of control has to do with our perception of what or who controls a given situation. Specifically, if we have an internal LOC, the control is perceived as residing within ourselves. Conversely, if we presume an external LOC, we perceive that other people or things are controlling us.

We might expect people who have more responsibility to have higher degrees of stress, but the opposite is often found to be true in work settings. That's because the people with the greatest responsibility often have the most control over their circumstances. It is the combination of the extent of your responsibility and the amount of control you have over your responsibilities that may lead to stress. This applies in work settings, home settings, social settings, etc.

Lest you believe I am going to preach that we should all become very powerful and always have control, or that we see ourselves as victims, if we are not in control. Instead, I prefer to suggest that a good way to reduce stress is to choose carefully those things that we feel are important to control.

A considerable amount of stress for individuals is associated with the fact that they are trying to control people or situations over which they, in fact, have no control.

For example, let's say you're working in a group that is not meeting your standards of performance. If you focus on trying to control the group, chances are that your stress level will increase. If, however, you focus and judge yourself on doing what you do the best way you know how, you are much more likely to feel satisfied.

A more personal example is often seen in relationships. People enter into relationships, be they friendships or love relationships, and then one person chooses to end the relationship. In most cases, the people I see want to change the other person's mind, actions or choices, instead of focusing on the choices they can control. In other words, if he leaves you, you may not be able to make him come back, but you do have complete control over the choices regarding how you act, respond and move forward into the future.

I have had people argue with me on this last point. They will tell me that if they can't choose what they want or control the thing they wish to control, then they really have no control or choice at all. I admit I'm asking you to reframe those situations, to think differently and to focus on the choices and control you do have.

If your ultimate goal is to relieve your own stress, this approach will work. If your primary goal is to control others, ultimately you will fail. You have the choice.

If you have other questions or want to discuss this more, call (530) 752-2727 or e-mail me at shharvey@ucdavis.edu. You can also visit the Academic and Staff Assistance Program Web site at http://www.hr.ucdavis.edu/ASAP.

Sally Harvey is director of ASAP. Her columns appear quarterly.

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, abagronis@ucdavis.edu

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