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Stress and the Concept of Control

For me, one of the hardest facets of stress is relinquishing control. And though there is control in how I personally react and choose to respond to circumstances, there’s also a feeling of helplessness; a feeling that control is not completely present.

I don’t have complete control over genuine and natural shifts in relationships — the progression of people growing apart. New perceptions affect awareness; they affect how connections are conceived.

I don’t have complete control of the past, and all the baggage that comprises such chapters.

I don’t have complete control over nodules in my thyroid that may or may not get bigger; that may or may not require a biopsy or further treatment.

I don’t have complete control over a competitive job market or a profession that may not lend itself to a stable, sufficient income.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the desire for a sense of control is a profound psychological need.

“If we are in control of our environment, then we have a far better chance of survival,” an article on stated. “Our deep subconscious mind thus gives us strong biochemical prods when we face some kind of danger (such as the fight-or-flight reaction).”

Interesting. Though life is renowned for unpredictability, individuals crave a sense of control. Some factors, though, are simply uncontrollable.

Psychologists have studied this human need for decades, referring to the concept as locus of control (LOC).

“The more internal our LOC, the more we believe our own efforts determine what happens in our lives; the more external our LOC, the more we feel our lives are controlled by outside forces (chance or powerful others),” according to a 2014 article in Psychology Today.

Research illustrates that those who possess an internal LOC experience greater happiness, health, success and the ability to cope with adversity.

While, at times, we have to succumb to external variables, we can still embody an internal LOC — by how we respond to such variables and by seizing control in other areas of our lives.

When undergoing stress, I can ask myself: what are the choices I can make right now? I can conquer my fear of stage fright and sing at an open mic night. I can paint at my desk for the sole purpose of catharsis. I can embark on day trips to new places and emotionally rejuvenate. I can wear a different shade of lip gloss or highlight my hair.

While none of these actions resolve conflict, they do emanate control.

In a post on Tiny Buddha, Lori Deschene explains that when she starts ruminating on something out of her hands, she chooses to think about what she can change.

“Right now, you can control: how many times you smile today,” she wrote. “How you interpret situations; how nice you are to yourself in your head; the type of food you eat; what books you read; how many times you say I love you.”

And who knows; with this kind of confidence, dealing with problems may become a bit easier.

When experiencing stress, we don’t always have total control — we can’t control every situation, and we certainly cannot control other people. And although the need for a sense of control is significant, we can still exert control in how we react to stressors, and we can still utilize choice in other aspects of our lives.

Puppet photo available from Shutterstock

Stress and the Concept of Control

Lauren Suval

Lauren Suval studied print journalism and psychology at Hofstra University, and she is a writer based in New York. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, Catapult Community, and other online publications. Lauren's e-book “Coping With Life’s Clutter” and her collection of personal essays, “The Art Of Nostalgia,” can both be found on Amazon. Lauren's latest E-Book, "Never Far Behind," a collection of poetry, is available on Smashwords, Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. She loves to be followed on social media, including her Facebook Writing Page,

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APA Reference
Suval, L. (2018). Stress and the Concept of Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.