When you perceive you have control, it can improve your overall well-being. And, when you lack perceived control, depression and learned helplessness can develop.

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If you’re having trouble dealing with situations or events that are outside your realm of influence, you could change your perception of the event.

You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can adjust how you react.

Sometimes stress can be overwhelming and cause you to feel stuck. Changing your perception of a situation can help you cope better and sometimes even influence your behavior.

Stress can cause your sense of perceived control over what happens to you to wither. But when you can find meaning in your life despite what’s happening, that can help mitigate the effects of stress.

A sense of perceived control occurs when you think about your power over a situation.

Many people understand perceived control in terms of the psychological concept called the locus of control.

In 1966 psychologist Julian Rotter coined the term locus of control to demonstrate the differences between whether we believe an outcome is based on our actions or a result is dependent on concepts such as:

  • fate
  • luck
  • chance

Research indicates that by believing your behavior influences what happens to you or that occurrences in your life are based on your actions, you have an internal locus of control.

On the other hand, you have more of an external locus of control if you believe that the things that happen in your life are due to:

  • destiny
  • good fortune
  • being completely random

The locus of control can exist on a continuum.

Yes, we can control our perception. That doesn’t mean you have to minimize bad things that have happened to you.

An older research review on the control of perception suggests that perceived control is necessary for our biological survival. The research authors indicate that we control our perception through our choices.

Researchers proposed that you have various daily choices that others may not be privy to, and how you make choices determines your perceived control.

The researchers also point out that if you didn’t believe you could make choices that had a successful outcome, there would be no motivation to overcome challenges.

How much you believe you control a situation can impact your overall well-being.

For example, one study of 403 social work students and 324 social workers from Germany found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the students and professionals switched from an internal locus of control to an external locus of control.

Low control = low morale

The research indicated that the high burden of stress over the pandemic weakened internal feelings of control and made many feel powerless.

The authors suggest that this external locus of control had detrimental impacts on both the students’ and professionals’ well-being and that both groups in the study could benefit from implementing coping strategies.

Additional research that examined the impacts of perception of control and mood with 615 participants in Saudi Arabia found that those with a higher perception of control experience fewer mood symptoms associated with depression and bipolar disorder.

The researchers also found that higher levels of cultural values mitigated the negative impact on mood caused by the lower perception of control. This suggests that having higher levels of cultural values can help impact the stress of loss of perceived control.

Sky-high perception of control = illusion of control

In addition to feeling a lack of control, it’s possible to perceive your control as far more significant than it is. This is called illusory control, or the illusion of control.

Illusory control occurs when you overestimate your abilities to predict the outcome of a situation that you have no command over. This happens in the OCD behavior of magical thinking as well.

One example of the illusion of control may be an individual who only believes their football team wins when they wear a specific jersey. You aren’t controlling the situation, but you may believe “your team needs you.”

While the football jersey example is a pretty harmless example of this bias, research from 2021 indicates that people with gambling addictions are more like to have beliefs that fall under the illusion of control. In contrast, this confirmation bias can make you feel hopeful about your choices and what you can handle.

How you experience stress in your life may be related to the amount of control you believe you have. It’s impossible to get through life without experiencing stress, but how you cope with it or perceive it may influence how you deal with stress.

A 2016 study of 282 Korean undergraduate students examined the relationship between life satisfaction and perceived stress.

The research findings indicate that self-efficacy, or the individual’s belief that they can execute a certain task or implement the behaviors to complete a task, partially mediated the effects of stress on life satisfaction.

The authors suggest that the effects of stress aren’t as significant when you feel like you can handle the situation and can steer through the problem.

When you believe you can’t handle a problem, the level of perceived stress is higher and can potentially lead to lower life satisfaction.

According to 2016 research, the perception of control can influence your behavior through a concept called learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness occurs when you believe you have no power to change anything around you and feel your actions can’t change the outcome of what’s happening.

Learned helplessness commonly occurs in individuals with depression or individuals who have experienced complex emotional or physical trauma in childhood or adolescence. Learned helplessness may contribute to a feeling of lack of control over one’s own autonomy or self-efficacy.

If you believe you have no authority over your life, you may be less inclined to make choices that help you move forward.

Alternatively, if you think that you have some governance over what’s happening to you or that you can make your own decisions, that may help you adapt to the challenges between you and your goal.

When you face stress, your perception of how you can handle the situation matters. While everyone experiences stress from time to time, you can adapt by changing your perception.

A sense of perceived control over your life can help you handle stress and improve your overall well-being. Changing your perception of a situation is possible because only you can choose to accept or challenge your thoughts.

If you’re facing a stressful situation, you may consider first exploring alternative thoughts about the situation. If that doesn’t help change your outlook, you may consider learning some new skills to cope with stress.

Additionally, if you’re experiencing depression or learned helplessness, you may consider seeking the support of a mental health professional. You can start the process by checking out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.