Business of Well-being

Managing Stress Requires a Sense of Control

Who's in control anyway?

If you were passed over for a promotion at work would it be because you blew the job interview or because your boss has it in for you and will never give you a promotion? Your answer to this type of question indicates whether you have an internal "locus of control" (LOC) or an external one.

If you believe what happens to you in life is largely determined by fate, luck or other external conditions - the boss is the reason you didn't get the job - you're an external. If you think you're in charge of your own destiny - had I prepared better I might have gotten the promotion - you're an internal.

External LOC

Externals think what happens in life is largely beyond their control. They stay in undesirable situations longer because they don't think they have any options, leaving them feeling powerless to change their situation. They see outside forces as the reason that good and bad things happen to them. They haven't made the connection between their own choices and what happens to them in life so they feel more at the mercy of outside forces.

If you think you have no control, no options, then you don't because you won't look for any. Your external LOC defeats you easily. You feel at the mercy of outside forces such as luck or fate, leaving you feeling powerless, anxious and depressed.

This powerlessness leads to more stressful reactions to life's situations causing greater susceptibility to health problems, as well. Research is definitive that excessive stress releases excessive cortisol into your body, causing everything from sleep problems to diabetes to cardio-vascular disease, so an external LOC is also bad for your health.

Internal LOC

Internals believe they largely control what happens to them; that their skills and efforts determine whether or not they get the promotion. They feel like they have choices in life, therefore are more likely to have high self-esteem. They feel happier, freer, more satisfied with life in general and are less stressed.

They have better health due to less chronic stress. So it's obvious that an internal LOC is much better for managing stress. Developing an internal LOC, then, leads you to feeling more in the driver's seat of your own life by helping you look for options.

You see that your own efforts and choices determine your outcomes so you're more empowered and less stressed and depressed.

Problem-solving and identifying options = stress management

The key to stress management is problem-solving, which requires you to look for options. If you believe outside forces control your options then you're likely to wait for something external to solve your stressors for you.Internals see themselves as responsible for solving their own problems and quickly do so.

They take charge and don't wait for someone else to do it for them. Both internals and externals learned their beliefs from their families, culture and past experiences. Most internals come from families that focused on effort, education and responsibility.

Some externals come from lower socioeconomic families where there truly was a lack of control over their lives while other externals' families' experienced significant hardship like a parent's serious illness, also beyond their control. To determine if you're an external or internal, go to and take their assessment.

Develop an internal LOC

Knowing whether you have an internal or external LOC is vital to understanding your stress level because perception of control is almost everything in stress. Early stress researchers assumed top executives had the most organizational stress because they had the most responsibility. However, they found that the lowly secretary had the most because she had lots of responsibilities but little control.

Top executives had the least stress because they had the most control. So, developing an internal LOC, understanding that you can influence life circumstances, goes a long way in helping you look for therefore find stress reducing options.

That's why wilderness experiences like Outward Bound can profoundly impact people with external LOC beliefs. By developing new skills they master the outdoor challenges, expanding their competence therefore their personal power.

Put your energy where you actually have control

In addition to having a sense of control you also need to understand that you only have control over:

  • Yourself: your choices, actions and emotions;

You have no control over the weather, other people, etc. So you can change your behavior with a difficult person in hopes of bringing about a better outcome but you can't make that person change. Wisely developing an internal LOC means putting your energy where you actually have control; changing yourself versus thinking the other person should change. Since LOC is learned, you can gradually develop more of an internal one:

  • Develop awareness of the impact your choices have on your outcomes. Even making no decision about a stressor is a decision. For example, if you procrastinate studying for an exam take responsibility when you're ill prepared since you "decided" not to study.
  • "Stop stewin' and start doin'," a participant's grandmother used to say. Quickly move from fussing and stewing over life's problems to identifying your options to solve them. Teach yourself and your kids to think in problem solving ways when stressed by asking, "What are my options?" If you're not good at this, get help from others until you improve.
  • To identify possible options answer my magic questions,
  • "What in this situation do I want/need more of?
  • "What do I want less of?"

Your options must be within your control to get.

  • For example, colleagues consistently get their work to you late, making it difficult to meet your deadlines. You might want:
  • Less of: their tardiness, their inconsideration. However, both of these are beyond your control. So let these expectations go. They'll simply continue to stress you.
  • Less of - within your control: obsessing and grumbling over their lateness, feeling helpless when they're tardy, etc.
  • More of: support from your boss in getting them to comply. But this is beyond your control, too.
  • More of - within your control: assertiveness to speak to your boss about ideas to motivate them to be on time, identifying natural consequences they'll experience when they're late, etc.

Select the best options to accomplish your goal in the situation. With a difficult co-worker, for example, if your goal is for him to change, restate it in a way that's within your control, "to ignore him more."

  • Replace self-talk:
  • "I can't," with "What can I do?"
  • "If only," with "What if?"

If you have an external locus of control, when you're stressed replace your fussing and stewing with, "What are my options?" repeated over and over until you steer your thinking toward problem-solving. Over time it becomes a habit that does wonders in empowering you and resolving your stress.

Increase personal power by focusing on your options

You're in a painful relationship. You know it's unhealthy and yet you see no way out. You feel trapped and powerless. You assume that nothing you do will make a difference so you change nothing. You suffer in silence or look for ways to get even for the perceived wrongs you've undergone.

Your stress mounts inhibiting your ability even more to see a way out. This is a classic example of "learned helplessness," the most stressed position of all. You assume you have no options. It's a condition named by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of PA. Learned helplessness and low self-esteem go hand-in-hand and are symptoms of an external locus of control.

To inch toward greater personal power focus on what your options are in dealing with your challenging situation versus on how miserable you are. Generating options is the essence of problem-solving. Choices equal a perception of control. Just knowing what they are - you don't even have to act on them - can lower your stress at least a little because you don't feel so cornered.

The options you can see are determined by your perception of the situation. The more you obsess over the parts of your stressor that are beyond your control the fewer viable alternatives you'll see. To be a creative problem-solver, open your mind to the fact that there are choices that you can't see - yet.

Always keep your ears and eyes open. You never know from where your best solution will come. To produce legitimate options you must first know what your desired outcome is in your stressful situation. State your goal in a way that's within your control to reach.

  • E.g., To work toward a healthy relationship by first being honest with yourself about what you contribute to the relationship challenges;

Preliminarily, what are your obvious options?

  • Seek therapy;
  • Journal to uncover your "truth;"
  • Talk with your partner about your troubled relationship;

To expose additional choices you can't see yet, try these:

  • Regularly, keep a journal about your stressor, especially when you're upset about it. Repetitive journaling helps you see your stressor differently. This eventually triggers new ideas of how to handle it. These ideas may pop into your head through journaling itself or while dreaming or even showering. Be open to them. Don't reject them. Explore them even more through additional journaling.
  • Journal questions and answers about your stressor. Question-asking is the most important skill in problem solving. Questions lead to more questions, which eventually lead to answers, then to solutions.
  • Have someone you trust pepper you with questions about your stressor. Any question that triggers your defensiveness, emotionalism and/or rigidity points to deeper truths that you can journal about later.

Accept that your historic and possibly distorted interpretations of a stressor can inhibit you from seeing workable solutions. When you're unsuccessful in resolving your stressor stretch your perception muscles by challenging how you look at your situation. What have you got to lose?

Perceptual expansion through journaling and question asking will, over time, trigger better and healthier options for handling your stressor. This not only lowers your stress, it also increases your self-esteem.

Additionally, slowly but surely following these suggestions you'll become more a person who has an internal locus of control. This expanding shift will have a ripple effect and help you be a better problem solver in all areas of your life.

Brief Bio

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.


In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982 she founded InterAction Associates, her speaking and coaching firm.

For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, workplace harassment, motivation, and communication skills. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs. Jackie is also a Stress & Wellness Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress.

Order her 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple and request her weekly, published, emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper, at You can now follow Jackie on Twitter ( )

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