*This is an article from the Spring 2022 issue of Contentment Magazine.
By Josh Briley, PhD, FAIS
As a licensed clinical psychologist, I have worked with patients in a variety of settings (community clinics, Veterans Affairs, Federal Prisons, private practice, and tele-mental health) over the course of my career. I have treated patients with debilitating depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, addictions, and many other mental health, social, and personal struggles. In working with patients in all of these settings, I have learned that stress and anxiety are almost always related, in some manner, to an attempt to control what either feels, or actually is, out of our control.
As humans, we feel calm, confident, and competent when our environment, our emotions, our bodies, and our circumstances are running smoothly. In these rare moments, we feel as if we have things under control. We feel as if we know what is happening and what will happen. We feel as if we are making progress toward our goals. However, life does not always stay in this peaceful state. The last few years have, for many people, been very stressful and chaotic. Political upheaval; incidents of violence; a global pandemic; quarantine; controversy over attempts to overcome the pandemic including masks, vaccines, working remotely or returning to the workplace, and social distancing; supply chain and worker shortages have all contributed to a very chaotic, unpredictable, and stressful time. At no time in recent history have people felt less in control of their surroundings or even of their lives. The rising prevalence of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety reflect this uncertainty and lack of control.1
The more things feel out of control, overwhelming, or threatening, the more our minds engage in thoughts and behaviors that are an attempt to regain that sense of control. When such attempts are ineffective, there is an increase in emotional distress that we interpret as stress and anxiety. This increase in emotional distress exacerbates our fight or flight response, contributes to self-defeating thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and our circumstances, and contributes to the development or exacerbation of coping behaviors to either further attempt to feel a sense of control or to escape the distress. Such escape-related coping attempts can include any number of avoidant behaviors, including overuse of alcohol or drugs, overeating, sleeping excessively, or binge-watching TV shows. Attempts to regain a sense of control can include behaviors such as compulsions or perfectionism, food restriction, exercising excessively, or staying overly busy. Such coping skills help provide the illusion of having control over one area while many other aspects of our lives spiral more and more out of control. Neither coping approach is a healthy, productive response to stressful situations.
Traditional stress management techniques include meditation, breathing or self-soothing exercises, challenging irrational thoughts, and increasing self-care behaviors. While these techniques are important aspects of managing stress and anxiety, they are often insufficient for most people. Such coping techniques are designed to address the symptoms of stress and anxiety, but do not address the core issue contributing to the escalation of stress and anxiety: a need for control.
I have found it helpful, both in my personal life and in working with clients, to identify this element of control and work to refocus efforts on the aspects that are controllable. There are always elements we have under our control, and elements we do not have the ability to control. When combining this attitude of focusing on what I can control and letting go of what I cannot control, especially when used in conjunction with a relaxation or mindfulness exercise, I find that I am able to respond more productively to my circumstances and reduce my stress levels.
Elements We Cannot Control
Even when things are going smoothly and we feel like we are in control, there are obviously elements of our lives that we objectively have no control over. However, the more difficult things become, and the more stressed and anxious we feel, the more we often attempt to control these very elements that we do not have control over.
The first element that we have no control over is people. Objectively, we know this to be true. However, when we are in heightened emotional distress, the more often we attempt to control the people around us, or conversely, the more upset and anxious we become when the people around us do not act and respond the way we want them to. This reaction can take the form of being upset that a coworker does not complete a job in the same manner or as timely as we want them to, of getting upset that your spouse does not anticipate what you need or want, or even overreacting when our kids do not obey immediately when told to do something. Frequently, we react to such situations with anger in an unconscious and unsuccessful attempt to exert that control over the people around us, to “force” them into doing what we want the way we want it done. However, the result we often obtain is that the people around us respond with their own heightened anxiety, anger, or avoidance behaviors, which further exacerbates our own stress and anxiety.
The second element we have no control over is places. When we are stressed and anxious, we have little or no capacity to deal with such everyday occurrences as wait times at restaurants, check out lines, or an uncomfortable room temperature, just to name a few. With rare exceptions, we cannot control what is occurring in the places we find ourselves. People with trauma reactions acutely feel this sense of a lack of control and respond with a sudden and severe increase in anxiety and hypervigilance. In response, we engage in behaviors designed to give us a false sense of safety and control. We sit with our back to a wall and facing the door; we scan the people we can see; we avoid situations where we feel we cannot easily get out; or we avoid the situation completely. We have all witnessed someone losing their temper and causing a scene in a public setting. While many people wonder what could cause someone to have such an extreme reaction, or attribute the behavior to some personality defect, the truth is most of these reactions come from people who are simply too emotionally distressed to have the capacity to deal with one more thing that does not go according to plan, and when that happens, all of the pent-up emotions come exploding out.
The final element over which we have no control is things. Any office I have ever worked in has recurring jokes about the computers and printers sensing when you are in a hurry and slowing down or refusing to work properly in response. We have no control over something as simple as whether your car will have a flat tire or a dead battery the next time you get in it. We do not even have control over whether our cell phones will have a signal or if the app we are using will lock up or crash.
Obviously, we can influence these three elements. The way you treat people generally has a direct effect on how they respond to you. Thus, if you are friendly, caring, respectful, and patient, then most people will respond positively to you. However, some people will not, and sometimes people we interact with on a normal basis may respond in a way that is out of character due to their own personal circumstances. You can maintain your possessions to increase the chances they will operate properly when needed, but the unexpected happens, and often at the most inopportune time.
By learning to “let go” of attempts to control the people, places, and things in our lives, it is much easier to respond, rather than react emotionally, when things do not go as hoped or expected. Not expending the emotional and mental energy in this manner frees us up to focus on the three elements we can control.
Things We Can Control
Regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, no matter how chaotic or overwhelming, there are three things that we can learn to have control over. However, in my work with others, and in my own introspection over the years, I consistently see that we expend the least amount of effort controlling these three aspects. In fact, when I tell clients for the first time that they can have total control over these three elements, they often disagree and claim to have zero control over them. Once they learn to control these features, they find that they are able to handle most situations without an overwhelming feeling of stress and anxiety. That is not to say they do not experience these emotions, because stress and anxiety, as well as all of our other emotions, have a place and a purpose, but that is a topic for a different article. Let’s explore these controllable aspects. You will quickly see a common theme running through them.
The first thing that we have total control over, no matter the circumstances or situations we find ourselves in, is our actions. We, and we alone, are able to choose how we act in any given situation. However, most of the time we are reacting to our irrational thoughts and beliefs or our emotions about the situation. Such reactions are often the attempts to avoid or exert control that I described above. When these attempts are unsuccessful, the result in an even greater escalation in emotional distress, which leads to even more reactions, and so on and so on. However, by stopping for a moment, attempting to see what is happening from a different perspective, and responding based on that new perspective, rather than reacting to our irrational thoughts and beliefs, we will be able to engage in behaviors that will have a greater likelihood of de-escalating, or even resolving, the situation.
The second element we have total control over, no matter our circumstances or situations, is our attitude. Our attitude is a significant component of whether we will feel overwhelmed and powerless, or effective and competent. In any stressful or difficult situation, it is easy to focus on the things that are going wrong, that are uncomfortable or unpleasant, to the exclusion of anything else. However, most of the time, while there may be things that are going wrong, there are also more positive things occurring that we miss because our attention is not on them. I remind myself, and tell my clients, that the things that go wrong, with our plans, with travel, etc., are the funny stories we will tell later. Therefore, when something is not going the way I planned, I start rehearsing the story that I will tell about that incident in my head. This simple act changes my attitude. Instead of being stressed out or upset, I am able to see the ironic, the humorous, or the outlandish in the events that are happening.
Finally, the last element we can control is our faith. I do not mean this solely in a spiritual context, though it definitely includes your spiritual beliefs. What I mean by “faith” in this context is what you believe about yourself, others, and the world in general. For example, when things are stressful and you are anxious, or depressed, it is easy to believe that it will always be that way, that the universe is out to get you, that people hate you, or that you cannot do anything right. Our memories tend to match our emotional state, so we are more likely to remember only difficult times, further enhancing the belief that things have always been, and will always be, difficult for us. Additionally, we can lessen our enjoyment of good times with the belief that it is only a matter of time before “the other shoe drops.”
Controlling our actions, our attitudes, and our faith (in other words, what we do, what we think, and what we believe) takes practice. The coping skills mentioned above (self-soothing, breathing and relaxation exercises, even mindfulness) are all helpful tools in calming our fight and flight response sufficiently to allow us to exert this control over ourselves instead of over the people, places, and things in our lives. This change can influence the outcome and contribute to reduced rather than increased stress.
To use myself as an example, a few years ago I encountered a stressful situation that, just a few years earlier, would have caused me to get very stressed out and angry for the rest of the day, if not longer. One morning, on my way to work at the VA, I realized about a half mile from the clinic that I had left something at home that I had been intending to bring with me for a few days. It was not a crucial item, but I was early enough that I could turn around, drive the few miles home, get the item, and make it to work before the clinic opened at 8:00 am. Even if I was a couple of minutes late, I did not have anything on my schedule until 9:00. So, instead of going straight at the four-way stop to get to the clinic, I turned right, then turned right again on a small two-lane road to head back to my house.
Within a half-mile, I was stopped behind a cement mixer attempting to turn left against a steady stream of traffic coming from the other direction. I’m not exaggerating (I was watching the clock), I sat behind the truck for close to five minutes before he was able to turn. Instead of getting frustrated or upset, I reminded myself I had no control over the truck driver needing to make that turn, nor over the people who were driving toward us, probably just trying to get to work themselves. I was able to take some slow breaths and calm myself. I had plenty of time.
When I got home, since I was just running inside for a few seconds, I parked in the driveway rather than in the garage as usual. However, I did turn the car off. I grabbed the item and hopped back in my SUV without noticing the automatic running boards had not descended when I opened the door, as they are supposed to do. When I put the key in the ignition, and heard the engine make that disheartening “click-click-click” sound. I tried a couple of more times before giving up. Remembering my neighbors across and down the street had been renovating their house for months, I went around the front of my house to look for one of the neighbor’s workmen to jumpstart my car there was no one there. In fact, there were no visible cars or people visible anywhere on my street. All of my neighbors, friends, and colleagues were at work by that point.
I felt the stress rising as I called roadside assistance to get someone to come jumpstart my SUV so I could get to work. They assured me someone would be there in a few minutes, so I called the clinic and let them know I would be a little late. I then went back into the house and began pacing impatiently, checking out my window to see if the tow truck was coming. After a couple of minutes, I stopped myself and asked what I would tell a client in this situation. I took a couple of slow breaths and looked around, changing my focus from the fact that my car would not start, and I was now late for work, to what needed to be done in my immediate surroundings.
That was when I noticed the water bowl for my pets was completely empty. If I had not gone home, and if my car had not died in my driveway, then my animals would have been without water all day, not good on a blistering hot day in August in central Texas. I cleaned and filled their water bowl. The tow truck driver still wasn’t there, so I emptied and reloaded my dishwasher. Still no tow truck driver. The online tracking service showed he was still at home, and there was no response when I called the number that roadside assistance had given me. After some more breathing exercises and reminders that I could not control the tow truck driver and whether he came when I expected him, that I could not even control the fact that my car was not starting, I continued to focus on what I could control. Instead of getting stressed and angry at the situation, I was grateful that the situation allowed me to take better care of my animals and a few more moments to complete some household chores. I drank another cup of coffee and enjoyed the unexpected free time for the morning, allowing myself to decompress instead of allowing my stress and anger to escalate. I finally found a friend who could give me ride to work, so I called roadside assistance and rescheduled the tow truck to meet me after work.
By the time I got to the clinic, I was 20 minutes late for my 9:00 appointment, a PTSD group session. After some good-natured ribbing from my Veterans about being late, I started the session. A few moments later, my phone rang. I saw it was the tow truck driver I had been trying to reach for over an hour. I excused myself, stepped into my office, and answered the phone. The driver was very apologetic for the delay and explained that, when he received the call to come jump start my car, his own truck would not start. His boss had to send the mechanic out to fix the tow truck. I was able to respond with both compassion and humor at the irony of his tow truck being broken down, preventing him from helping me with my broken-down car. I confirmed the rescheduling for after work and had a great story to tell my coworkers.
I know this example is not a major ordeal. I deliberately chose the type of everyday occurrence that we allow to cause us undue stress, anger, and anxiety. I could have become overly stressed about being late for work, gotten angry that my car, that I generally maintained well, would not start, or gotten very angry (a common emotion men channel our stress and anxiety into) at the tow truck driver for what I could have assumed was his poor work ethic and lack of commitment to his job by ignoring my calls. In contrast, by keeping my focus on my actions, attitude, and faith rather than the people, places, and things I could not control in this situation, I was able to make the best of an unforeseen occurrence, take advantage of the unexpected free time to take care of some tasks that needed to be done, notice things I had not noticed earlier, and I was ultimately able to appreciate the irony of a tow truck driver attempting to respond to a car that would not start only to learn the tow truck was broken down as well. My day was not ruined by this experience, in fact, my mood was not adversely affected during this experience because I did not feel out of control in the moment, I focused on the elements I could control.
This approach sounds simplistic, and in working with patients to help them change their perspectives away from people, places, and things and onto their actions, attitudes, and faith, I know that the process itself is not difficult. It does take diligence and practice to learn to redirect your perceptions adequately, but once you learn to control your actions, attitudes, and faith, then the people, places, and things in your life cannot so easily increase your stress.
- Ettman, C. K., Abdalla, S. M., Cohen, G. H., Sampson, L., Vivier, P. M., & Galea, S. (2020). Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Network Open, 3(9), e2019686.