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Control: The Common Factor in Stress, Anxiety and Sadness


3 minute read

Many clients come to see me because they’re feeling stressed or anxious or sad — often all three. And a common theme in their lives is often that they have no control over some, or many aspects of their lives.

Control is a funny thing. Researchers have done experiments where hospital patients recovering from an operation were given the ability to control the amount of painkillers they were receiving through an infusion pump. The patients could have as much medication as they wanted, as often as they wanted. Common sense says that these patients would use more than those who were given their painkillers on a prescribed schedule. But common sense would be wrong — patients with control over their own medication not only used less of it, but also reported less pain. Somehow, just the knowledge that they had mastery over their pain actually reduced their experience of pain.

When animals are put in situations where they have no control over unpleasant things that happen to them, they give up and make no attempt to escape, even when the situation changes and escape becomes possible. This was all demonstrated back in the 1960’s when dogs were put in cages with electrified floors that delivered a painful (but not dangerous) shock to their feet. The dogs that found no way to turn off the shock acted very much like depressed people do — they lay down, whined, and made no attempt to escape, even when transferred to a new cage with a clear way out. On the other hand, those animals that found a way to control the shock remained proactive in seeking out escape even when the situation in their cage changed. (Read this for more information.)

We see the need for control in children, as anyone who’s parented a toddler can attest to. Most children go through a stage where they insist on being the one to control the elevator or push the stop-request button on a bus.

As adults, one of the most stressful things that can happen to us is to find ourselves responsible for something without having control over it. Corporate executives know this feeling very well, as they are sometimes put in situations where they cannot succeed no matter what they do. And almost everyone knows the feeling of wanting or needing one’s romantic partner to behave in a different way, but having no control over whether they do or not.

It’s often hard to recognize when these situations are happening — we’re so caught up in our emotions, it’s tough to step back from the situation to see the bigger picture. Here are a variety of cases (modified for confidentiality) that might help you see where you might feel out of control in your own life.

Charles

“I am seriously messed up” he announced. “I can’t get to work on time, my girlfriend has to pay my bills for me and shop for food otherwise I’d forget, and it takes me hours to do things at work that other people can do in 15 minutes. I’m angry all the time and pick fights with everyone.” Charles felt he might be ADHD or have a personality disorder. However, it became clear that when he was given autonomy at work, he was more efficient and effective than all of his colleagues. And when he was on vacation, he was organized and displayed a razor sharp memory. He decided that he needed more control over what he did at the office, quit, and got a job with a small company where he had complete authority over his area. And his ‘symptoms’ disappeared.

Nancy

“My husband is impossible,” she told me, listing out a litany of his sins and demonstrating how he failed her in so many areas. Nancy didn’t take this lying down either — she let him know time and again how disappointed she was in him and how much she wanted him to change. She tried everything she could think of to convince him of the need to change, but nothing worked. They were in a stalemate, and Nancy was bitterly unhappy.

In the course of therapy, she realized that she was trying to manage something — his behavior — that was utterly outside her control. She stopped, and instead focused on what was within her control: her own behavior. She began to do the things that she wanted to do, such as travel, volunteer and meet with friends. She invited her husband to join her, but didn’t make her actions contingent on him. She stopped feeling frustrated and angry, and as a result her relationship with her husband improved significantly.

Joanne

“I just don’t know why I feel so bad all the time. Little things that people do can really upset me. I don’t feel grown up.” Joanne felt obligated to do whatever anyone asked of her. Raised to be a ‘good girl’, she learned that saying “No” was unacceptable, and that accommodating others brought love and affection from both parents. As a child, that was a successful strategy, but as an adult, it left her at the mercy of others. Her boss heaped work on her. Her parents demanded her attention. Her boyfriend’s restaurant preferences became hers. And if someone wanted to be her friend, she couldn’t say no, even if she didn’t like them. There weren’t enough hours in the day to satisfy all the demands placed on her. She had no control over her own life.

Once Joanne recognized this pattern she was able to try out a new behavior — telling people no — and quickly discovered that the world didn’t end when she did this. She took back control and discovered that people not only still liked her, but also began to respect her more. She began to respect herself, and for the first time in her life, felt like she was a grown up.

If you are feeling stressed, anxious or sad, it’s possible that there’s something going on in your life that is leaving you feeling out of control. Take some time to think about areas where things happen TO you, or people do things TO you, and there’s not much you can do about it. And if you think creatively, or perhaps get the help of a therapist, you might find that you have far more control than you thought.

Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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