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Managing Stress: It’s Not Just How You Look At It

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We’ve all heard it said, “It’s not the situation; it’s how you deal with the situation that determines your stress.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Change your mind about something and you change your experience of it. Attitude is everything, isn’t it? 

Yes and no.

Psychologists have long held that individuals with an internal locus of control, who believe they have a significant degree of self-determination in the course of their lives, fare better than those with an external locus of control.

By contrast, an external locus of control is a belief that life is basically a random stream of events and that luck, the Fates, and other people are really in charge of your future. It’s all a matter of how you interpret events.

Sue lands a job that she loves and determines that this is her reward for years of hard study and a strong work ethic. John lands his dream job and believes he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Both are probably valid perspectives and neither interpretation will have much bearing on their psychological health since the situation in question is a happy one.

But what happens when life falls apart?

Let’s say Sue gets into a car accident shortly after accepting the new job offer and within the week finds out her husband has to undergo a biopsy for a suspicious tumor. Having a predisposition toward an internal locus of control is likely to result in Sue being proactive with these stressors. She is unlikely to generalize these events and judge her life in general as falling apart.

Although she may be overwhelmed, Sue won’t be prone to catastrophizing. She will likely devote her time to making plans to meet the new demands, believing that she will find a way to get through these stressors and come out on top. She has an inherent belief in herself that will allow her to weather the storm.

John on the other hand, faced with an accident and an ill spouse, might be more inclined to feel helpless and overwhelmed, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He might go so far as to wonder whether these circumstances are signs that he has made wrong choices in other areas of his life and he may begin to question seemingly unrelated issues like his acceptance of the new job offer.

He may second guess himself or take this string of events as evidence that he is not meant to get ahead in life. His inherent belief is that the world is a difficult place and you just have to do the best you can to survive it and that anyone who is too optimistic is wearing rose-colored glasses.

Whose outlook is correct?

Probably both. The world is as much a source of agony as it is a source of joy. The question is not whose truth is more valid, but who stands the best chance of thriving in whatever circumstances occur. Whether she is an optimistic woman by nature (born that way) or nurture (raised that way), Sue has the cards tipped in her favor where stress resilience is concerned.

But what if you don’t think like Sue? Or what if you do and life has simply thrown too many things your way to manage?

This is where the “just stay positive” advice starts to wear thin for most people. Everyone has a limit in what they can handle and we can’t just think ourselves out of one crisis after another without hitting a wall at some point.

It isn’t just how you think about things. It’s what you do to cultivate a lifestyle that will help you maintain the mental focus you will need, when fatigue and chaos come to visit you, that will determine your optimal level of stress resilience and wellness over the long run.

Why should you think about adopting stress management practices as a lifestyle? Isn’t that just putting a bandage on the problem? Maybe I just want to avoid stress altogether!

Good luck! The fact is that you really don’t have control over what lands on your plate and when. No one knows this better than the generation now in middle age. With our well-publicized extended life span, dealing with the needs of aging parents (many of whom may now be living in separate households due to divorce or may be geographically distant from their children) is a reality faced by many.

For many, career pressures add up for those who are now in senior positions at work. Too, the demands of launching a family of one’s own increase the pressure. And, of course, there is the reality that the signs of one’s own aging are becoming more evident.

How do you cultivate a lifestyle that will help you manage the impact of all this on your life?

The key here is in the word “internal” as discussed above. Very often people in stressful situations employ a number of external tools to assist them. They may read self-help books, ask for advice, and take various substances (good and bad) to help them regulate their sleep and mood to assist them in coping. They may engage in a number of escapist activities from television watching to computer games to shopping. The possibilities are endless.

While they are using all the aids for dealing with stress they can find, they are trying desperately to become more efficient. Multitasking becomes a way of life. Sleep gets cut. Convenience foods are the norm. Grace and humor give way to edgy drill sergeant barks. Conversations within the family are utilitarian, aimed at managing the logistics of the family’s life with little time for anything else.

What has been lacking, all too often, even in people who have a natural inclination toward an internal locus of control, is a true dedication to a centering practice of some type to keep them aware of and in touch with their own thoughts and feelings as they move through life.

American culture does not promote this as a lifestyle, unfortunately (it would kill “impulse buying” in no time flat!). A strong inner life may promote a sense of peace and increased stress resilience, but, frankly, it will never drive the economy. As a result, you may not meet many examples of optimally stress-resilient people in your life.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be one, yourself.

A regular centering practice is critical for maintaining optimal wellness. Whether you are drawn to practice yoga, meditation, deep breathing, walking, gardening or a related practice is not important. All that matters is that it calms you down, clears your head, and has a physical component to it.

This cannot be overstated. We are not talking about surviving stress; we are talking about strategies to maintain optimal wellness despite the presence of stress in your life. This isn’t just about making it until you can get to your vacation, to the weekend, or around that fictitious corner when things will get better. This is about being better now, even in the middle of chaotic life circumstances.

The key is to employ a practice that takes you out of your head and into your body and then gets you back to your head in a peaceful and proactive way.

Regular and deliberate centering practices that have a physical component to them will enable you to sensitize yourself to your own state of health and to proactively address your body’s needs. Under stress, many people forget things, meals get skipped, and sleep deteriorates.

In the short term, you might be able to get away with some neglect of your health, but the long-term consequences could be serious for your physical and mental health. Mind-focused practices like journaling, writing affirmations, and reading personal development books are not enough!

Stress is a physical event. It may be in response to a mental event, like a hurtful comment by your spouse or an argument with a friend or co-worker, or anxiety over money, but the impact of stress itself is physical and must be attended to as such.

Stretching, deep breathing, and physical exertion appropriate to your ability give your body an outlet for the famous ‘flight or fight’ response. These will allow your body to calm down so you can get to the work of cultivating a perspective that will allow you to manage the situations you face with wisdom and maturity.

Think of these practices like a parachute that saves you when you feel like you are going to go right over the edge. The time to weave the parachute is not when you are about to jump! If you are like most adults who grew up without being introduced to these centering practices, don’t be surprised if it is difficult to integrate them into your life, particularly if you are already in the midst of stressful events.

Seek and follow a qualified mentor to assist you in developing an integrated approach to stress management. Don’t beat yourself up if you just can’t get your head in the game. Your head may not be the problem. Stress is a mind-body phenomenon. Working with both areas in an integrated fashion, with dedication to establishing life long wellness habits, will yield recognizable benefits no matter what comes your way.

After all, what is the alternative?

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About Laura Young

  • I am pleased to tell you this article is being featured in the Culture Focus today and tomorrow, August 25th and 26th.

    Diana Hartman
    Culture Editor

  • Peter

    Hello L.,

    This is a great article. I think that you have hit upon one of the most important issues of our times. I am appalled and frightened by how many people fail to take care of themselves in pursuit of worldly success and by the depth of their neglect. I believe that lack of self-care plays a role in many of our most serious problems, even those that are seemingly unrelated. Everything from traffic fatalities to global warming. (Yes, really… but that’s another story.)

    I know because I’ve been there, and I know a thing or two about stress, too.

    But now a word from your resident noodge. (Some people have a muse; you’ve got me.)

    Those of us who are highly ambivalent about exactly where our locus of control lies might have a different take on the attitudes of Jane and John.

    Jane, the all-powerful creator of all her good fortune, must logically be also the all-responsible source of the bad. She replays the traffic accident over and over in her head, wondering how she could have been more careful and avoided the accident. What mistake did she make? The next time she ventures out onto the roads, this will weigh heavily on her mind and she is likely to be overcautious and distracted. She is also certain that her husband’s cancer is the direct result of bad choices. If only she could only have convinced him to eat a better diet and quit smoking, all of this could have been avoided. She broods about her failure and berates herself for it. Her self-recrimination makes it impossible for her to be completely supportive of her husband during his chemotherapy.

    John knows that he is a safe driver and possibly even curses the incompetence or recklessness of the other driver who caused the accident. He knows that bad things happen to everyone and that cancer is one of those things. There is nothing special about this misfortune, and it certainly has very little to do with him.

    Now who is in a better position to rebound from this series of negative events?

    The internal locus of control taken to its logical extreme yields perfectionism and guilt – and we know that there are few things more stressful than perfectionism and guilt.

    Those with an extreme external locus of control believe that the entire world is out to get them. This yields cynicism, bitterness and learned helplessness. And we know that there are few things more stressful than paranoia and powerlessness.

    It seems to me that one point-of-view or the other is not the problem. It’s the overgeneralization of either. (Some generalization is necessary. In fact, it’s what we call “learning.”)

    Unfortunately, where the sane middle ground lies, I can’t really say. I suppose that we each have to find it for ourselves.

  • influence of others is external…thinking we have control over others is also external…we may think we have control, but we don’t…assuming sue used her internal locus of control with regard to her husband’s cancer, she knows she did the best she could with what she had — in this case, she may have had only a stubborn smoker to work with…

    traffic is external, too…again, she knows she did the best she could with what she had — her car in the path of an irresponsible driver…if anything, she will internalize any cues she received from the situation that caused the accident (noticing another driver messing with their cds instead of looking ahead even while moving, etc) and use these to her advantage next time she ventures out…

    internal locus of control does not mean assuming responsibility for that which is external (other people, events, etc)…this is to say we are not responsible for others, their choices, or the consequences of their choices…

    to extend one’s sense of responsibility to include what others do and the consequences of those actions is codependency (putting the wants of others ahead of one’s needs, acting on the illusion of having control over others, having the need to control others, etc)…

    i can’t change the way someone eats…i can make suggestions, buy only certain kinds of food, etc, but that person will ultimately decide what goes in their mouth and will live with the consequences of that decision…

    sue would not say “i could’ve done more”…that’s a reflection of an external process…she would say “i’ve done everything i can,” secure in the knowledge that she in fact did…this is a reflection of an internal process…

    sue is also aware of her choices (to leave a man who won’t take better care of himself; to stay with a man who made bad choices and not blame herself for his consequences, rather accepting the consequences of her decision to stay)…

    john doesn’t seem to be aware that he has choices, much less what they are…it is from this lack of internal control that he perceives himself and the world around him — specifically what the world does to him and does not do for him

    there’s your cynicism, bittnerness, and learned helplessness…

  • Hey P, I do love having a personal noodge, which I consider a special brand of Muse, btw.
    I see what you were illustrating and while I do agree, Diana, with your take on this and looked at things the same way when I wrote this piece, Peter raises an interesting wrinkle. Ideally it would seem that the internal locus of control not just only relevant to where the sense of control is based but that the object of control is internal also (.e. oneself and one’s reactions and assessment of external circumstances). Someone believing they are powerful and possessing an internal sense of control, but believing that control to be over whatever happens beyond the bounds of their own skin, may be flirting with psychic disaster.
    And I do see people do this. In fact, I see a lot of talk in the self-help arena about the power of intention and law of attraction these days. It’s a curious mix because on one hand the fulfillment of the intention will apparently be done by the Universe, but the power of the intention leading to the manifestation lies with the individual. So that internal vs. external line suddenly is very fuzzy, if one sees the Universe as able to be called upon to do one’s bidding.
    Much food for thought in this. I do kind of like the idea of the Universe being my bitch though.
    Thanks for stoking my brain with this!

  • “I do kind of like the idea of the Universe being my bitch though.”


    manipulation and exploitation of others’ weaknesses doesn’t seem like an internal anything…and because one is going outside the self to do such a thing, one does in turn beg the attention of the universe…this in turn could wreak that psychic disaster you’re talking about…

    i would assert that there’s never a good reason or selfless motivation for going outside the self with one’s control of others (a misnomer at best, since really it’s just one of many passive-aggressive things to do, to manipulate others)…

    for whatever universally-spawned reason, the reality would appear to be that what one dishes out comes back…i don’t know about the religious ten-fold take, but it certainly does seem to be that everything we do is attached to a boomerang…

    in this, one would want to tread oh so carefully into the realm of thinking they have control over others…what comes back could be pretty ugly…