Understanding What You Can Control and What You Can't Can Reduce Anxiety Symptoms

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Anxiety is often the result of worrying about the future. You might have a great deal of “what if…” thoughts running through your mind. What if I fail the test? What if I don’t get the job? What if my partner gets mad at me? What if I can’t cope with the situation? These types of thoughts signify that you don’t have control over what is about to happen, and that is frightening. You want to know exactly what is going to happen. You may even believe that if you knew the answers, your anxiety would go away. But here’s how to really reduce anxiety through what we think about.


Sense of control, or locus of control, is described as being either internal or external. Those with an internal locus of control believe their personal decisions and efforts directly affect their thoughts and behaviors. Those with an external locus of control believe their behaviors and thoughts are determined by luck, fate or the behaviors of others.

Having an internal locus of control doesn’t mean that you believe you can control your environment, but it does mean that you don’t believe what happens around you controls your thoughts or behaviors. When you have an external locus of control, you believe your thoughts and behaviors are reactions to your environment, and that you do not have the ability to control what goes on around you or within you.

Not surprisingly, people with an external locus of control are more anxious than those who have an internal locus of control.** What you can controou are in control of your thoughts, perceptions and behaviors.** You have a choice on what to think and therefore what to feel about a given situation. You also can choose to change how you perceive a situation. For example, suppose you are stuck in traffic. You can choose to think of this as an inconvenience, getting annoyed or angry. You can focus on the time wasted and the things you would rather do with this time. You can focus on the consequences of being late for whatever you are headed to.

Or, you can choose to think of this as an opportunity. It is a chance, in your hectic life, to slow down, to enjoy the unexpected time when you are forced to do nothing. You can turn the radio up, listen to an audio book, enjoy the company of those in the car with you (if you have passengers). If you don’t have passengers, you can take some deep breaths, relax and enjoy the solitude. How you perceive the situation is up to you.

If you have an external locus of control, chances are you are going to perceive the situation as an inconvenience or a major problem. If you have an internal locus of control, you might see this as simply part of your day, an unforeseen situation that you can’t change but isn’t all that bad. You accept that you have the ability to cope.


What you can’t control

There are more things in life that you can’t control. You can’t control other people’s behaviors, thoughts or feelings. You can’t control the weather, road construction or accidents. You can’t control your past, personality traits, human needs or someone else’s beliefs. Trying to change or creating expectations around how others should think or act often results in disappointment or anxiety.

When you have an external locus of control, you shift the blame for your failures towards other people. If you fail a test, you might blame the professor for not being clear on what was covered, or on your roommate for interrupting you while you were studying. You might blame any number of external reasons for your poor grade. Externalizing your control leaves you feeling helpless and powerless, it gives you a sense of dread and worry about the world around you.

Balancing your perceptione way of dealing with anxiety is to try and control your environment**. You might feel less worried if you are involved in every aspect of your child’s activities. As a boss, you might feel less anxious if you micromanage your employees. As a partner, you might feel more secure if you know every detail of your partner’s day. But these actions are signs of an external locus of control**.

Rather than controlling what you can - your thoughts and behaviors - you are trying to control others to relieve your feelings of anxiety.A feeling that you have no control over a situation can be terrifying. At the same time, some situations call for preparedness. The key is learning to increase your sense of control while at the same time understanding what you need to let go.

Imagine there is a weather related warning. It might be a hurricane or a major snow storm. You can’t control the weather but you can control what you do to prepare. You might go food shopping, make sure you have flashlights and batteries, take precautions to move outdoor furniture and ask your family to be home before the storm hits. You might pay attention to the weather reports and check the weather reports once in awhile throughout the day. Once you have completed your preparations, however, you let go of your worries. You have no control over the path of the storm. Anytime you feel your anxiety mounting, you remind yourself that you have prepared to the best of your ability. While it is still possible that something bad can happen, you reassure yourself that you have the ability to cope. You are powerless over the storm but you are not powerless over your ability to control your thoughts and emotions.


Analysing the Trait Anxiety and Locus of Control of Undergraduates in Terms of Attachment Styles: Academia.edu

The interrelationship of social anxiety with anxiety, depression, locus of control, ways of coping and ego strength among university students: College Quarterly (Seneca College)

The Relationship between Locus of Control, Test Anxiety and Religious Orientation among Iranian EFL Students:Open Journal of Modern Linguistics

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.