Feel In Control


image“In one and the same fire, clay grows hard and wax melts.” — Francis Bacon

The most powerful way you can cope with stress or anxiety is to create a feeling of control.

Without a feeling of control, you physically can’t think straight under stress.  The lizard brain takes over.

Anything that gives you a feeling of control over your situation helps you stay calm and perform better.

Here are some insights and actions you can use to improve your sense of control.

Your Perception of Control is What Matters

Your prefrontal cortex is where you do your thought analysis.  It’s your smart part.  As long as you feel in control, you can use it.  When you feel out of control, you lose the ability to think from your prefrontal cortex.

Via Your Brain at Work, by David Rock:

“Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning.  She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab in Yale.

‘The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control.  It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not.  Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.’  This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior.”

Autonomy Does Not Equal a Sense of Control

When you feel out of control, it generates more uncertainty.  Autonomy and certainty are related, but different things.  You could have a lot of autonomy and yet feel uncertain.  You could also have a lack of autonomy but feel a lot more certainty.

Via Your Brain at Work:

“Autonomy is similar to certainty, and the two are linked. When you sense a lack of control, you experience a lack of ‘agency,’ an inability to influence outcomes.  A sense of not being able to determine the future, to predict what will happen moment to moment, emerges.  This feeling, of course, generates more uncertainty. 

However, certainty and autonomy also appear to be individual issues.  You can be stressed by a lack of certainty but still have a lot of autonomy, like Paul, who is his own boss but can’t predict his revenues until he closes deals.  Or you can have a lot of certainty from a secure job, but a micromanaging boss may not let you make decisions.”

Your Perception of Control Changes the Stressor’s Impact on You

Whether or not a stressor impacts you negatively, depends on whether you feel you can control the stressor or not.

Via Your Brain at Work

“A sense of autonomy is a big driver of reward or threat.  Steve Maier at the University of Builder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. 

His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects.  Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so.”

Perception of Choice Might be More Important than Diet for Health

Stressful situations are less stressful than a lack of control.

Via Your Brain at Work

“A study of British civil servants found that low-level, nonsmoking employees had more health problems than senior executives.  This doesn’t make sense intuitively, as senior executives are known to be under a lot of stress. 

It appears that the perception of choice may be more important than diet and other factors for health.  Choosing in some way to experience stress is less stressful than experiencing stress without a sense of choice or control.”

We Want to Make Our Own Choices

Even picking out a plant can give us a feeling of control over our environment.

Via Your Brain at Work

“A number of studies show ‘work-life balance’ as the main reason people start their own small business.  Yet small business owners often work more hours, for less money, than in corporate life.  The difference? You are able to make more of your own choices. 

Yet another study, looking at residents in a retirement home, found the number of deaths was halved in the study group, compared to a control group, when participants were given three additional choices about the environment.  The control group were people on a different floor on the same premises.  The choices themselves were not significant: a different plant or a different type of entertainment, for example.”

Navy SEALs Teach Recruits How To Feel in Control

Navy SEALs need to stay calm, cool, and collected under high-stress scenarios.

In his article, How the Navy SEALs Increased Passing Rates, Bakari Akil shares a 4-step process that Navy SEALs use to build mental toughness:

  1. Goal Setting
  2. Mental-Rehearsal
  3. Self-Talk
  4. Arousal Control

To maintain a feeling of control, a Navy SEAL would set mini-goals to chunk down the obstacle into extremely short chunks, mentally rehearse taking successful action, use positive self-talk to calm their amygdala, and practice arousal control by focusing on their breathing.

Samurai Conditioned Their Minds for a Sense of Control

Samurai knew the key to victory was the ability to stay calm and focused under pressure.

The 15th century samurai Suzuki Shosan wrote that only when you overcome your own mind, are you free.

Via Training the Samurai: A Bushido Sourcebook, by Thomas Cleary:

“When you manage to overcome your own mind, you overcome myriad concerns, rise above all things, and are free.  When you are overcome by your own mind, you are burdened by myriad concerns, subordinate to things, unable to rise above.

‘Mind your mind; guard it resolutely.  Since it is the mind that confuses the mind, don’t let your mind give in to your mind.’ 

This song is superlative.  When you indulge your mind, thoughts fixated on appearances increase and you fall into the three mires of greed, aggression, and folly.  When you slay your mind you arrive at buddhahood immediately.”

Whether you feel you are in control or you don’t … you’re right.

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  1. Hi JD, just wanted to give some constructive feedback. Instead of writing in second person, I think the posts would be so much more impactful if you wrote from your personal perspective. You could provide personal stories and examples, or your personal favorites from the book. I think the content is so good, but it’s missing the emotional side from sharing personal experiences and also getting to learn about you. “Personal stories bring ideas to life”. Just a thought 🙂

    • Hey Kevin,

      Thank you.

      Those are my favorite parts from the books.

      In general, I try to precisely put the insight front and center. I only get in front of the info when I think I can add more value than distraction, and I try to balance across the 5 five listening styles (appreciative, empathic, discerning, comprehensive, and evaluative.)

      That said, here’s a quick personal story to bring the ideas to life …

      I work in a complex system with people, processes, and politics, well beyond my control.

      Every day, I face a lot of potential stressors. I could easily feel like a victim in the system. I could easily react to the daily darts and the hail of gunfire, and even the friendly fire.

      As soon as I feel I’m knocked off center, I do a few quick things.

      I remind myself that if I slip into lizard-brain mode, I can’t think or feel my best. Just catching myself here, helps a lot, because it then reminds me that I move up the stack when I respond vs. react.

      But just wanting to operate at a higher-level is not enough.

      So next I try to change my physiology, the simplest way I know how. I remember what it feels like, to feel in control, by recalling flash images from my life where I’m at my best. I might even bring a quick image of James Bond to mind, and model from that.

      I focus on my breathing. Especially on the inhale. I take a deep diaphramatic breathe, and remind myself to fill my lungs, and as an added twist, I remember that I can only hit my highest notes when I breathe fully.

      Now that I’m out of my head, and I feel a sense of control, I crank it up a notch. I use one of my favorite mantras:
      “Focus on what you control, and let the rest go.”

      To do that, I simply ask myself, “What do I control?” Then I focus on answering that.

      And, with a gentle hat tip to Covey, I enjoy my personal victory.

      The end.

      Here’s the best page to learn about me and my journey:
      My Story of Personal Transformation


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