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Learning From Stress: The Locus of Control

Dali_1954_PiramidesWhen it comes to handling stressors and managing the stress reaction, are you an internal or an external?

Our response to a stressor can be classified in many ways, but when it comes to our interpretation of its impact on our capabilities and resources we fall along a continuum from internal (“I feel I can handle this”) to external (“I can’t handle this by myself”) locus of control.

On one side of the continuum are individuals who feel capable of taking personal responsibility and are therefore inclined to believe that success or failure in handling the stressor can be found primarily within their own resources, i.e. their locus of control is internal. At the other end of the continuum are individuals who do not feel capable of assuming responsibility over the stressful situation and are therefore more inclined to believe that success or failure in handling the stressor hinges on luck, chance, or help from others; their locus of control is external. What are the implications of locus of control? Read more after the jump.

These internal vs. external classifications are not absolute and it can happen that in certain situations individuals who are generally confident of their capabilities will behave more like externals, and vice versa. This changeability is influenced by each individual’s personal history and experiences. For example, if our early life history contains several instances in which we found ourselves unable to cope with a stressor and we have not improved our coping skills through additional learning, our most likely expectation is that we will not be able to handle the current stressors with our own resources.

This highlights the importance of learning to modify what may be an essentially external locus of control (that makes us more vulnerable to the threat of stress) into an internal one that gives us independence and mastery over real or perceived stressors. Learning is the key.

Learning can have a beneficial impact on our stressor management capabilities because it can be applied to:

  • behaviors, as in learning how to behave more competently in stressful situations
  • cognitions, as in learning the function of stress as nothing more than a signaling mechanism and how to address stressors strategically and effectively
  • expectations, which may be dangerously high or too low and need to be reset at a more appropriate level
  • objectives that may be unrealistically high and unobtainable and which can be reduced to realistic and achievable goals.

When we learn, we grow. In stress management and especially in stressor management, personal growth entails increasing self-awareness (the realistic appreciation of events and situations), self-esteem (the positive evaluation of our capabilities), self-responsibility (the willingness to be accountable) and self-actualization (realizing our fullest potential). In one of my next posts, I will discuss in more detail these four areas of growth and how they relate to stressor management strategies.

Meanwhile, are you an internal or an external?