(p. 73) Take Control
Consider the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “Some things are up to us and others are not.” This may seem obvious, but it is an important message for everyone trying to reduce stress in their lives. When a person spends all her energy trying to change things that are beyond her control, stress levels rise immensely. Equally, when a person believes there is nothing he can do—that he is entirely a victim of circumstance or other people—this also leads to stress, and great unhappiness. One of the key tricks in managing stress is to figure out what you have control over, and what you don’t. When you know this, you can then direct all your efforts toward the things you can control, leading to maximum satisfaction and minimum stress.
This is not a new idea by any means. As mentioned, it was central to the thinking of Epictetus, back in the first century ad. You may also have heard of the Serenity Prayer, often read at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Regardless of the religious component, this also captures the same key principle. It says, “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
These ideas are the focus of this chapter.
Things You Cannot Change
There are some things that you clearly cannot control, and you probably spend very little time worrying about them. The weather is one example. Most of us probably prefer sunshine to clouds and rain, but accept that this is absolutely beyond our control. When it rains you may feel disappointed, but rather than getting upset about it, you simply focus on what you can control (wearing boots, taking an umbrella) and move on with your day.
(p. 74) Other less obvious aspects of life are also beyond your control. One example, which many people spend a lot of time worrying about, is what other people think. It is natural to desire the acceptance and approval of others, but at the end of the day what others think is up to them, not you. You have some control over your own behavior when interacting with others. You can decide to be friendly or hostile, respectful or disrespectful. But, however you behave, this will not guarantee that others will like you or think well of you. The way other people think is shaped by many factors completely outside your control—their personality, their culture, their upbringing, their beliefs, their current mood. You have little to no influence over these factors. Accepting this fact will lead to far less stress over social and interpersonal concerns.
And, of course, there are a thousand other factors that will affect your life but that you cannot control. This is the simple reality of life. You cannot control the economy; you cannot control the natural environment. The aging of your body, your baby’s tendency to wake through the night, the traffic, your neighbor’s decision to renovate his house (again)—all these factors are beyond your control. It can be a little scary to think about this reality. In some ways it is easier to pretend that, if we just do everything right, everything will go our way. But most of us know this is not true, and a simple viewing of the evening news will confirm that bad things do happen—even to good people. The old adage, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy,” captures the notion that all of us will endure hardship at some point in our lives.
So, how do you manage stress when so many things are beyond your control? What if you are in a genuinely stressful situation, facing problems such as poor health, financial hardship, or relationship difficulties? The answer to this question is to focus on the things that you can control in your life. Decades of research indicate that when people focus on what they can control, they feel less stressed. Many psychological programs, from those that assist people in coping with traumatic events and chronic pain to those aimed at building resilience in military personnel, make this a cornerstone of their approach. So, when you are feeling stressed, it is important to ask yourself, “What can I control here?” The answer to this question will vary from situation to situation, but a few key areas are a good place to start. These are discussed below.
Things You Can Change
Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, argued that one thing we all have control over is our own beliefs. This idea is the foundation of cognitive therapy, on which much of this book is based. No matter the situation, it is always worthwhile to identify and reflect on your thoughts by doing the realistic thinking exercises described in Steps 3 and 4. In our treatment clinic, we see many instances when a person makes an objectively difficult situation much worse by thinking about it in an unrealistic and unhelpful way. Try not to fall into this trap. Use your realistic thinking skills to be as rational as you can in even the most challenging situations.
(p. 75) Our case study Rhani illustrates the way this can be done. Several weeks into her therapy with us, Rhani’s fiancé suddenly called off their engagement. Rhani was very much in love with him and had no idea that he was unhappy. So, when he suddenly ended their relationship, Rhani was understandably deeply distressed. The loss of a valued relationship can be one of the most painful human experiences, and so naturally it took Rhani some time to grieve and move forward in her life. But, even in this normal adjustment process to a very stressful event, Rhani still benefited from identifying and challenging her thoughts.
Over the months following the breakup, Rhani was able to identify the thoughts that caused her the most distress. These were, in essence, “There must be something wrong with me” and “I’ll never find love again.” Gradually, both on her own and with her therapist, Rhani examined the evidence for these thoughts and considered alternative points of view. Eventually, Rhani made a list of more realistic thoughts, including, “We both made mistakes in the relationship,” “The breakup has been very hard but I have learned a lot,” “I am not alone—many people I know have had relationships end,” and “It is highly likely that I will fall in love again in the future.” This change in perspective made a big difference to the way Rhani felt. She still missed her fiancé, but thinking realistically helped her to cope much better with this difficult time in her life.
Early in this program you learned to strengthen your attention by practicing regular relaxation and meditation, and hopefully you are still practicing, at least from time to time. In the previous step, we also described the technique of staying present. This technique is extremely useful for situations in which you have little control over what is going on around you. You may recall that Joe used it when he was stuck in traffic—a potentially stressful situation that many people find themselves in every day. When you are stuck in traffic you can’t do anything to change the traffic itself, but you can choose where you put your attention. You can focus on negative predictions (“I will be late,” “My boss will be furious”), or you can accept that there is little you can do and let those negative thoughts go. Choosing to stay present, rather than getting carried away with stressful thoughts about the future, is a simple way of taking control.
Our case study Anne found this to be an invaluable tool when she had to undergo some important medical tests. As she waited for the test results to come back, Anne was consumed by anxious thoughts about the future. What if the tests indicated a serious health problem? How would she, and her family, cope? Anne was understandably stressed because she was facing a potentially serious situation, and she had very little control. She couldn’t control when the tests would come back or, more important, what they would say about her health. So Anne decided to exert control over something she could influence—her attention. When she began to have catastrophic thoughts about the future, Anne reminded herself that these thoughts were just ideas about the future, not reality, and that worrying would not change the outcome. She used her five senses to make sure that she was living in the present moment, rather than the negative (p. 76) imagined future in her mind, as much as possible. This helped her to manage her stress in a difficult situation.
A final area of life over which you usually have at least some control is your own behavior. No matter what is going on in your life, you will usually have at least some choice about how you do or do not behave. If you dislike your job, you can choose to look for other work, or to seek some changes in your workplace. Of course, this may be easier said than done, and every situation is unique. But it is important not to dismiss the idea of trying to do something different. Prediction testing is a strategy that encourages behavior change. It requires you to try behaving in a way that is different from your usual behavior patterns and to find out what happens. We hope you have now had the chance to experience this method of taking control and the resulting positive impact on your stress.
Since behavior change is such a powerful stress reduction tool, the remaining chapters of this book focus on just that. These chapters discuss three key ways you can change your behavior in order to take control of stressful situations. The first one (assertiveness) involves changing the way you interact with others in order to stop you from taking on more than you can handle and can help you to get more of the things you want out of life. The second (time management) involves organizing your day and your life more efficiently. The final chapter (problem solving) helps you to generate solutions and action plans for practical problems in your life. Not everyone who feels stressed will need to make changes in all these areas. But before you say to yourself, “I manage my time efficiently” or “I already know how to solve problems—it’s just that the problems in my life don’t have solutions,” give these lessons and exercises a try. You may be surprised at the results!