What to Do When the World Feels Out of Control

Jan 19, 2021

Whether you’re stressed about world events or about issues that hit closer to home— such as your health or the well-being of a loved one— you may wish you had more control than you do.

I get it!

Would it surprise you to know the desire to be in control is a universal need, placed inside you by God before you were born?

That doesn’t sound very spiritual— but it’s true. 

Autonomy (as the researchers call it) is that spark inside you that fights to determine and control your own behavior— according to your own interests and values. 

Our sense of autonomy is the reason we take on new adventures— whether we’re babies learning to crawl or entrepreneurs starting a business. 

It’s also the reason we get frustrated when other people’s actions and rules affect us.

And the more out-of-control the world around us seems, the more we want to double-down on our own rights and control the situation. 

I get that, too.

 

Your perception of control

It’s no surprise that how much control you have in a particular situation affects your stress level as well as your physical and mental health— but it’s not the whole story.

Research shows that stress impacts us according to how much control we think we have, rather than how much control we actually have in a given situation. Psychologists call this concept locus of control and people fall into two general categories:

  • Those with an internal locus of control believe their life circumstances are largely the result of their own actions and abilities.
  • Those with an external locus of control believe their circumstances result from something beyond their control, such as luck, fate, government officials, or social media moguls.

The example my students relate to best is when they do poorly on an exam. 

  • The person with an internal locus of control says, “That stinks, but I can study harder next time.” 
  • The student with an external locus of control says, “That test was too hard” or “The teacher’s out to get me.” 

One’s ability (and willingness) to take action directly relates to how much control they believe they have. 

In circumstances as varied as academic performance, negative job situations, quitting smoking, and health issues (including migraines, diabetes, epilepsy, and cancer), having an internal locus of control—believing you can affect your situation— has an automatic positive psychological and behavioral effect. 

Individuals with an external locus of control, on the other hand, are more insecure, more prone to depression, show greater measures of loneliness & helplessness, and have less favorable disease outcomes.

So generally, an internal locus of control is the healthier option— except when it’s not.

 

The downside of control

Although recognizing that your actions impact your circumstances is a good thing, it can sometimes feel like an invitation to control all the things, all the time. (If you’re a self-defined control freak, you know what I mean.)

Regardless of how independent you are, some things are out of your control.

So, even better than an internal locus of control is a realistic locus of control — the ability to recognize (and control) what you can, and to accept those things you don’t control.

For example:

  • You can’t control the governor’s mandates.
  • You can’t control what thugs throughout the country do.
  • You can’t control what other people say on social media— and no amount of guilting, shaming, cajoling, or harassing will change that.

But you can control your attitude, your words, and your behavior.

How to find peace in chaos

When the world feels out of control, it’s easy to blame our feelings on the president’s words or on the governor’s mandates. We get frustrated at our fellow citizens’ refusal to wear masks or their inability to stand up for their freedoms. 

But none of these things is really the problem.

(Well, they may be part of the problem— but not the part of the problem you or I, as individuals, have the ability to solve.)

So what can you do when the world feels out of control?

 

1. Stop giving away your control

Blaming others for your circumstances may feel good in the moment but it gives away some of your autonomy. When we tell ourselves we can’t eat out because of the governor, for example, our brains hear us say that we’re not in control, someone else is. 

Even when it is someone else’s fault, it’s important to reframe your thinking to focus on the aspects of the situation you can control as opposed to those you can’t. 

 

2. Recognize you always have a choice

Sometimes, we can get so caught up in blaming others for our circumstances that we forget we have a choice.

You may not always like your options, but you can always choose.

  • You could choose to go maskless and endure your neighbor’s pointed comments and condemning stares. 
  • A restaurant owner can choose to pay a fine if he doesn’t want to comply with lockdown orders. 
  • And you can decide not to spend all day with your mother-in-law, regardless of the consequences.

 

3. Choose words to remind you

In addition to realizing you have a choice, it’s important to remind your brain that you have more control than you think— with the words you use. 

Replace phrases such as “I have to” and “I can’t” with “I choose to…”

  • “I have to wash the dishes” becomes “I get to wash the dishes” or “I choose to wash the dishes.”
  • “I can’t have sugar” turns to “I choose not to eat sugar.”
  • “I choose to wear my mask to the grocery store today” reminds your brain that you made this choice and you’re free to make a different one next time.

 

4. Get realistic about your situation

Run everything through a realistic locus of control lens to determine what you have power to affect, and what you don’t.

Whether you’re frustrated about the state of the country or your mother-in-law, it’s important to ask yourself:

  • What can I control?
  • What can’t I control?
  • What is not my responsibility to control? 

Although our spiritual views differ, author Byron Katie has an exercise that I like. She says: 

“There are only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s.”  

When you’re stressed out, anxious, or hurting, asking yourself, “Whose business am I in?” reminds you where your responsibility and your control lies.

 

5. Exert control where you can

The nature of life means we don’t have control over outcomes. 

  • You can study all evening and still fail the exam. 
  • You can be pleasant to your coworker and yet not win her approval. 
  • Writing to your congressman does not guarantee he’ll vote your way.

In many cases, we can’t control the outcome. But there are several aspects of a situation we often can affect.

Your Attitude

Luke 6:45 tells us: “The good man brings good things out of the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil treasure of his heart. For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (BSB).

Our attitudes (and the words we speak) are affected by what we allow into our hearts. It’s easy to have a discouraged attitude when we hang around with the wrong friends or ruminate on what the news media tells us.

As Christians, rather than pay attention to others’ misdeeds, we want to heed the Apostle Paul’s advice to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17 ESV).

And “… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 ESV)

When we change our focus, we fill our heart with good things, and our attitude changes with it. 

 

Your Actions

The saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ applies not just to how others see us, but to how we see ourselves.

Gulping down a huge glass of water causes you to realize, “Wow! I must be thirsty!” Likewise, our brains tell us who we are— and how much control we have in a particular situation— by the actions we see ourselves take.

We often think we determine our actions based on what we want to do. But that’s not true.

We base our behaviors on who we are. So if we want to change our behaviors, we first need to change who we are— or at least focus on who we want to become.

Scripture can help us a great deal in this regard. Do any of these verses speak to who you want to be

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”(Galatians 5:22-23 ESV)

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;” (Philippians 4:5 ESV)

“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 NLT)

Intentionally focusing on the actions you do have control over instills courage, peace, and a sense of control— especially if they’re aligned with Bible principles.

 

Your Trust

In addition to our attitudes and actions, we can consciously choose where we put our trust. 

In times like this when each news source has its own agenda, and video and voice recordings can be manipulated by any teenager with an iphone, it’s hard to know who to trust.

Instead of looking to a single man (or woman), or to a particular news source, we can out our trust in the One who created us. 

Psalm 118:8-9 tells us:

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (ESV)

Of course, because we’re human, it’s easy to focus on what’s going on around us, to focus on the days’ current political realities. And, while it’s true that we’re called to “be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God,” we must remember that “our citizenship exists in the heavens…”  (Romans 13:1, Philippians 3:20 BSB)

Rather than trust in political leaders, our own understanding of the situation, or even our own eyes and ears, we can put our trust in God. (Proverbs 3:5, BSB) 

But there’s another reason— a scientific reason— to trust in God.

The most important thing to know about control

Remember we said people with an internal locus of control— those who believe they bring about their own rewards— are healthier and handle stress better than people who believe their fate is beyond their control?

Psychological research shows that there’s one group of people with an external locus of control who fare at least as well as those with an internal locus. 

Can you guess who?

People who believe in God and look to Him for their strength!

Even though they have an external locus of control— that is, they believe their fate is controlled by something outside of themselves— if that something is Jehovah, the Creator of the Universe, they experience the same benefits as the healthiest among us.

Once again, science agrees with Biblical wisdom… We need to take care of our own responsibilities. And we don’t have to worry about the state of the world, because that battle is not ours, but His.

When the world feels out of control, let’s rest in a fact that Scripture and science agree on:

God will safeguard those who fully lean on Him; He will give them
continuous peace, because it is in Him that they trust.
(Isaiah 26:3)

___

If you’re having trouble separating what you can realistically control from what’s definitely out of your control, sign up for a FREE Clarity Session & let’s figure it out together!

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Hi, I’m Kendra

I help bright, successful over-thinkers change their negative thoughts using Scripture and the science of how God made you.

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