Are You In Control? Feelings of Personal Control Are Essential for Mental Health

Feeling out of control?

The belief that one can exert control over stressful events has long been known to help people cope with stress (Taylor, 2012). People like to have control over their lives, and people who have a sense of personal control seem to be better off than those who haven’t.

“A belief that the world is governed by nothing more than chaos and that outcomes are randomly determined is one that most people would never accept. Researchers have discovered that individuals are strongly motivated to avoid such beliefs in order to perceive control. Perceiving the world as random would be too psychologically stressful and anxiety provoking” (p. 776)

In order to feel like having control, the world needs to be predictable to some extent. We simply cannot have control in an unpredictable world, and for this reason, control is tightly related to the predictability, consistency and order in one’s life.

However, studies have shown that when people lack feelings of control due to an unpredictable environment, they begin to make it up (rituals, spirituality).

Two aspects of control

There are at least two aspects of control:

  • The first aspect concerns the strength of personal efficacy to produce changes by perseverant effort and creative use of capabilities and resources.
  • The second aspect concerns the extent to which the environment is possible to change

People who hold self-efficacy beliefs figure out ways of exerting some control, even in environments containing limited opportunities and many constraints (Bandura, 1993). When people believe in their capabilities to exert control over some aspects of their lives, they are likely to feel a sense of control as well.

Unrealistic perceptions of control

However, unrealistic perceptions of control might lead to unrealistic optimism, or vice versa. Consider a person who suffers from chronic disability following a brain injury.

This is an unfortunate situation, which the person cannot control, and efforts to control the situation (problem-focused coping) are likely to fail. This failure may lead to feelings of helplessness and depression.

In this case, it is not recommendable to maintain strong control beliefs. Instead, the person would benefit from engaging in more emotion-focused coping strategies such as acceptance.

Altogether, having control over some aspects of an event, e.g. control over symptoms rather than a disease as a whole, is generally considered a beneficial way of coping (Morrison & Bennett, 2006).

I believe that feelings of control are essential in understanding general human functioning, but control is also relevant in understanding many mental health problems.

An excessive need for control underlies mental illnesses like obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia. However, this type of control (overcontrol) is different from the kind of control that I am describing here because it is characterized by an extreme psychological inflexibility.

Positive aspects of personal control

A large body of research leads us to expect that the subjective feeling of being “in control” is related to happiness, well being and job satisfaction (Hofmann et al., 2013; Verme, 2009). Indeed, perceived control has been associated with the ability to cope with stress and tolerate pain (Larson, 1989).

A study by Infurna and colleagues (2013) found that seeing life as controllable and predictable helped protect against the negative emotions that contribute to despair and apathy, and it predicted mortality in a sample of almost 3,000 participants.

In psychotherapy, increasing people’s sense of control or mastery is one of the most, if not the most, important therapeutic goals:

“It is the purpose of therapy not to solve all of the patient’s problems, but rather to increase the patient’s ability to solve his own problems …” (p. 342).

Image: Andressa Colbalchini
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