As is often said, stress isn’t about what happens to us, it’s how we react to it. This is very true.
We don’t feel as stressed when we feel in control. Again, the emphasis is on feel. Even illusory feelings of control can eliminate stress. (This is the secret to why idiots and crazy people may feel far less stress than those who see a situation clearly.)
Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.
Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, 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. Steven Dworkin, a professor in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, studies the way rats are affected by drugs. In one study, a rat gives itself cocaine directly by pressing a lever. The rat dies from lack of food and sleep. The surprising part is what happens when a second rat gets the same dose of cocaine at the same time as the first rat, but not of its own volition. It dies sooner. The difference is a perception of control (or so scientists think; the rats don’t say much.) Jokes aside, this type of study has been done with electric shocks and other stressors, and even on humans (not to the point of death, of course). Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.
A number of studies show “work-life balance” as the main reason people start their own small businesses. 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 their 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.
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 at 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.
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