Stress and Our Sense of Control


The problem with stress is not that it exists. The problem is our difficulty turning off the body’s stress response.

Continuous stress can put fat in our belly, shrink our gray matter, and undo the threads of our chromosomes. This is why many researchers try to determine why stress affects some people more than others.

Stress and Position

Most of us realize we cannot control everything, yet psychological stress has much to do with our sense of control over the situations in our life.

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist, studies baboons in their natural habitat. Baboons live in hierarchical communities. Dr. Sapolsky discovered by measuring the baboons’ hormone levels that the ones with higher social rank experience less stress.

The lowest ranking baboons have a greater incidence of high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and more arterial plaque than the high ranking baboons. This same phenomenon occurs in humans.

A 40 year long stress study of 18,000 men in the British Civil Service revealed that the risk of stress-related illness decreases as a person’s rank in the Civil Service goes up. Other studies show this tendency holds true for men and women, though the genders tend to experience the consequences of stress differently.

Stress and Sense of Control

Dr. Sapolsky, who created a documentary called Stress: Portrait of a Killer, shares that the following factors increase our vulnerability to stress:

  • feeling as if you have no control.
  • the absence of, or sense that you are not receiving helpful predictive information about your situation such as how tough a challenge will be, or how long something is expected to take.
  • feeling as though there is no way out.
  • it seems to you that the situation is worsening.
  • a lack of social and emotional support.

Those at the top of a hierarchy experience stress, but have a more satisfying sense of control since they are making the decisions. They also tend to have more resources available, and more social connections.

Taking Charge of Stress

As long as hierarchies exist, only some of us will be at the top. Not everyone wants to be high up, nor is being in charge necessary for a sense of control. Much depends on whether freedom of expression, respect, and appreciation are extended to those holding up the ladder.

We each have to realize what types of situations we thrive in, and do our best to put ourselves there. Having good communication skills can also help decrease our stress, since we are more likely to get our needs met.

Finally, it is vital to engage in activities that relieve stress and promote relaxation, such as:

  • regular exercise
  • a meditation practice and/or yoga, Qi gong, or Tai chi
  • social engagement, connection
  • having fun, play, laughter, music, art
  • time spent in nature
  • pursuing personal interests

The more adept we are at managing stress on an hour to hour basis, the healthier we will be.

Photo credit: abbilder (@flickr)


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