How an Internal Locus of Control Reduces Chronic Stress

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an internal locus of control? How does a strong sense of control help to relieve chronic stress?

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky examines the evolution and biology of stress. Among the many factors affecting chronic stress, he claims that having a strong internal locus of control makes you better equipped to cope with everyday stressors.

Read on to learn about the internal locus of control and how to make it stronger, according to Sapolsky.

Developing an Internal Locus of Control

According to Robert Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, a sense of control reduces stress by letting you believe that your actions and decisions have meaning and that you can change a bad outcome or maintain a good one if you work hard enough. In general, people who believe their actions matter, also known as having a strong “internal locus of control,” are better equipped to deal with the psychological stresses of everyday life. For instance, if you are struggling financially, the belief that through determination and effort you can get yourself out of that rut might help you achieve that goal and be less stressed because of it.

A sense of control can only help to a certain extent, however. In general, a sense of control only helps when you believe you can produce positive outcomes. If something bad happens, and you think that outcome was completely within your control, you’ll think about what more you could have done to prevent it, which creates stress. 

How a Sense of Control Relieves Stress

According to Sapolsky, having a strong internal locus of control can alleviate stress. For example, he observes that people are generally more afraid of flying in a plane than driving a car, even though it’s widely known the latter is much more dangerous. This is because when you fly, you cede complete control to the pilot of the plane. 

(Shortform note: The stress of air travel doesn’t just stem from a lack of control over steering. As psychologist Sally Augustin explains, when you fly, you’re forced to give up control of your environment. The decisions you have, such as what book to read or whether to open the window, are insignificant compared to the decisions you can no longer make for yourself—you can’t get away from the people sitting right next to you, go out for fresh air, or even use the bathroom at times. All of these lead to a perception that you have no control in your current situation, which is why flying can be so stressful for many people.)

How to Maintain a Healthy Internal Locus of Control

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor argues that having an internal locus of control is instrumental to one’s happiness and success. If you have an external locus of control, you blame other people or circumstances for your failures and deny credit for your successes, which leads to an unfulfilling life. Achor also points out that feeling stressed or overwhelmed can disrupt your internal locus of control, causing a vicious cycle of stress and poor decision-making—stress causes you to feel overwhelmed, making it harder to complete the task and leading to even more stress and anxiety.

Sapolsky notes that an internal locus of control can be harmful when dealing with negative outcomes. Here are three tips to avoid feeling stressed by your perception of control over a situation:

  • Learn to move on: A sense of control can cause some people to obsess over their role in a negative outcome. When something bad happens, acknowledge what happened, reflect on what you can do differently next time, and then let it go.
  • Delegate tasks: People with an internal locus of control may find it hard to share responsibility, but doing so can help alleviate some of the stress when something bad happens.
  • Control what you can control: Make note of what you can and can’t control in a situation. This will help you realize that there are things you can’t control and that you simply have to accept them.

Exercise: Examine the Stress in Your Life and Brainstorm Coping Strategies 

We all feel stress, and we all deal with stress differently. Now that we’ve explained Sapolsky’s definition of an internal locus of control, let’s look at some stressors in your life and identify why they’re stressful and what you can do about them. 

  • Think of a psychological or social stressor that’s affected you in the past week. This can be a mild or severe stressor, like a major disagreement with a friend or just a tough day at work. Describe the stressful event or situation.
  • Consider why this situation or event was psychologically stressful for you. Did you feel stressed because of a lack of predictability or internal locus of control over the situation? For example, an argument with a loved one might have felt stressful because you didn’t expect it or you weren’t sure how to handle it appropriately. Write down why you think your particular situation is stressful.
  • Write down how you coped with this stressful event. Did you displace your frustration on someone else? Did you try to drive it out of your mind with an activity you enjoy? Did you reach out to a friend or family member to talk about it? Or did you dwell on the situation and make it even more stressful for yourself? 
  • Consider how you might have handled the situation better. Applying some of the insight you’ve gained on stress and coping mechanisms, what do you think is the healthiest way you could have dealt with this particular stressor? How might you try to use this coping mechanism in the future?
How an Internal Locus of Control Reduces Chronic Stress

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  • The physical and mental harm chronic stress does to your body
  • The steps you can take to reduce stress in your life
  • Why you should make your life more predictable

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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