This blog has been inspired by a research paper I was looking at for my MSc Psychology that I am currently studying through the University of Derby. The paper itself was about something slightly different but I found myself interested in the concept of the locus of control and then excited when I realised its significance to anxiety and wellbeing.
The locus of control is basically how much you think you have control over your environment, successes and failures.
A person with an internal locus of control is more likely to attribute their success to their own hard work. These people will be more motivated because they believe that they can succeed by working hard and putting the effort in.
A person with an external locus of control tend to believe that they are less in control of their lives and that things happen through chance or luck. When things don’t go well they attribute them to “bad luck”. These people can fall into the trap of not being as motivated because they think that if something is meant to be, then it is meant to be.
Have you heard the phase “good things come to those who wait?” is it motivating or not? What do you think.
Psychological studies have found that there is a positive relationship between personal locus of control and wellbeing across many different cultures (Spector et al., 2002). This means that we know that a person’s locus of control has a direct affect on your wellbeing and that this is the case in many different cultures, not just in the west.
What has been found is that people with a higher internal locus of control experience less emotional exhaustion (Marchand and Durrand, 2011), higher psychological wellbeing (Ng et al., 2006) and greater happiness (DeNeve and Cooper, 1998).
Studies specifically into anxiety have also shown that there is a positive relationship between locus of control and measurements of anxiety and can actually predict how severe a persons anxiety and depression will be based on how external their locus of control is (Hovenkamp-Hermelink et al., 2019). This shows really nicely how having a very external locus of control can lead to having quite severe anxiety and depression.
First things first, have a think about where your locus of control may be. Do you see your life as out of your control, or do you consider that most things that happen are within your control?
If you think you have a high internal locus of control, then great! This doesn’t mean that you are immune to issues like anxiety and depression but rest assured that you are much more likely to put the work and effort into overcoming issues like this. Quite a large majority of my clients have a moderate internal locus of control and with the exercises we do in sessions, can learn to overcome anxiety very effectively.
If you think you may have a high external locus of control then the studies above suggest you are likely to be struggling with anxiety and depression. This can make things a little tricky but please don’t panic as you can learn to challenge those beliefs. A large part of the cognitive behavioural work that I do with clients is about challenging thoughts and beliefs.
This can be terrifying but also extremely empowering, if you consider the idea that all of your successes and failures are mostly down to you.
I’ll use myself as an example:
In my early twenties I failed my combined master’s course because of a number of factors including poor mental health. When I failed, I blamed everyone else. I blamed tutors, my parents lack of support, my friends lack of support and pretty much everything except me. This was a very external locus of control which left me feeling like I had no future.
By challenging my own beliefs and thoughts I was able to bring my thought process into a more internal locus of control. Many of the things I blamed were factors in my failure but ultimately it was me and my lack of academic work that had resulted in the failure.
Coming to this conclusion was hard because it meant that this horrific failure in my life was my own doing and initially this lead to a lot of regret. Through my own CBT and hypnotherapy I was able to challenge those thoughts too and develop a way of thinking that was much more beneficial.
The key thing here was, I knew what had gone wrong and I knew how to fix it.
When I did my BSc through the Open University, it was so much harder than before but I knew it was up to me to get it done and put the work in. Full time work, unsupportive housemates and all of the stress I was experiencing at the time became challenges that I could overcome.
I could overcome them because I believed that I had control over enough of the situation to make a difference.
That is how it becomes empowering.
So what thoughts hold us back and contribute towards an unhelpful locus of control?
All negative thoughts contribute towards unhelpful beliefs and attitudes. The most common types of negative thoughts have been categorised and we call them cognitive distortions.
You can find out what cognitive distortions are contributing to your anxiety and depression by downloading your very own free exercise here.
You just need to pop your email and name in and you will have access to the free worksheet. I will also send you a video from one of my workshops that will explain how to use the worksheet and give you a bit more information about cognitive distortions.
Spector, P. E., Cooper, C. L., Sanchez, J. I., O’Driscoll, M., Sparks, K., Bernin, P., Bossing, A., Dewe, P., Hart, P., Lu, L., Miller, K., De Moraes, L. R., Ostrognay, G. M., Pagon, M., Pitariu, H. D., Poelmans, S. A. Y., Radhakrishnan, P., Russinova, V., Salamatov, V., & Salgado, J. F. (2002). LOCUS OF CONTROL AND WELL-BEING AT WORK: HOW GENERALIZABLE ARE WESTERN FINDINGS? Academy of Management Journal, 45(2), 453–466. https://doi.org/10.2307/3069359
Marchand, A., & Durand, P. (2011). Psychological Distress, Depression, and Burnout. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53(2), 185–189. https://doi.org/10.1097/jom.0b013e318206f0e9
Ng, T. W. H., Sorensen, K. L., & Eby, L. T. (2006). Locus of control at work: a meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1057–1087. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.416
DeNeve, K. M., & Cooper, H. (1998). The happy personality: A meta-analysis of 137 personality traits and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 124(2), 197–229. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.2.197
Hovenkamp-Hermelink, J. H. M., Jeronimus, B. F., van der Veen, D. C., Spinhoven, P., Penninx, B. W. J. H., Schoevers, R. A., & Riese, H. (2019). Differential associations of locus of control with anxiety, depression and life-events: A five-wave, nine-year study to test stability and change. Journal of Affective Disorders, 253, 26–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2019.04.005
The way we think has a huge impact on our mental health. If you are looking to overcome your anxiety or just improve your mental health then first you need to know what thoughts are making things worse.
This download gives you a list of the most common ways we think negatively. All you need to do is see which ones you do most.
Also, keep an eye on your emails! I will be sending you a really useful video that goes with this exercise.