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Are you In Control or Controlling? Part 2: Digging the Roots of Controlling, Stress and Performance Anxiety

A quick recap of Part One of this series, where we learned how your Locus of Control Impacts the Choices that you Make — the extent to which you believe that you, as opposed to external forces, have control over your life. And how someone with an external locus of control is more likely to react to challenges and anxiously worrying giving them the illusion of controlling those external forces. We also learned that we all face challenges every day and that, whilst we may not like them nor enjoy facing them, they are essential to our growth and learning.

In this guide, we are digging into the roots and what is happening in our brain when we enter the Controlling Cycle.

If you prefer to watch/listen…

What Happens in My Brain When Faced with a Challenge?

A new challenge is something that you see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s new and unknown and thus your brain and body consider it a threat until proven otherwise. Cortisol and adrenaline are already triggered and ::then, your conscious mind can kick in::. Some sensory information takes the longer, more thoughtful route from the Thalamus in your brain to the Cortex and your Frontal Lobes. Your frontal lobes decide whether the sensory information warrants the fear response that has already been triggered.

At first, your response to a new challenge is unconscious and processed in the Limbic region of your brain — in particular, the amygdalae. Your response to the “fear” of this new challenge is typified by the Freeze, Fight or Flight response.

🥊 You might get angry and blame others, or

🥶 you hide your head and pretend the challenge isn’t there (hoping someone else will deal with it), or

🏃‍♀️ you flee the scene and get away from the challenge.

These responses are brilliantly designed to keep your cave-dwelling ancestors alive and avoiding death by enemy, predator or environmental change. Not quite so useful in the modern organisation when your colleague dumps extra work on you may or your boss is having a bad day. Not so useful on a suburban street where your neighbour lets their dog dump its business all over your pristine lawn for you to clean up.

As M. Scott Peck begins his ’70s classic ‘The Road Less Travelled’: “Life is difficult”. What remains most surprising, is that, for many people, this is a revelation!

Why do we snap?

And modern life is filled with challenges that trigger our threat response::. Some big, many more small and, on their own, insignificant but multiplied a thousand-fold and your brain and body chemistry literally eats away at your, otherwise, calm and gracious soul.

Take driving for example. A normally upright decent human being is sat behind the wheel of their car, patiently queuing in a morning rush hour traffic jam. When another motorist suddenly cuts in front of them. This irritates our driver and they suddenly explode with an aggressive, violent outburst. It may be expressed in expletives, hand gestures and God forbid there’s a loaded gun in the vehicle.

Or someone barges into the elevator as you are trying to exit. Or someone rings their bicycle bell incessantly behind you in what seems to be a demand that you get out of their way on the footpath. You get the blue screen of death on your laptop just as you need it to present. Or you phone battery dies after 20 minutes. Or your car breaks down on your way to the airport. Or a man tries to rob your daughter as you both emerge from a metro station. Or the government decide that you are not allowed to leave your home for the next month because they forgot to shut the door of a research lab. Or your husband left tissue paper in his shorts pocket that have been washed and now, said tissue, is in a million pieces on every piece of clothing. There are 9 triggers of why we snap into rage and you can learn more here.

It’s worth remembering: We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions.

We snap because the signal never got to our frontal lobes. There is no conscious thought involved.

It’s your PFC that needs to take charge here!

If your Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC) does not switch off this fear response, it continues. It may perpetuate as a fear response or move onto anxious worrying.

Controlling: Entering the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda Zone.

When we do NOT choose the “In Control” Cycle, we default to the “Controlling “Cycle. This is when you consider how inadequate you are to overcome this challenge because:

  • you haven’t the resources you think that you need, or
  • you fear failure because this or that or something else entirely might, maybe, perhaps, happen.
  • You could have done something had you more tools or weapons available, and
  • you would have done something if you were much stronger/younger/prettier/richer. And,
  • you know that you should have done something about this sooner before it became such an enormous challenge.

Your mind is in a whirl of “What if…? as you fret and fear the future. Or maybe your themes song is “Yesterday” by The Beatles and you lament “If only…”

Some people think they were given two hands to weigh yesterday against tomorrow and all this simply creates noise in your head. Conflicting voices for some, the devil on one shoulder with an angel on another. Tuning in to 55.5 FM or 66.6FM or both at the same time. It’s enough to drive a person over the edge…

With no firm intervention from the PFC, you can then suffer an overwhelming Amygdala Hijack where your own brain has triggered a much more significant emotional response than the actual stimulus warrants. For example, you might get angry with yourself for not having done something (these can turn into the humdinger out of control rage moments), or you might go completely silent and withdrawn, or run off to your favourite hideaway and pray that time will make everything better.

An important note here: If you find that you are regularly going into these cycles of worry and fear and anxiety and you don’t seem to be able to get out of it, then please speak to a professional and get yourself some help: a pastor, a medical practitioner, a counsellor or therapist.

Only time itself doesn’t heal all challenges and you achieve less than optimal results in overcoming this latest challenge. You might wallow for a while and invite others to join your pity party. Hopefully you have someone in your life who listens to you and brings you some comfort. You can put the poor results down to bad luck and complain about your lot in life or decide that next time you’ll do something about the challenge.

This response can easily perpetuate. We all know someone who is “emotional”. That is, they have a tendency to allow their emotions to be manifest easily and regularly. For many individuals, their emotional response can be disproportionate to and sometimes explosive which, from an outsider’s perspective, far exceeds the response necessary to deal with the situation.

Why doesn’t the PFC intervene?

*There’s a lot of research into emotional reactions during and after traumatic events — and such cases require special attention as do people who suffer ADHD or suffer **mood and anxiety disorders **beyond the scope of this guide. *

::The very act of worrying gives us the illusion of control.:: Notice this the next time you choose to worry about anything. It makes you think that you have some control over the situation or the other party. But you are not in control of that or them. You are trying to control something or someone else. That’s not your job. The COVID pandemic has been an excellent reminder to every person on the planet, that we are cannot control anything outside of ourselves.

And we post-rationalise our disproportionate emotional response. Some people post-rationalise their explosive fit of anger as being “righteous anger” for example, or they justify why they hid under their desk to avoid the boss, or explained that something much more important suddenly occurred and you just had to leave for somewhere else.

Then there’s the guilt (self-criticism for a mistake or behaviour). When we have achieved less than optimal results, we know it and we feel guilty about it. And, odd as it may seem, guilt enhances our sense of control.

And then we might be adding on some deep shame (complete self-condemnation for an act or behaviour) possibly the most difficult and painful emotion causing feelings of disgrace and dishonour to the point where the sufferer may feel that they don’t deserve to be helped, even by themselves.

Yikes, that’s a bit dark and forbidding!

Every person on the planet has gone through this cycle and gone through it multiple times. Few truly master always being in control. Just one bit of pressure too much, add on a little exhaustion, a bit of zoom fatigue and ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and our unconscious brain swiftly begins controlling.

  • We have all lost our temper at someone or something.
  • We’ve all hidden from someone or something.
  • We’ve all (tried to) run away from problems.
  • We’ve all pondered “if only…”
  • We’ve all considered “what if…?”
  • We’ve all overreacted to someone or something.
  • We’ve all felt guilt.
  • We’ve all felt shame.

It’s a human condition and we live in a fallen world.

So, What Do You Do?

You have an issue, an obstacle or a challenge. It’s daunting, it’s difficult and it’s something you don’t want to have to deal with, but there it is in your path. You don’t want this obstacle, you don’t have time for it and you don’t deserve it, but there it is anyway.

Your limbic system is ploughing through the available energy. Worrying is exhausting. Anger is exhausting. Hiding petrified in a corner is exhausting.

There’s no energy available for your PFC to put the brakes on and break you out of the cycle.

But there is one thing that you can do to interrupt the flow. And there are two points where this is easiest to effect, although you can do it anytime. And you need to be ready, because one thing is for sure. Your next challenge is just ahead.

So, what is the antidote to remaining in the Controlling Cycle?

Watch out for Part 3 of this series

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