Exactly ten years ago, I fell off the treadmill. I felt like I had a fifty-pound weight on my chest and could not catch my breath. I quickly rolled over onto a table as the cardiac nurse took an echocardiogram. I had 95% blockage in my left anterior descending artery also called the widow maker. The next day the cardiologist placed a stent and saved my life. I exercised frequently and ate well and was in pretty good shape for a 49-year-old. However, this had only deepened the illusion that I was mostly in control of my life.
Psychologists have been studying the concept of internal vs. external locus of control for over five decades. People with an internal locus of control believe they have a high degree of influence over their lives. If they work hard, good things will come their way. This concept is correlated with various measures of mental health. People with an external locus of control believe they really can’t control that much and life is pretty much up to fate. Most psychotherapy results in increasing our internal locus of control.
However, tremendous uncertainty kicks over the psychological apple cart for all of us. When we lose the illusion of control, contagious anxiety can take over as we lose self-awareness and engage in collective catastrophic thinking. The 24/7 news media spread the contagion as they explore every salacious worst-case scenario. Interestingly people with an external locus of control may more quickly find a reset and show tremendous leadership in times of global panic. In my clinical practice, I have observed clients who have experienced extreme adversity and trauma and struggled to find an internal locus of control are now showing incredible resilience. They are less rattled and they are able to problem-solve and focus in the here and now.
During scary times, the iconic children’s television host Mr. Rogers advised children to look for the helpers. In this stage of the crisis, we all need to look for the leaders. We need to look for the leaders who do not engage in spreading contagious anxiety, who easily drop the illusion of control and quickly find a reset.
Look for the leaders. They are standing right next to you showing courage not fear; unity, not division; creative collaboration and not self-interest. They are the ones who walked past the fight in the toilet paper aisle at Costco and purchased a large package of expensive steaks.
Joe Horak, Ph.D.