Locus of Control

What is it?

Some people feel that, no matter what they do, they will never get any better. They can feel frustrated, sad, or even angry about their lot in life. Other people feel like they have power to change how they react to problems, even though they may still be affected by the ups and down of life.

The term locus of control, which literally means the "location of control", refers to how much control people think they have over their lives. Some people believe that life is uncontrollable, and nothing can be done to stop bad things like accidents or illnesses. They believe the stars are aligned against them, they’ve been dealt a bad hand, or that external, uncontrollable forces are making life difficult for them. These people are said to have an external locus of control.

Other people believe they can change their circumstances if they dig deep, and respond positively and constructively to life’s challenges. They believe they have the power to change their mind, or influence others to make their own lives better. These people are said to have an internal locus of control, meaning they believe their destiny is controlled from within.

Imagine you are a student getting results back from a test. If you think your grade is a reflection of your ability and preparation (how well you studied, listened and performed), then you are showing an internal locus of control. On the other hand, if you think your grade is a reflection of the teacher’s ability to instruct and test you, then you are showing an external locus of control. The same person may change their opinion about this depending on the situation. When people do well, they tend to attribute the success to themselves (internal); when they do poorly, they tend to blame others for their poor performance (external).

Locus of Control and GI Symptoms

Having an external locus of control can make GI symptoms more difficult to handle. If you think your symptoms are from bad luck, that they haven’t gotten any better because your doctors are not able to figure it out, and that the medications don’t work, then you are showing an external locus of control for your GI symptoms. Instead, if you think your stress is contributing to your symptoms, and you believe that if you continue to work with your care provider you will start to feel better, then you are showing an internal locus of control.

In reality, people are rarely at either of these extremes, and instead fall somewhere in between. On some days you feel little control, and on others you feel in full control of your GI symptoms. Going back and forth is normal. At this point, do not focus on being "right or wrong". Instead, focus on how to change locus of control to improve your quality of life.

What can I do about it?

Researchers have found that patients with chronic GI problems can help control their symptoms by internalizing their locus of control. By focusing on things you can control, you may find that it helps you better manage your symptoms and gain control over your life. For example, you might want to try some of the following:

  • Time your meals with the natural rhythms of your body
  • Eat healthier foods
  • Take notes about the location of bathrooms when entering new places
  • Time trips to the bathroom to prevent emergencies

My Quality of Life (MyQOL) Toolbox has several tips that are used during "talk" therapy to help you gain control over your life. You can test your thinking, focus on the moment instead of the future, and find ways to relax.

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