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Shifting the internal narrative can enhance resilience.
As scientists and politicians debate how and when to re-open society, there remains enormous uncertainty over the future and a realization that the pandemic is far from over. Some believe that the pandemic may be ushering in a new normal characterized by widespread economic privation, rolling waves of illness and death, and pervasive feelings of loss of control on a global scale. Individuals struggling with mental health problems are especially affected by this pervasive awareness of uncertainty.
It is true that we cannot control the difficult circumstances we are facing-as individuals or as nations-and even near-term predictions by pundits and politicians are modified almost daily. However, we do have the capacity to lessen the intensity of our anxiety and despair in face of the COVID-19 pandemic by changing our internal narratives.
Locus of control theory in brief
Introduced more than 5 decades ago, locus of control theory argues that the degree to which people believe they are in control significantly influences their attitudes toward difficult circumstances, affects resilience, and determines choices of coping strategies. According to the theory, personality styles exist on a continuum with internality at one end and externality at the other. Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe that events that happen to them are a consequence of their own choices and actions, whether or not they choose to have control over them (Figure). On the other end of the spectrum, individuals with a strong external locus of control interpret events as influenced not by their actions or abilities but by circumstances beyond their control. In other words, individuals with a strong external locus of control rely on beliefs in ideas like luck and fate to interpret their experiences. Because individuals with a strong internal locus of control interpret circumstances as being within their ability to control, they are more confident in their ability to influence their future and, hence, more resilient in the face of extreme circumstances. In fact, numerous research studies have established that a strongly held internal locus of control correlates to improved physical and mental health as well as better quality of life.1
Interestingly, it turns out that there are regional differences in locus of control; geographic differences significantly influence how populations in different regions deal with natural disasters and other crises. For example, one study found that a greater loss of life caused by tornadoes in Alabama as compared to that in Illinois was due to more prevalent external personality styles among Alabama residents, who took fewer precautions in face of an impending tornado.2
Broad differences in locus of control may also exist between different cultures. For example, ethnic Japanese people and African-Americans tend to be more external. Meanwhile, Whites in North America and Europe tend to be more internal; and findings on locus of control in people of Hispanic origin are ambiguous. All of these differences have important implications for how individuals residing in different geographic regions and in different cultures might be responding to the pandemic and its related hardships. On a large scale, these differences have implications for public health policies, as they may translate into significant regional and cultural differences in numbers of individuals who are directly and adversely impacted by the pandemic (ie, become infected).
Leveraging locus of control theory
Locus of control theory is a valuable model with important practical implications for understanding how individual responses to the pandemic result in very different outcomes. Those with a strong internal locus of control make choices reflecting their beliefs that their actions play an important role in determining how the pandemic will affect their health and their future well-being, such as maintaining safe social distancing, wearing a face mask, and frequent handwashing. In contrast, those with a strong external locus of control do not believe they have control over their future health in face of the pandemic and are less likely to embrace recommendations aimed at mitigating risk of infection. In other words, a strongly held internal locus of control will expectably result in beliefs and behaviors that could significantly lessen the risk of becoming infected, spreading the virus, or dying as well as abiding by government and medical recommendations.
Carpe diem and carpe control
Although we cannot control the dire circumstances that we are facing, we do have the capacity to lessen the intensity of our anxiety and despair by changing our internal narratives in a world that continues to spin out of control. As we take first steps to re-start the economy, resume our day-to-day lives, and renew normal social contact beyond video calls, we will continue to face unknown risks of infection, and we will continue to share a deep sense of anxiety and despair over economic hardship that will probably last for years to come. In this new normal, choosing to embrace a different narrative-one of internal control-can make a real difference as we continue to face uncertainties.
Dr Lakeis a Psychiatrist in private practice in California. His most recent book is An Integrative Paradigm for Mental Health Care: Ideas and Methods Shaping the Future.
1. Maltby J, Day L, Macaskill A. Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence (1st ed.). Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2007.
2. Sims J, Baumann D. The tornado threat: coping styles of the north and South. Science.1972;176(4042):1386-1392.