Managing anxiety in the control zone

Even in difficult situations, we can gather advisors and make a few decisions. Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

The famous Serenity Prayer says:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

‘The things I can change’ might be called ‘the control zone’.  It is made up of things that I can influence, to a greater or lesser extent.

Sometimes the control zone contains things it’s easy to influence.  For instance, if I pinch my own skin, I can cause pain.  Those who feel out of control in their lives can resort to self-harm to restore a sense of control, causing pain to themselves in just this way.

The control zone also contains things it’s very hard to influence – where risk plays a big part.  An Olympic athlete has a huge risk of not getting a gold medal, for instance, even though they might be aiming for one.  Their routine will contain things they can control, but their ultimate objective is uncertain, ambitious.

The control zone also contains the need for decisions that are very finely balanced, where needs conflict.  This is a great cause of anxiety.  Imagine someone is being bullied at work.  They have a need for the bullies to change their behaviour; but they also have a need for peace and security.  If they take action, there will be an investigation, and they will have to lose their peace and security for a while.  If their mental health is bad, they have no idea how much they can take.

These finely balanced decisions are the nub of anxiety.  The abuse victim who has to decide whether to press charges; the politician who has to decide whether to stand up for a personal belief against the party.  In each case, there is more than one obvious interest.

Here are some of the most often interest conflicts which cause anxiety in the control zone:

  • preserving mental health versus straining to make progress
  • preserving social relations versus standing up for one’s views
  • preserving present peace versus securing future peace
  • preserving memories versus moving on

Whether we are conservative or progressive in each case, depends on a series of fine decisions.  Some people habitually focus on preserving mental health, social relations, immediate peace, and memories.  Their focus is on not rocking the boat.  Others habitually focus on making progress, standing up for oneself, securing future peace, and moving on from the past.  Their focus is on building a new boat.

In practice, our lives in the control zone are full of potential inner conflict.  How on earth can we stay effective while not becoming unduly anxious?

Here are three things we can do:


Some extremely anxious individuals fall into a tricky habit.  If you listen carefully, you will hear them arguing that they have no control over their lives.  They are doing this in order to try to avoid inner conflict.  (If we are not in control, then we don’t have to think or act.)

It’s better to welcome our own power and influence in a situation.  Actually, there is quite a lot we can do.


Some extremely anxious individuals hide from the world, and become very lonely.

It’s better to find a small team of people with knowledge and wisdom.  They can share the thinking, and alleviate the personal pressure of decisions.


Indecision is very disabling.  We become like a dog stuck between a bowl of food and a bowl of water, taking nothing.

It’s better to identify, and diarise, some action points.  Then there is a working plan.  Even if the decision is to postpone a decision, we can diarise our next attempt to make it.

Today, each of us will be faced with a series of potentially controllable situations which may make us anxious.  In all cases, there will be conflict between conservative and progressive motivations.  And in all cases, we can accept that we have some power and influence; put together a small team to help us; and make some working decisions.  Empowering ourselves, delegating to others, and diarising, are three tactics which make the control zone a little easier to manage.