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How To Manage Stress & Stop Worrying About Things You Can’t Control

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that 2020 has been an incredibly stressful year for many people all around the world.

With Covid-19 stress levels are likely higher than normal, due to drastic changes in daily life including unemployment, social isolation, and worry about the health of ourselves and loved ones.

It is often said that “stress is the new smoking.” According to a study, being chronically stressed out is as bad for your health as smoking 5 cigarettes per day!

To make the problem worse, many people aren’t able to turn to their typical stress management techniques during this time, such as going out with friends, traveling, participating in team sports, going to the gym etc.

This post will give you a new tool called the circles of control, which will help you learn how to manage stress so that you can stay healthy.

I have also made a free Circles Of Control Worksheet which you can download from my resource library. I would suggest you go ahead and do that now so that you can follow along as you read this post.

Ready?

1 simple yet powerful stress management technique to stop worrying about what you can't control.
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Introducing The Circles of Control Technique

The circles of control technique was pioneered by Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits For Highly Effective People.

The purpose of this technique is to help us focus our attention and effort on the things we can change so we don’t waste time worrying about what we can’t.

It is a great technique for those times when you feel as if nothing in your life is under your own control.

You may be familiar with the serenity prayer: 

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

-Reinhold Niebuhr

The circles of control technique  gives us “the wisdom to know the difference” between what we can and can not change.

The Circles Explained

In the circles of control technique, there are three concentric circles.

The largest, outer circle, is known as the “circle of concern“. This circle contains anything and everything that we worry about.

For example, paying bills, possible accidents, work deadlines, the morning traffic, wildfires, if our kids will behave, whether we’ll wake up on time, or get that promotion would all fall within the circle of concern, because they are all things we worry about.

The middle circle is called the “circle of influence“. This circle contains things that we may have some say or affect on, but that are not under our direct control.

For example, we can not control the words or actions of our loved ones, but we may be able to influence those words and actions by talking and reasoning with them. 

Similarly, we cannot control whether or not the hiring manager gives us a job, but we can influence the decision by writing a fantastic resume, learning all we can about the company, and practicing interview questions. 

Finally, the smallest, innermost circle, is called the “circle of control“. This circle contains the smallest amount of items as compared to the other two.

Layout for the circles of control technique - circle of concern, circle of influence, circle of control.

What Things Are Actually Under Our Control?

It should be noted that everyone is different and there are always extenuating circumstances, but for the most part, we have control over a pretty fixed set of things.

When you are feeling that you have no control over what’s going on in your life, refer back to this list to put things back in perspective.

You generally have control over:

  • Your actions.
  • Your words.
  • Your attitude.
  • Your mindset.
  • Your priorities.
  • Your effort levels.
  • The food you eat.
  • How active you are.
  • How you spend your free time.
  • How you respond to a situation.
  • Who you surround yourself with.

Note: just because you don’t like the options you have, doesn’t mean a situation isn’t under your control. 

For example, say someone enrolled in university and the homework and studying occupy every waking moment. For these reasons, the person may think that they can’t control how they spend their free time.

However, it was their choice to enroll in university after all.

They could decide to quit university to free up extra time if they wanted (not that I’m encouraging this!), but just because they may not like that option doesn’t mean it’s not an option. 

How a person spends their free time is based on their decisions and therefore under their control.

How To Manage Stress With The Circles Of Control Technique

To use this technique, do a brain dump and write down everything that’s making you worry with respect to a certain topic or situation. 

I like to write it all down on the outside of the circles to start with. This way I can get them out of my head fast, without thinking where I need to put each worry.

Example of step 1 for the circles of control exercise - the brain dump of all your worries.
First, do a brain dump of all your worries, outside the circles.

Once you’ve got all that down on paper, revisit each worry, and ask yourself:

  • Is this something I have direct control over?
    • If so, put it in the circle of control.
  • Is this something I can influence?
    • If so, put it in the circle of influence.
  • The terms that are left would be placed in the circle of concern.
    • You worry about them, but you can neither influence or control them.

When you put each worry in it’s appropriate circle, make sure to cross it out where you had originally written it around the outside of the circles. This way every worry is accounted for. 

Example of what the completed circles of control exercise might look like.
Example of what the completed circles of control exercise might look like.

Interpreting The Results Of Your Circles Of Control Activity

When you’ve placed all your worries in the corresponding circles, take a moment to reflect on your completed diagram.

Focusing on and worrying about the items in the “circle of concern” wastes a lot of mental energy and can make you feel overly anxious, unhappy, and not in control.

The items in this circle are the ones the serenity prayer references in the line that says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

There is nothing we can do about the items in this circle, so it’s best not to dwell on them.

"Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere." -Glenn Turner Click To Tweet
1 simple yet powerful stress management technique to stop worrying about what you can't control.

What You Should Focus On

The two inner circles are where we may have some ability to influence the outcome of what we are worrying about.

This is the “courage to change the things I can” part of the prayer.

However, I should mention that you should spend a lot more time focusing on things in the circle of control than the circle of influence. 

Focusing on the circle of influence typically is banking on the fact that you can persuade someone else to change their actions or words. Sometimes this may work, but oftentimes it won’t. 

Where you will get the most bang for your buck, is by focusing your efforts on the circle of control – on the things you can do to change the situation.

People that can focus their energy and efforts on this circle tend to be happier, more light-hearted, and less stressed overall.

Examples Of The Circles Of Control Technique

Check out the following examples of how to use the circles of control to determine where to focus your energy and efforts. 

Note that this technique can be used with all types of situations.

Conclusion

For health reasons, it is extremely important to be able to reduce stress levels and avoid excess worry, especially in situations where nothing can be done. The circles of control technique can help with this.

The Circles of Control Worksheet will help you:

  • Get your worries off your chest.
  • Realize there are things you have control over.
  • Focus your energy on what you can control.
  • Stop worrying about what you can’t control.
  • Effectively manage & decrease stress levels.

Don’t forget to download your free printable Circles of Control Worksheet from the resource library!

~Clarissa

1 simple yet powerful stress management technique to stop worrying about what you can't control.
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Author: clarissa.cabbage

Clarissa is a teacher, a coach, and an avid adventurer! Armed with a master's degree in Exercise and Wellness, she is on a mission to teach people how to build healthier habits that support the adventurous lifestyle of their dreams. There is nothing Clarissa is more passionate about than helping people get active and live their lives to the fullest!

47 Replies to “How To Manage Stress & Stop Worrying About Things You Can’t Control

    1. You’re very welcome Sue! There’s a certain power in writing things down isn’t there? It always amazes me how much clearer things become once we can get them out of our brains and down on paper. Thanks so much for reading!

  1. Considering the amount of stress I had to go through last week at work, this was the first article my eyes fell on. I am very much interested in this activity and I also kind of keep it under control by reminding myself what are the things that are under my control and the ones that aren’t. But what to do when the most stressful things are the ones that we can’t control?

    1. I am so sorry to hear that you had a very stressful week Pratyusha! Your question is a great one, but I’m afraid I can’t say exactly without knowing the situation.

      However, there are certain stressful situations in which are unavoidable – say the death of someone close to us, or getting laid off from work during Covid etc. In those kind of situations, that’s when we need to rely on our coping skills. For example, you could reach out to friends and family for support, meditate, exercise, or spend time in nature etc. if that works for you.

      Great question, thanks so much for asking it here and contributing to the conversation. I hope things get less stressful for you soon! ❤️

  2. I’m really bad when it comes to worrying and I’ve never heard of this before so definitely something I will be trying out for myself. I’m really hoping it will help me accept the things that I have no control over and help me focus on what will help. Thank you!

    1. You’re very welcome Lindsey! I used to be quite the worrier as well, and at some point this message finally sank in and I started to worry much less which felt great! The quote about the rocking chair also gave me a bit of an epiphany as well. 🤷‍♀️ Anyhow, thanks so much for reading and contributing to the conversation!

      1. This is a fabulous post, as a nurse I see many people and at times myself worrying about things we can’t control! I’ve heard of this technique before but never really took any notice. However after reading about this again it’s given me a little push to try and let go of all those worries I have no control of!! Thanks for sharing!

        1. You’re very welcome Louise! Being a nurse was always a stressful job, but I’m sure it’s gotten even tougher this year. It’s definitely worth a try. It feels so liberating to let go of all the extra worry. It literally makes me feel lighter. I hope it will for you too! Thanks so much for adding to our conversation, and stay safe out there. ❤️

  3. Love this post! As a person who worries too much, this is a very helpful technique in understanding the things I have control over. I often have trouble losing control of the situations in my life and I have trouble coping with them. Thanks for sharing this amazing technique! ☺️💕

    1. You are very welcome Elle! Feeling like things aren’t in your control is a really terrible feeling. I hope this will help give you a way to get out some of those worries so you can focus on what you can do. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience!

  4. What a brilliant method for controlling stress! I wish I had known this when I was a teenager and carried the whole world’s problems on my shoulders ;D Thankfully I’ve now learned to focus on the things that are within ‘my reach’ instead of worrying about events and actions that I can’t decide about. It’s a very freeing feeling when you accept the limits of your control.

    Teresa Maria | Outlandish Blog

    1. Teresa, I absolutely agree that it is liberating to let go of all that stress for the things you can’t control! I too was quite the worrier when I was younger. Weren’t those supposed to be the carefree years? 😂 We missed the memo I guess. 🤷‍♀️ Thanks so much for reading and contributing to our conversation here Teresa!

  5. I’ve never tried this before to deal with stress. I just heard about it now that I read your post. I will try this in the future when I feel like I can’t deal with my stress. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I’m kind a overthingker person and sometimes my overthinking turns into stress. Which quite difficult to manage for myself, this article is very helpful. I’ll try to use these tips for managing my stress. Thanks for sharing such a great piece of information.

  7. This is a great way to apply the circle theory and help us to see what we really can control and what is nothing more than a worry eating away at our happiness! While I’ve seen and heard about this theory before, I’ve never tried sitting down and working through it in the way that you suggested. I am going to have to try this out.

    1. It’s definitely worth a try Britt! For myself and the others I’ve used it with – it’s been really quite effective. Often when it seems there’s nothing we can do about a situation, it’s just a case of focusing on the wrong thing. If you give it a try, let me know how it goes, will you?

  8. This is a fantastic post, so so interesting. I’d be we heard of the circle of control technique. I have major issues with stress and this is all very eye opening!

  9. Wow! This is super insightful and helpful. I will definitely be sharing this with several people I know currently dealing with uncertainty on how to many stress and worry. Thank you so much for the time in sharing this technique!

  10. Very interesting. The circles of control technique appears very stoic in its philosophy. You can’t change people or their behaviours or reactions, only your behaiour and reactions.

    That said, easier said than done though.

    1. I agree – most things are easier said than done, and to stop worrying is no exception to the rule. I have been reading a bit more about stoicism recently. I listened to an interesting talk about the philosophy by Tim Ferriss actually about a month ago. Intriguing stuff! I’m always fascinated by these different ways of thinking.

  11. This article is much needed especially now with so much going on. These tips are practical and easy to do. I will certainly be practicing some of them.

    1. Thank you RJ! You’re not alone in focusing too much on the circle of concern. Some people are natural worriers. I hope this technique gives you a new technique to examine those worries. Thanks so much for reading!

  12. This sounds like such a great technique! I don’t know if it’s been COVID or healthy anxiety in general, but I’ve been super anxious lately and have been grasping for anything to help. Meditation and yoga have been huge but a tangible technique like this I feel like would be very effective for me too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You’re very welcome Kalin! Covid has definitely added a lot of stress to many of our lives. Meditation and Yoga are fantastic coping mechanisms for stress you already have or can’t avoid. The circles of control technique helps to facilitate a shift in mindset, so we don’t stress about certain things in the first place. It’s not an overnight solution by any means, but it can help us focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t which can make us feel more in control. I hope it helps!

  13. Ah Charisma l love this post so much, it’s just what l needed to read today. I’d completely forgotten about this tool and it’s so helpful. I talk/write a lot about learning to accept the things we cannot change, in fact I made a video about it recently, and this tool goes so well with that. I’m in recovery, and learning the serenity prayer along with developing the wisdom to assess what is in my control and what isnt has transformed my life. Left to my own devices l am such a worrier! I am going to download and fill this out. Thank you so much for a genuinely helpful post.

    1. You are so welcome Finn! I am glad that I could help remind you about the circles of control. Your story is such an inspiring one! Thank you for sharing your experiences about how the serenity prayer and learning to focus on what you CAN control made such a big difference in your life! ❤️☺️

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