Perceived Control Over Illness: Where Do You Stand?

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on June 26, 2009

Missed Part 1?

My morning post was in no way intended to place blame on individuals for getting cancer. Obviously, many forms of disease are out of our hands and yes, healthy individuals get struck with cancer all the time! But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t preventative measures that we can take in our own lives each and every day.

There will always be exceptions to the rule. There will always be the case example of the vegetarian athlete who gets cancer. Or the health nut that does everything ‘right’ and gets heart disease. Or the individual who has a genetic predisposition for cancer. However, research consistently demonstrates that people who lead unhealthy lifestyles are significantly more likely to acquire chronic illnesses such as cancer than those who don’t.

My post this morning was to talk about ways that we can all reduce our risk, not obliterate cancer all together.

There will always, always be factors that we cannot control with regard to our health. There will always be genetic predispositions. There will always be lifestyle or societal factors that we cannot control.

But I still strongly believe that there are many things that we can control.

My topic in this afternoon’s post is something that was touched on in this morning’s post, but one that I did not have time to address. And that is Locus of Control.

Locus of control, coined by J. Rotter, is one’s belief that they can or cannot control events in their lives that happen to them.

An ‘internal’ locus of control is the feeling that we are able to control things that happen to us, while an ‘external’ locus of control is the belief that what happens to us is ‘out of our hands’.


[image source]

If you have an external locus of control about getting sick, you might think that no matter what behaviours you do in your life, whether you get sick is out of your hands. Someone with an internal locus believes that they can act out behaviours that will impact the chance they get sick.

There can be health benefits of having an internal locus of control.

Sturmer and colleagues (2006) studied 5114 men and women ages 40-65 over a period of 8.5 years. They assessed participants on various personality questionnaires that have been shown to be related to the incidence of various chronic illnesses. At the follow-up, 8.5 years later this is what they found:

  • 257 participants had died
  • 72 were diagnosed with a heart attack
  • 62 diagnosed with stroke
  • 240 diagnosed with cancer

They found that a high internal locus of control over disease was associated with a decreased risk of heart attack.

Other research finds that having an internal locus of control may also result in individuals taking active steps to prevent illnesses, such as getting regular check-ups, cancer screenings, and doctor visits. If you believe that control over illness is in your hands, you may be more likely to take active steps in your life and ‘nip’ disease in the butt!

Believing that we are in control of our health, whether that is true or not, appears to reduce the risk of acquiring illness in our lives.

It reminds me a lot of the ‘placebo effect’If you THINK something is going to work, it just might!


I also think it is important to point out that it is counterproductive to STRESS about our health. If you find that you are feeling stress and worry about not being healthy enough, then it becomes more of a risk factor for illness, than something that is a positive motivator in your life.

The behaviours we take, the thoughts and beliefs we have about this are all extremely personal and variable. I don’t assume that you will approach this in the same way as me, your mom, or your neighbour.

When it comes down to it, you make the choices in your life and only you know what is going to make you the happiest. If that is taking a liaise faire approach, then so be it! :)


Today’s question:

Where do stand with locus of control- are you internal or external? Or are you a bit of both depending on what the situation is?


Thanks once again for the enlightening discussions. :) I love all of your viewpoints!

Stay tuned tonight for an EXCITING SGBC clue!!!!!

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer @ His N' Her Health June 26, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I love your posts like this because I am a psychology student! LOL. I would say I am more internal. I don’t really know why, and I see it definitely along the lines of a placebo effect.


Nicole of Raspberry Stethoscope June 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I am mostly internal, but of course some days I am bitter and feel external, like nothing I do will matter anyway since life is so pointless and has ultimate meaning! haha!


Nicole of Raspberry Stethoscope June 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm

NO ultimate meaning*


Kristen June 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm

That diagram made many appearances in my psych textbooks :)
I definitely switch between internal and external depending on the situation.


Nicole June 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm

I am a bit of both, but a little more on the internal side.
Great topic!!


Katherine June 26, 2009 at 12:57 pm

I am mostly internal, but I believe there are some times when I really have to let go and trust that what is meant to be will be. I think I’ve tended toward internal for most of my life, but I’m learning that there are merits to external locus as well!


AGS June 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Interesting way to view the topic! Definitely internal. . . I get it from my Mom, I guess. ;)


Krista June 26, 2009 at 1:21 pm

I would tend to think myself mainly internal, but I also believe that there are things that are completely out of our control. For instance, I know that by not smoking, eating a mostly healthy diet and keeping active will go a LONG way towards my well being. Since I started seriously taking care of myself I hardly ever get sick anymore and have boundless energy (compared to a few years ago). In the same token, I might get hit by a car tomorrow, which would be out of my control, but we can’t live thinking that way, can we? I also believe that the healthier we are, the more capable our bodies will be if we need to fight a disease as serious as cancer….Great post(s) Ange!


Ashley June 26, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I am very internal. I believe that life is what you make of it. In my life, I have had “bad” things happen to me (mainly related to family stuff and my mother’s death when I was 13)and I really believe that as a result of them, I could have down a path of depression, sadness and self-loathing. Instead I chose to go the other way. I decided to be positive and throw myself into my work and challenged myself. Over the years I have surrounded myself with supportive, creative wonderful people and as a result I think I’ve turned out okay.

I’ve taken the same approach to my Crohn’s diagnosis. Rather than sit back and have a doctor tell me what medications to fill my body with, I’ve worked on exploring other, more alternative routes (in conjunction with my medical advice) and as a result I am feeling great.


Karen June 26, 2009 at 1:56 pm

When people pull the “you only live one” saying when I choose not to have dessert or that fried pile of crap, I just roll my eyes.

I feel that if I lead a happy, healthy lifestyle and I do get hit with some form of dis-ease, I will know it is something I am “meant” to deal with, and I will not have anything to beat myself up with, like “Why didn’t I quit smoking?” or “Maybe if I had lost that __ lbs I wouldn’t be in this position now.”

I will also enter that state of dis-ease with a stronger foundation to fight it from- one of knowledge and a knowingness of Self (which sometimes we forget about in the powerful omnipotent spotlight of science, studies, statistics, and opinions).

I guess I’m in the middle!


Karen June 26, 2009 at 1:56 pm

“You only live one” should be “you only live onCe”


RunToFinish June 26, 2009 at 2:20 pm

i used to think that things were out of our control, but the more I have read I believe that attitude attracts a great many things to our lives. Which is why i keep trying to be so positive about my body, I think that will help with healing


Kaolee June 26, 2009 at 2:44 pm

I am definitely both, internal and external, dependent on the situation.


Jackie June 26, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I didn’t think your post was blaming people for getting cancer. After reading “The China Study” by T.Colin Campbell which is about vegan eating he makes what I think is a great point that you aren’t given a “death sentence” of cancer or heart disease just because you have a family history of it.

His studies found that many diseases plaguing the western world had more to do with our diets than a predetermined set of genes that would guarantee to give us cancer or heart disease. Yes, unfortunately, there are cases of where cancer is inevitable but we are increasingly becoming a society of food excess and to not connect the dots between what we consume and quality/longevity of life is naive.


Marcia June 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Good post. I have an internal locus of control, as did my dad. My mother and brother are more external, and it weighs on their personality and attitude very heavily.

I didn’t take your last post the wrong way. Certainly, we need to take care of our bodies. My mom points out that there’s a trash dump near her home and “look at all the people who have cancer”. Yeah, you mean the ones who smoke, drink a 6-pack a day, and eat a pound of meat a day? Those folks?” She talks about her “bad genetics” (her mother had diabetes and died of a heart attack at 65), but ignores her father who lived to be 86 and her older sister who exercises regularly (4-6 mile walks per day) and has a very healthy diet and is the PICTURE of health.

On the other hand…I know of one pretty healthy woman who had breast cancer in her late 30s, and a married couple who suffered from melanoma (him, in his early 20’s), and stage IV breast cancer (her, in her early 30’s), and they were marathon runners and healthy folks. So certainly, you never know.


Brittany June 26, 2009 at 3:37 pm

You do only live once. Life is wayyyyyy too short for most people to deprive yourself of something you love or something you want. If you want two cupcakes after dinner then I think you should because maybe you won’t ever get another chance. It’s scary but life is way too short.


Johanna B June 26, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I’ve just started trying to add healthy behaviors into my life. I feel that I lucked out in good genetics on my mother’s side. The women in her family live into their 90’s and have very few health problems. The men on my father’s side die young due to heart disease and cardiovascular illness. I feel that unless I change my lifestyle I won’t make it to 90 so I am trying and succeeding in building new behaviors into my life. Thanks for the thought provoking post.


Sarah June 26, 2009 at 4:29 pm

I think mostly I have an internal locus of control, but there are some things I really feel are completely beyond my control. With my health, I know that anything genetic is completely beyond my control, but I know that my lifestyle either contribute to making health problems better or worse. For example, I have a genetic condition that has to do with amino acids and such, and I can choose to ignore that, as my sister does, and have headaches and such… or I can watch my diet a little better and not have any of the negative consequences. Then there are things like heart problems. In my family, there are a lot of heart problems, and while I’m sure that genetics plays some role in it, I know there’s a lot I can do to lower my risk of having a lot of those problems. I’m trying to do those things.

Totally off topic, but I think you said something about posting your workout playlist. I have been really looking for some new music to replace some of my worn out tunes. Did I miss it or is that still coming? Or did I totally make that whole thing up? Because that’s entirely possible too! Haha.


Jenna June 26, 2009 at 4:34 pm

I find this slightly offensive because I have suffered from type 1 diabetes (which has NOTHING to do with lifestyle)since I was a pre-teen, and have suffered from depression – despite all of my efforts to stay positive. No, I do not go around thinking that I will get every disease possible since I already deal with several, but people who are clinically depressed do not choose to be that way.

Yes, we can be hopeful that we will live happily and healthily, but it is almost silly to think we have control over certain diseases.


Jewels June 26, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I strive to be in the middle by living about 85% super healthy. I exercise six days a week, eat tons of fruits/veggies/whole wheats, healthy fats, I rarely eat meat(never red), and i wear sunscreen.

I realize that some things are in control but also need to live my life…For example:
-I will have dessert a few times a week but will not eat a gallon of ice cream.
-I will go out with friends for drinks on a Friday night but will not drink like I’m still in college.
-I will indulge in onion rings or french fries but not as a regular occurance


Lara June 26, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I am mainly Internal but also understand that there are things beyond our control. I know a few people who lived extremely healthy lives but then got cancer or other diseases and constantly said “why me why me”. Or look at Dana Reeve who got lung cancer despite never smoking in her life!

I think it is important to recognize that there are some thign beyond our control with health due to genetics or just because. We don’t always know why things happen. I feel that living a healthy life, while not a guarantee, does go a long way towards increasing your chances of a healthy life. I also think the stress that some women make over every morsel that goes into their mouths is more dangerous for their health than those people who occasionaly indulge in sweets, junk food, booze, etc. I truly believe in the mind-body connection and stressing about weight/food etc is NOT healthy.


Jenn Eats Nutritiously Now June 26, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I think I’m sort of both. I like to take control of my own health and happiness, but I also believe there are some things out of my control.


Gena (Choosing Raw) June 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Angela! I am so behind on reading and catching up. I love this post — I cannot tell you how much I always value your thoughtfulness. <3


D June 27, 2009 at 8:44 am

Very interesting points and I am glad thsi conversation is being had. As someone who is young and recently diagnosed with a chronic disease, I am living proof that you can do it all “safely” and sometimes you still get dealt bad cards. Positive attitude is important, but until you are put in a situation like mine or others, you don’t know how hard it is to see always see the good. Somedays are positive one, somedays feel less than stellar.

I believe in living healthy, but also believe that too much time stressing about health (counting calories, worrying about what the medical study of the day says, being obsessive about exercise, etc…) is extremely harmful to the body. LIVING LIFE is so very key!!!.

Angela, again, thanks for starting this dialogue!!!!


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