How to feel in control of your destiny in times of stress and uncertainty

Do you think having a 50 percent chance of dying while at work everyday might affect your job satisfaction?

Well, that was the mortality rate for fighter pilots back in World War II – the highest among the military. And yet, according to the 1945 report, Men Under Stress, they also had the highest job satisfaction in the military, 93 percent of them claiming to be happy with their assignments.

How could that be?

As Taylor Clark relates in his fascinating book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool: “They felt in control of their fate. They could maneuver however they liked through a huge airspace and they believed, to a man, that their piloting skill would determine their survival, not luck.”

So that’s the deal. No activity is inherently stressful or relaxing. Rather, it’s the degree of certainty and control we think we have – not how much we actually have – that affects our stress levels.

And what do you need to gain this perception of control?

Confidence in your ability. Rock-climbers are my favorite example of this. Surrounded by very real physical threats over which they have no control — a sudden storm, avalanche or drop in temperature – they focus on what they can control: their skill, preparation and ability to find the next hand hold. Although the final outcome will always be uncertain and out of their actual control, they derive satisfaction from knowing they are equipped to handle whatever comes up and thus influence the outcome.

A dash of autonomy. If you want a surefire recipe for intensifying stress, combine a feeling of powerlessness with uncertainty. Take a traffic jam, for example. German medical researchers found in a 2009 study that being stuck in traffic – caught in an unmoving blockade of cars with no idea when it will let up — more than triples your chances of suffering a heart attack.

Adding a bit of autonomy to the mix, however, can counteract this effect. In his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains how: Typically, jobs at call centers have turnover rates of 35% in the US and UK, double the rate for other jobs.

Zappos, the progressive online retailer, however, has a different approach. It provides its customer service team with extensive training and then lets them handle calls however they see fit. Result: it has minimal turnover and consistently ranks as one of the best companies for customer service in the US.

Regardless of your role or company policies, you too can look for ways to demonstrate free will over what, how and when you do things during your workday. Even little bursts of autonomy will infuse your routine with a sense of control. Stuck on a never-ending conference call? Tidy the top of your desk. Required to use a particular tracking software? Create your own system for collecting and inputting the data.

A balance between challenge and ability. You know the feeling of being so immersed in an activity that you lose track of time and it all seems effortless? That’s the phenomenon of “flow,” or optimal experience, as documented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the fathers of “positive psychology.”

A key element of flow is an optimum balance between our level of ability and the challenge presented: not too easy (we’ll get bored) or too difficult (we’ll give up). When the right balance is achieved, we experience a heightened sense of personal control — one reason we find being in the flow so satisfying.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, calibrate the challenge of your immediate situation so it’s a match to your ability. Like the rock climber surrounded by a myriad of elements out of his control, simply narrow your focus to the next hand hold: one phone call, one meeting, one 3:00 a.m. feeding at a time.

By learning to consciously reframe even the most chaotic situation, you’ll find that feeling “in control” is not so much about making sure life goes just according to plan – it’s about vigilantly bringing your focus back to what’s under your control.