The transactional model of stress and coping
One way of improving our relationship with stress is to understand some of the processes which underpin it, and how they influence the ways we try and cope. One way of understanding this is through the transactional model of stress and coping1. The transactional model of stress and coping argues that our experience of stress is ultimately a system of appraisal, response and adaptation.
Stress is a product of primary and secondary appraisals
The transactional model of stress and coping proposes that stress is experienced as an appraisal (an evaluation) of the situation we find ourselves in. Specifically, the transactional model suggests we go through two stages of appraisal before feeling and responding to stress. In our primary appraisal, we evaluate the situation to decide if it is relevant to ourselves. In particular, we evaluate whether it will bring about the possibility of gain or harm. If it doesn’t, we don’t worry about it (decide it is irrelevant).If it is relevant, we decide if it is positive or dangerous. If we feel it is dangerous, we then move into making a secondary appraisal. In these appraisals, we decide if we have the ability to cope with the situation – usually by examining the balance of situational demands (such as risk, uncertainty, difficulty etc) and our perceived resources (including things such as social support, expertise etc, see more here). If we feel demands outweigh resources we experience negative stress (also described threat, which you can read more about in our post on feeling overwhelmed). At this point, we also start to engage in coping strategies.
How doe we cope with the stress which can arise as a result of secondary appraisals? The transactional model of stress and coping argues that we can either adopt problem focused or emotion focused coping styles. Problem focused approaches involve attempting to deal with the situation itself, trying to change it into something more palatable – such active coping can be difficult but, if successful, results in a real change in circumstance. In contrast, a emotion focussed approach involves changing our relationship with the situation in a way which reduces the stress it causes. This can involve denial, avoidance or cognitively re-framing the meaning of the event. Whilst this doesn’t change the nature of the problem itself, it does change the effects it has on us. Lazarus and Folkman suggest these sort of strategies include disclaiming (denial), escape-avoidance, accepting responsibility or blame, exercising self control (of thoughts and behaviours related to the situation) and engaging in positive reappraisals (finding a positive spin on the situation). Emotion-based coping may be particularly suitable to situations which cannot actually be influenced in a meaningful way.
Coping strategies can be classed as adaptive if they help us manage our stress responses in the long term (for instance, changing the problem, or focusing on the good in a situation). In contrast, maladaptive coping behaviours reduce our experience of stress (the arousal, or the symptoms) in the short term, but don’t help, or actually exacerbate the problem in the longer term. ‘Drinking to cope’ is a good example of maladaptive coping.
Our responses to stress and coping are not static. Indeed, as we try and cope (be it adaptively or non-adaptively) we make re-appraisals, once again going through the the primary and secondary appraisal process. In this way, the system is transactional – our appraisals drive our response, our response change something (the situation or ourselves), and this change itself affects our appraisals. The result of these reappraisals may be to stop being stressed, or to change our coping style.
How can we use all this to help?
Understanding the transactional model can help us in a few ways if we can find the space to reflect on how we are feeling and why (which of course is not always easy!).
- Recognise stress is a state caused by an interaction of the situation and your response to it.
Examine what how accurate you primary appraisals are – do you really need to see the situation as self-relevant?
Identify the resources and demands systematically -this may help shift your secondary appraisals.
Look at your coping strategies – are you engaging in problem or emotional based strategies (or, a bit of both?). Ask yourself (honestly!) if they are (i) appropriate and (ii) adaptive. Sometimes, taking a step back from things gives you a chance to cope more creatively, and in a more adaptive way.
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- Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman.(1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Michigan. Springer Press. ↩