Transactional Model of Stress and Coping
The transactional model of stress and coping is a cognitive model, which conceptualizes stress and coping as a process based on changing cognitive appraisals.
Richard Lazarus (1922–2002) was 1 of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, and a short biography that describes his life achievements appears in the Encyclopedia of Health Psychology (Christensen et al. 2004). During the 1950s and 1960s, in his research, Lazarus developed the first version of the transactional model of stress and coping and described it in his book Psychological Stress and the Coping Process, first published in 1966. Following intensive research during the 1970s and 1980s in collaboration with Susan Folkman, another book was published, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping (Lazarus and Folkman 1984), which developed the initial model further, shaping and explaining the transactional model’s main constructs of cognitive appraisal, coping, and outcomes. Notably, the transactional model was in line with the emergence of the cognitive paradigm in psychology, a field that, until the middle of the twentieth century, was controlled mainly by behaviorism with an emphasis on observable behavior and stimulus-response associations. Finally, in 1999, Lazarus published a third book, Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis (Lazarus 1999), which centered on emotions in the stress process, presenting a cognitive motivational-relational theory of emotions.
Definition of Stress
The transactional model of stress assumes that stress is based on cognitive appraisal – a process whereby individuals assess their encounter with the environment to understand its meaning regarding their well-being. Stress is defined “….as a relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as relevant to his or her well-being and in which the person’s resources are taxed or exceeded” (Folkman and Lazarus 1985, p. 152). This definition places stress in the subjective domain, in contrast to stimulus or response definitions, and suggests that stress is the result of perceiving that one’s resources are not fit to deal with external or internal demands.
Stressors and Appraisals
Most people, throughout their lifetime, encounter a variety of events such as daily hassles, personal life events, or large-scale disasters. In addition to these events’ differentiation in the intensity of harm they cause, they can vary widely in other dimensions, e.g., be short term or chronic, expected or unexpected, ambiguous or non-ambiguous, and controlled or uncontrollable. People’s appraisal of such aspects of events determines both the emotions that arise as a response to stressors and the ways they will cope with them. According to transactional theory, events of any kind are considered as stressors only with respect to the person who experiences them or sees them as relevant to his/her well-being. Additionally, personal characteristics, such as commitment and motivation, belief in control, optimism, and resources such as economic status, social support, or self-esteem, affect people’s appraisals of events.
The transactional model depicts three types of appraisals: primary, secondary, and reappraisal. There are three types of primary appraisal: (1) the event is irrelevant and therefore has no significance for the person’s well-being, (2) the event has positive meaning for the person, and (3) the event is characterized as stressful. A stressful event can be perceived as either a loss, a threat, or a challenge. Loss refers to damage that has already occurred in the past, whereas threat is perceived as potential harm or damage to occur in the future. Challenge refers to potential gain or growth in the future, together with potential harm.
Secondary appraisal refers to assessments of what can be done to change the stressful situation, i.e., appraisal of resources and coping capability. The third type is reappraisal: a change in primary or secondary appraisal as an outcome of changes in the environment or in the person’s responses. Thus, the concept of reappraisal emphasizes the notion that stress is a process, and therefore appraisals, actions, and outcomes can change from one moment to the next depending on changes in the environment or in the person. For example, Folkman and Lazarus (1985) tested students during three phases of college examination: before the examination, immediately after the examination, and after the grades were announced, and showed the expected changes in appraisals and coping from one stage to the next.
According to the model, coping represents the person’s changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (master, reduce, or tolerate) the external or internal demands perceived as taxing the person’s resources. Thus, coping is specific to the context in which the event occurs but can change following changes in appraisals. Coping is characterized according to function and, in the first version of the model, was characterized as either active coping or palliation (Lazarus 1966), later called problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, respectively (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). The function of problem-focused coping is to change the stressful situation for the better or to solve the problem; the emotion-focused function is to regulate the distressing emotions and physiological reactions to the stressor.
The coping strategies suggested by Lazarus were problem-focused coping and several strategies of emotion-focused coping: wishful thinking, distancing, emphasizing the positive, self-blame, tension reduction, and self-isolation. Folkman and Lazarus (1985) defined seeking social support as mixed problem- and emotion-focused coping. They found that people reported the use of both problem- and emotion-focused coping in almost all stressful events, but their use depended on context and on the person’s characteristics (Folkman and Lazarus 1980). Problem-focused coping is more probable in the context of work, or if the event is perceived as manageable or controllable, whereas emotion-focused coping is more probable in the context of health, or if the situation is perceived as uncontrollable.
Following Lazarus and Folkman’s coping scheme, many other coping strategies were developed (Skinner et al. 2003). For example, Carver et al. (1989) described 13 coping strategies, 5 strategies of problem-focused coping (e.g., active coping, planning), 5 emotion-focused coping strategies (e.g., acceptance, denial), and 3 less useful strategies, and discussed each strategy’s presumed effectiveness. Since emotion-focused coping strategies include highly diverse strategies, an important classification of this type of strategy was according to whether it tended to approach (emotion-oriented) or to avoid (avoidance-oriented) the stressor (e.g., Endler and Parker 1994).
Summary of the Model
The transactional model depicts stressful encounters in the following way (Lazarus and Folkman 1984, 1987): Person variables (e.g., beliefs, self-esteem) and environmental variables (e.g., demands, constraints) are the antecedents that affect the mediating processes of stress appraisals and the use of coping strategies, which lead to immediate outcomes in the form of physiological and emotional reactions. Stressful encounters have long-term outcomes as well, in the form of psychological well-being, social functioning, and somatic illness.
The transactional model evoked criticism with respect to the priority of cognition over emotion and the role of consciousness in these processes. Furthermore, since appraisal is a subjective experience, it can be directly measured only by self-report data, which are heavily criticized due to their poor validity and reliability. In addition, the problem-focused and emotion-focused coping dichotomy was criticized on several grounds, the most disparaging being the realization that most coping options can serve both problem- and emotion-focused functions (Skinner et al. 2003). Methodologically, since the model is a process model, studying its predictions entails capturing change in stressful occurrences, which calls for longitudinal designs, while most researchers use cross-sectional designs which cannot test the transactional model in its complete form.
For many decades, the transactional model was the dominant model in the field of psychological stress, producing intensive research on psychological stress and coping strategies. The construct of cognitive appraisal explained the variety in people’s reactions to the same stressor, and the categorization of coping according to function, i.e., problem- and emotion-focused, became very popular. The model advanced research on stress and coping in numerous contexts and was a major breakthrough in psychology during the twentieth century.
- Christensen, A. J., Martin, R., & Smyth, J. M. (Eds.). (2004). Encyclopedia of health psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
- Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
- Lazarus, R. S. (1999). Stress and emotion: A new synthesis. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer.Google Scholar