What the Transactional Theory of Stress and Coping Tells Us


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

The transactional theory of stress and coping is a model that was developed by psychologist Richard Lazarus in the 1960s, which says that the meaning a particular event has for a person is a sort of personal transaction with the environment, not merely the same for everyone. In fact, this meaning is regarded as a more important predictor of the experience of stress than the actual event.

Graph of the different stages of stress according to Lazarus’s model
Richard Lazarus was responsible for the development of the transactional theory of stress and coping. (Image: saidts/Shutterstock)

Different People, Different Symptoms

Among the people who all experience the same traumatic event to the same degree, the risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) varies. As part of a study on childhood trauma, a research team had been conducting brain scans on adolescents living in the Boston area to assess how they responded to both negative and positive images. 

Then, one month following the April 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, researchers asked these same adolescents to complete online surveys assessing possible PTSD, with symptoms such as having difficulty concentrating and continuing to think about the bombing even when trying not to.

Findings revealed that adolescents whose brain scans prior to the bombing showed greater activation in the amygdala in response to negative images—such as people feeling sad, fighting, or threatening someone—were at greater risk of developing PTSD after the bombing.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Primary and Secondary Appraisal 

According to the transactional model, the amount of stress people experience is based on their assessment of two factors: their assessment of the stressors (called primary appraisal), and their assessment of the resources they have to cope with (called secondary appraisal). 

For primary appraisal, let’s say you get fired from your job. Some people may appraise this as super stressful—“I won’t be able to pay my mortgage”. Other people may appraise it less negatively, or even somewhat positively—“At least I don’t have that commute anymore”.

Next, people engage in secondary appraisal in which they examine their ability to cope with the event based on their resources. And what was surprising in this work was that, at least in some circumstances, emotion-focused coping, meaning managing your response to a stressor, could be as effective at reducing stress as actually fixing the problem creating the stress. 

The Value of One’s Mindset

Colorful view of river and forest focused in glasses and monochrome background
Changing one’s mindset and how one views stress can completely change one’s reaction to it. (Image: Maria Vonotna/Shutterstock)

This model was the first to describe how shifting your emotional reactions to an event in a positive direction can be an important part of managing stress. This brings us to what may be the most important finding on the psychology of stress: mindset matters. The term mindset describes any belief we have that influences how we see ourselves and the world and, therefore, how we respond to different situations. 

Most of us think about stress as completely negative and something to be avoided at all costs. But seeing stress in a negative way actually increases anxiety and arousal and can, therefore, create or increase precisely the negative consequences we fear.

Different People, Different Reactions

Here’s a personal story. When my son Robert was in 4th or 5th grade and heading to school for the first day of standardized testing, I did my best to reduce his stress. Robert’s always been a pretty quiet kid (a total introvert) and I said that I knew it was going to be a really hard day and that he should just make sure to stay calm. 

Students holding pens and taking an exam
It may happen that a day that causes stress in many, such as standardized testing day, happens to be somebody else’s favorite day in school. (Image: AimPix/Shutterstock)

News stories often report the increasing pressure children feel when taking high-stakes standardized tests and how many teachers and parents complain about these tests. You can imagine my surprise when he looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Standardized testing day is my favorite day all year.” 

When I asked him why he reported it was because this was the one day the school is really quiet. You don’t have to read aloud or work with a partner, and everyone just sits and fills in the bubbles. What’s not to like? So, for Robert, an introvert, the testing provides a very welcome break from the loud chaos of school.

Stress and Coping in Action

The above example illustrates a really important principle confirmed by research in psychology: different people can see and react to the same thing in different ways. And yet, we all have the opportunity to view stress as a repeated normal non-threatening normal part of daily life. 

We could see stress as exhilarating and invigorating, as giving the body extra energy to respond effectively to various daily life challenges. Here’s a simple example. Researchers showed employees at a large financial institution one of two videos. 

One video gave the typical message that stress is debilitating and leads to poor work performance and negative health outcomes. The other video gave a stress-is-enhancing message. It described the benefits of stress for improving creativity, productivity, and the immune system. 

As the researchers predicted, people who watched the stress-is-enhancing video showed substantial benefits. They reported better work performance, as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression.

Common Questions about What the Transactional Theory of Stress and Coping Tells Us

Q: Do all people gain the same amount of stress if they are in the same stressful situation?

No. The transactional theory of stress and coping which is backed up by research tells us that different people attain different levels of stress based on their personal experience. Accordingly, symptoms and how an event affects someone are very subjective.

Q: What’s the difference between the primary and secondary appraisal in the transactional theory?

According to the transactional theory of stress and coping, the amount of stress people experience is based on two factors. The first is primary appraisal which is that person’s assessment of the stressors. The second is secondary appraisal which is the person’s assessment of the resources available to them which are relevant in coping.

Q: How can stress be viewed as a positive thing?

Stress can be viewed as a positive factor that exhilarates a person and motivates them to do something about their stressors. This has been shown by research in which those who viewed stress as an enhancing tool reported lower levels of anxiety compared to those who viewed stress as a debilitating thing.

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