Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model of Stress and Coping
Coping in Stressful Situations
Sabrine watches in dismay as the "cancelled" notices start appearing on the train departure board. "Why today of all days?" she thinks. Now she's going to be late for an important meeting.
She starts to stress over the knock-on effects of the delay. She won't have time to finish the report that her boss wants. She'll probably have to skip lunch with her friend, and she will likely be late home from work. She feels tense, anxious, and helpless.
Situations like these are a part of everyday life. Like Sabrine, we have no control over a traffic jam or a late train. But we can control how we react to these kinds of situations.
We don't make good decisions when we feel anxious and out of control. But thinking things through objectively and calmly can reduce stress and pressure when things don't go the way we expect.
In this article, we explore the stress management strategies outlined in Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model of Stress and Coping.
What is Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model of Stress and Coping?
In their 1984 book, "Stress, Appraisal and Coping," psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman define stress as the body's internal reaction to any external stimulus that is deemed harmful. This could range from the minor irritation of spilling a coffee to a life-changing event, such as losing your job.
They discovered that the level of stress a person experiences is directly related to how confident he or she feels about dealing with a threat. For example, one person might regard spilling coffee as a minor inconvenience, and just mop up and carry on. Another might get upset and let it ruin her whole day.
Lazarus and Folkman believe that the way we interpret or react to an event can often have a more powerful impact on our stress level than the event itself. They developed a framework to help people to manage stressful situations using objective appraisal and coping strategies. They called it the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping.
How to Use the Model
The model can be broken down into three key steps:
Step 1. Primary Appraisal: How Will This Event Affect My Well-Being?
First, assess how relevant the event is to your personal well-being. The event will likely fall into one of three main categories:
- Irrelevant: it will have no impact on your well-being.
- Benign-Positive: it will have a positive impact on your well-being.
- Stressful: it will likely involve harm or loss, and may challenge or threaten you.
If the event is stressful – for example, if your company is going through a major restructuring – conducting a Personal SWOT Analysis can help you to identify the potential threats it presents. But an objective analysis could also reveal new opportunities for you, such as a chance to learn new skills.
It's also important to note that your perception of the event will largely depend on your emotional state and your personality. For instance, if you are naturally confident and believe in your ability to control events, you will likely see a stressful situation as challenging, rather than threatening.
To gain a more accurate measure of your stress level and its impact on your well-being, use the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. This quick test lists potential stressors that could be affecting you, and calculates your stress score.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
Step 2. Secondary Appraisal: Do I Have the Ability to Cope With the Event?
Next, you need to evaluate whether you have the resources available to cope with the situation. The TDODAR Decision Model can be particularly useful here. It's a simple six-step framework for making effective decisions in stressful or high-pressure situations.
You'll also need to consider whether you can manage the situation alone. Your resources can be internal, such as willpower, experience and confidence. Or they can be external – for example, peer support or financial backing. So, ask yourself whether the event is something you can resolve alone, or whether you'll need someone else's help.
Stress occurs when you feel that you are not in control of a situation. For instance, some people feel like there are never enough hours in a day to do everything that needs doing, and as a result they over-stretch themselves. You can discover more about this, and how to overcome it, with our articles on hurry sickness and dealing with anxiety.
Remember, it's important to avoid pushing yourself beyond sensible limits. So, only take on what you can realistically handle and don't be afraid to delegate. Consider your strengths and those of your team members, and allocate tasks accordingly.
Use the next step to decide what coping strategies will best suit your situation.
Some attempts to manage stress can actually be damaging in themselves. For example, perfectionists or controlling people may take the feeling of needing to be in control to levels that can antagonize colleagues and team members. This may damage morale and productivity.
Step 3. Use Coping Strategies
The coping strategies that you adopt will determine how well you handle the stressor.
According to Lazarus and Folkman, there are two aspects to managing a stressful situation:
- Problem-based coping: the practical steps that you take to manage the problem.
- Emotion-based coping: how you manage your emotions when you become stressed.
Problem-based strategies may include practical, action-based tools that allow you to manage the situation. This might involve setting up an Action Plan, delegating tasks, or accepting that you may need to escalate the issue or confront someone about the problem.
Emotion-based strategies might involve positive coping strategies, such as taking ownership of the problem, or seeking emotional or moral support. However, they can also spark negative behaviors, like self-blame, avoidance, or even anger and frustration.
If you do find yourself caught in a negative cycle of avoidance or self-blame, try to break out of it by using tools like visualization, positive thinking or affirmations to improve your mood and morale. Eating healthily, exercising regularly, and getting a good night's sleep can also help you to control stress more easily.
Finally, work on developing your resilience. This will ensure that you bounce back quicker the next time things don't go the way you want or expect them to.
According to psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, we experience stress when the demands of a situation exceed our capacity to deal with it.
In 1984, Lazarus and Folkman created the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, which aims to help people cope with stressful situations by using objective appraisal.
The model can be broken down into three key steps. These are:
- Primary Appraisal – the impact the stressor will have on your well-being.
- Secondary Appraisal – the resources that you have at your disposal that will help you to cope with the stressor. These might include internal resources (willpower, confidence, experience, and so on) or external resources (peer support, financial backing, or access to raw materials).
- Use Coping Strategies – this might include problem-based strategies (information gathering, delegation, or confrontation), or emotion-based strategies (taking ownership or seeking moral and emotional support).