Transactional Model of Stress, Cognitive Appraisal – Ask Study Coach

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Stress management ideas are usually practical, for example: relaxation, exercise, meditation. Theoretical ideas of how to manage stress are also available, but we will first need to have some knowledge about theorists and their perspective. Richard Lazarus (1976) developed one of the first transactional models of stress, he argued that cognitive appraisal is the key to understanding stress. Cognitive means thinking; appraisal means making a judgement of evaluating a potential stressor. In this blog Study Coach will highlight a number of concepts associated with Lazarus’s theory.


Question: What is the Transactional Model?

Answer: The individual interacts with their environment, perceives it in a certain way and gives meaning to it. Stress arises from an individual’s perception, when the demands of the environment place a strain on them, greater than their resources.

Question: What are Resources?

Answer: Resources are time, money, level of support from family, friends.

Question: What is the cause of Stress?

Answer: Stress occurs when a person feels they will have difficulties coping or cannot cope (this is an important point). It means that a stressor is not simply out there in the environment – it only becomes a stressor when people define it as such, and feel that it will strain or overcome their resources for dealing with it.

Question: What is Primary Appraisal?

Answer: Primary Appraisal is the first level of the appraisal – here the individual will decide whether an event is positive, neutral or negative. If they decide that the event is negative, the next step is to appraise the situation in terms of possible harm, threat or challenge. For example; if a person is dismissed from their job, they may perceive the dismissal as harmful to their short term or long term goals. They may experience a sense of shame and embarrassment. The dismissal may create financial difficulties for them, due to lack of income, or they may indeed see the situation as a positive challenge – an opportunity to train for an alternative form of employment.

Question: What is Secondary Appraisal?

Answer: Secondary Appraisal involves an evaluation of coping abilities and resources for dealing with the situation. How the individual deal with the stress will depend on both the primary and secondary appraisal. If harm and threat are seen as high and coping abilities and resources perceived as low, then a high level of stress is probable. In appraising the situation, a possible question that the individual may ask him/herself is: What am I going to do and what are the likely consequences of my actions?
If coping abilities and resources are seen as high, then the experience of stress may well be minimal.

Individual Differences
A person’s social and cultural background and previous experience of similar situations can also influence the appraisal process. In other words Individual Differences does matter in how we perceive potential stressors. Different people perceive different events as stressors and respond to them in different ways. The transactional model has the advantage of accounting for individual differences in the stress response.
The source of the stress is the cognitive appraisal of events. Only when an event is perceived as stressful does it become a stressor – though some events are more likely to be perceived as stressors.

Transactional model – Stress is the result of a transaction between the individual and their environment.

Cognitive appraisal – An evaluation or judgement of an event (primary appraisal) and an appraisal of the resources available to cope with it (secondary appraisal).

Primary appraisal – At the primary appraisal stage, we are likely to ask the following: Is the situation positive, neutral or negative? If negative, what is the harm, threat or challenge?

Secondary appraisal – At the secondary appraisal stage, we are likely to ask the following: Are coping abilities and resources sufficient to overcome the harm, threat or challenge?

Individual differences – Difference between individuals, for example differences in personality, age, culture, gender, disability, social class.

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