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Stress as a transaction: Problem- vs. emotion-focused coping

Events over the past few years (pandemic, war, cost-of-living) have presented umpteen challenges to our mental health and wellbeing. Stress research has flourished since Hans Selye labelled stress as a response nearly 70 years ago. Here we’ll summarise a seminal model of stress by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, and the two types of coping strategies that they identified. 

Stress response: A dynamic dance between demand and capability

The Transactional Model of Stress and Coping by Lazarus and Folkman sees stress as a complex transaction between the individual and the environment. We’re constantly scanning our environment for triggers of stress, but what happens when we encounter a stressor?

Let’s say your manager suddenly brings a big deadline forward. This introduces a demand into your environment, which causes you to undertake what’s called a primary appraisal, an initial evaluation where you ask yourself, ‘am I fine or am I trouble?’ Essentially, you’re perceiving what’s being demanded of you. 

Now, every demand needs a solution, so you appraise your capability to meet the demand by asking yourself, ‘what can I do?’ Or in this case, ‘am I capable of meeting this deadline?’ 

The result is a cognitive appraisal where you compare the perceived demand with your perceived capabilities. If the perceived demands are greater than the perceived capabilities, the stressor is regarded as a threat which leads to a stress response. Coping responses then emerge, which can be:

  • physiological (heart starts racing)
  • behavioural (shut your laptop)
  • cognitive (think ‘I can’t do this’)
  • emotional (feeling anxious)

After you engage in these coping responses, you conduct a secondary appraisal of the situation to determine whether your efforts have been successful in reducing the threat. This process involves continually reappraising both the demands made by the environment and your capabilities to address this demand.

Coping: Problem- vs. emotion-focused strategies

Lazarus and Folkman argue that there are two main ways of coping with stress: problem-focused and emotion-focused. 

In the former, strategies are directed at the stress, so they involve looking for logical and active ways to solve the stressful situation. From a work perspective, examples include rearranging other work commitments to meet the new deadline, or speaking with your manager to negotiate the deadline. 

On the other hand, emotion-focused coping includes any attempts that are not directed at the stressful event itself but instead are directed at reducing emotional distress caused by the stressful event. Instances are venting to a colleague, giving yourself a motivational speech, or meditating. 

Both types of coping have their advantages depending on the situation. There is some research that supports problem-focused coping for improved health outcomes. It’s perceived as effective when the individual has some control over the situation, because it is action-oriented and tackles the root of the stress.

However, it is important to acknowledge that while emotion-focused coping can lead to self-blame or rumination, there are benefits to processing and expressing the emotions created by stress. Specifically, this form of coping is particularly useful when the source of stress is beyond our control (e.g., grief).

Reflecting on your response to stress, do you find that you engage in more problem- or emotion-focused coping strategies? 

Date: 7th December

Word count: 525