Theories of Stress and Coping

Everyone experiences stress of some type but how we cope with life’s stresses largely determines our behavior toward stress and so the various theories concerning stress and coping outline how we process and manage stress.

Most transactional theories of stress and coping attempt to determine what stressors are, and most break them down into basic daily annoyances, persistent six month or more difficulties, role strains like balancing work and parenting, chronic strains like discrimination, community-wide strains like neighborhood violence, life change stresses like moving, or nonevents like having to travel for a wedding.

Stress and coping theories then look at how we process each stress event and attempts to categorize the process in a five-step process:

  • Primary appraisal wherein we determine the level of severity of the event
  • Secondary appraisal wherein we determine how much control we have over the event.
  • Problem-focused coping wherein we determine a method for dealing with and altering the event or situation.
  • Emotion-focused coping wherein we determine and alter how we think or feel about the event or situation.
  • Reappraisal wherein we determine whether the effects of the stress event or situation has been successfully neutralized.

Appropriate processing of a stressful situation is largely determined by our coping mechanisms, and the stress and coping theories indicate that appropriate techniques might include journaling, brainstorming, and discussing the situation with others.

Processing an event or situation might be as simple as sending an email to your significant other to say: Wow this just happened but I don’t think it will have a huge impact, there is little I can do to change it, I think I may be able to do this thing about it, I really needed to stand back and take a deep breath, and then I was able to slightly change the impact of the outcome.

Beyond coping mechanisms, stress and coping theories indicate that a person’s hardiness, or a person’s beliefs in their ability to control the outcomes of their life along with their commitment to their activities and willingness to undertake a challenge, largely determines their ability to appropriately manage stress events.

The theories also indicate that how one perceives and comprehends the stress event as it makes sense to them, how one fells about their resources to meet the demands of the stressors, and how much energy a person feels is worth investing in the stressors largely determines how one feels about the event or situation. Though these may seem obvious, consider that being confused about why something happened along with being without the resources or energy to manage an event would cause someone to throw their hands up in frustration.

The other aspects of stress and coping theories covers a person’s resistance to stress via optimism and social support.

It cannot be stressed enough (pun intended) that both optimism and social support are linked to better coping, better health, and a better outlook on life so it is important to view the cup as half full rather than half empty, and ensure that one has the social support to fill that cup when necessary.