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Cognitive-Relational Model of Stress


Explanations > Stress > Cognitive-Relational Model of Stress

Antecedents | Primary appraisal | Secondary appraisal | Coping | Outcome | DiscussionSo what?


This is a common model of stress that is based around a cycle of appraisal of environmental stress and consequent coping. Appraisal and coping are mediating processes that seek to reduce stress.

This is also known as the Transactional Model, Lazarus Theory.


Antecedents provide input into the central appraisal activity.


There are direct causes of the stress, such as a broken computer, being shouted at, or losing something.

General causes of stress include:

  • Deprivation: Not having what you want.
  • Uncertainty: Don't know what things mean or what to do about them.
  • Difficulty: Unable to take effective action.
  • Threat: Perceived probability of harm.
  • Harm: Physical or psychological damage.

They typically come from the external environment, although we can also create stress internally by imagining bad things happening.

Stress is an accumulative thing and many small stresses can be as bad as one large one. The particular combination of factors can also be significant.

Other environmental factors

As well as direct stressors, there are other contextual factors that may be significant for appraisal, for example whether other people are present.

Context is important for the production of meaning in any appraisal, whether stress-driven or not. In stress situations it can take on particular importance when environmental factors may exacerbate the stress or constrain coping.

Person factors

As well as external environmental factors, the internal human aspects of the person being stressed have a significant affect on the appraisal process.

Some people have a greater tendency towards anxiety than others (as in 'neuroticism in the big five personality model). This will make them more susceptible to stress. At the other extreme, those whose stress threshold is high actively take risks.

Another important factor is the ability of the person to cope with stressful situations once they occur. Again, some people are better at this than others.

A wide range of additional personal factors can be significant in how people perceive stress, such as how extraverted or introverted they are.

Primary appraisal

Appraisal is the thinking stage that takes aspects from antecedents and identifies coping actions. It happens after stress is experienced, even though the person may not think of it as 'stress'. More likely it is an seen as an 'issue', which may be defined as 'a risk that has happened'.

Appraisal is often considered as a single activity, but is really made up of two distinct components: assessment of the situation (primary appraisal) and identifying what to do about it (secondary appraisal).

In primary appraisal, people usually first appraise for short-term threat to needs and then for longer-term impact on personal and organizational goals. They may also look on the positive side, seeking opportunities and looking forward to challenges.

Key questions they may ask include:

  • What happened? Review and clarification of actual events.
  • Why did it happen? Searching for causes.
  • Who is to blame? Is in my fault or could I point the finger elsewhere?
  • What will happen as a result? How will it continue to impact needs and goals.
  • How can I benefit from this? Seeking the silver lining.

The results of such questions can vary significantly, depending on whether the person is problem-focused or is driven by self-focused emotion.

The inner resources people use for this analysis include:

  • Knowledge of the situation.
  • Models of how things (should) work.
  • Values that tell what is good or bad.

Primary appraisal may be short and internal. It may also access external knowledge or call on information and analysis from other people.

Secondary appraisal

In secondary appraisal, the person decides what can be done to reduce the feelings of stress.

Things they choose do may depend on how familiar they are with the situation and the resources which they can use. These choices can be intelligent and effective, though they are often automatic and dysfunctional.

There is a kind of fight or flight option in choosing what to do. The person may seek to address the stressful situation, seeking to gain from it or actively reduce the stress. They may also feel helpless and just wallow in the stress, doing little to really cope.


In deciding what to do, the person may just reactively jump to coping action. They may also run through possible coping strategies in their mind. Humans are one of the few species that can think this way and are particularly adept and considering complex possibilities and consequently adapting their approach.

This rehearsal effectively plays the whole loop, thinking of how coping strategies and tactics may work and then re-appraisal and revision of plans.

Important here (and in primary appraisal) is the sense of control. If the person appraises the situation as one they can successfully handle, then their stress levels will reduce, which will further help them cope. In effect, rehearsal gains the benefits of coping even before the person puts plans into practice. General confidence also reduces stress, although over-confidence can cause inadequate coping and lead to further problems.


Coping is the actual action taken to reduce the stress. This may be effective or ineffective. The actions here may be thought through and they may be unconscious reactions.


There are two ways people tend to focus in coping that is strongly affected by their personality.

Problem-focused coping puts attention on the real issue and seeks to fix the problem and possibly prevent it from recurring.

Emotional coping seeks just to reduce the stress and may be dysfunctional, including the use of coping mechanisms and games. Such approaches are typical when there is little conscious appraisal.


A critical aspect of how people plan to cope will depend on the resources available to them.

  • External resources include money, power over others, access control, and so on.
  • Social resources include the ability to call on others for help.
  • Internal resources include resilience (picking yourself up after a blow), resolve (determination to succeed) and cognitive ability (intelligence and creativity, etc.).

Resources are a key consideration during appraisal. The potential of having resources available can make primary appraisal more positive. The specific resources available will also strongly shape secondary appraisal and actual coping.


People will not always deploy all resources or take any action to reduce the stress as they are constrained by rules, laws, policies, values and so on. For example we are socially conditioned not to hit anyone, so this option is (usually) ruled out.


As a result of our coping actions, there is an outcome in terms of things that happen and, in particular, a change in the level of stress.

Sometimes just taking action gives a feeling of empowerment and stress is reduced. Even thinking about it can help.

Sometimes also we are surprised at how our coping actions lead to responses from the environment and other people that negates our coping and may increase the stress on us.


Outcomes are the results of action. Benefits are the positive outcomes that individuals and organizations experience.

There are also non-benefits, where nothing is gained, and dysbenefits, where further problems and stress is caused. A common issue happens when coping that is beneficial to one person causes dysbeneficial stress to others.


When outcomes give us feedback on our coping actions we re-appraise the situation and, if necessary, try something else. In this way coping is a continuous process. The environment around us is constantly changing and what may have worked may not now be that effective.


This is a 'Feel-Think-Do' model, where the person feels stress, thinks about it (appraisal) and then acts.


As indicated above, stress management is not a simple sense-and-respond system but an ongoing transactional process.

The environment keeps changing and unfolding, throwing new stressors at us and preventing us from effectively resolving every stress as it occurs.


There are three meta-theoretical assumptions in this model:

  • Transaction: The person and the environment exert reciprocal influences on each other.
  • Process: Emotions and thoughts change continuously.
  • Context: The meaning given to stress is dependent on the environmental context (as in any human cognition).


There is an ongoing theme through this model of things internal to the person and external in their actions and contextual events.

While there is always both internal and external activity, people may bias this, for example by consciously analyzing the environment and taking deliberate action, as opposed to just feeling stressed and reacting habitually.


There can also be a focus on the positive, for example seeking opportunity during appraisal, rather than the more usual negative view of stress as a problem or irritant. When many avoid or seek to reduce stress, others see it as a chance to grow or otherwise find advantage. While they may not always succeed in this, the optimistic outlook reduces stress and may lead to real benefits.

So what?

Use this model to assess both stressful events and how people respond to them. Seek out how they appraise the situation and decide on coping actions.

Stress is a form of tension, which is central to persuasion. This means you can utilize this model during persuasion, for example in creating stressors or guiding the person through the appraisal and coping.

You can also use an understanding of this to help them, for example in showing how they appraise and cope, and how there are more effective ways of doing this.

See also

Tension principle, Transactional Model of Stress


Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. London: Oxford University Press.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.


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