The relationship between the reactions that our organism expresses before a situation, on the one hand, and our cognitions on the other, is undeniable. Richard S. Lazarus’ Theory of Stress focused on studying this relationship , and on how cognitions influence our stress response. We will know in detail the characteristics of this model.

Richard S. Lazarus’ theory of stress: characteristics

Richard S. Lazarus was a leading American psychologist, teacher and researcher, who investigated stress and its relationship to cognition. He developed a transactional model of stress.

The Richard S. Lazarus Theory of Stress (1966), also developed by Cohen (1977) and Folkman (1984), focuses on the cognitive processes that appear in a stressful situation . This theory states that coping with a stressful situation is actually a process that depends on the context and other variables.

This theory forms part of the so-called transactional models of stress, since takes into account how the person interacts in a specific environment and situation , considering the influence of his or her evaluations and cognitions.

According to Lazarus, a situation is stressful because of the transactions between people and the environment, which depend on the impact of the environmental stressor. In turn, this impact is mediated by two variables: firstly, by the assessments made by the person of the stress agent , and secondly, by the personal, social or cultural resources available to the person when faced with this agent.

Types of evaluation

Thus, according to Richard S. Lazarus’ Theory of Stress, when referring to cognitive factors, there are three types of assessment:

1. Primary evaluation

It is the first one that appears, and it occurs when the person is faced with a potentially stressful situation. This is a judgment about the meaning of the situation , as if to qualify it as stressful, positive, controllable, changeable or simply irrelevant. In other words, it is an assessment that focuses on the environment, situation or setting.

If the person “decides” that the situation is a source of stress, the secondary assessment is activated.

2. Secondary evaluation

It focuses on the resources available to the person to cope or not. It is aimed at finding strategies to solve the situation. The results of the secondary evaluation will modify the initial evaluation and will predispose the person to develop coping strategies.

The use of one strategy or another will depend on the person’s assessment of the situation, whether it can be changed or not (as we will see later); in other words, whether we are dealing with a controllable or uncontrollable situation.

The strategies proposed by the Richard S. Lazarus Theory of Stress are of two types:

Problem-oriented strategies

These are those behaviours or cognitive acts aimed at managing or handling the source of stress. They try to change the relationship between environment and person , acting on the environment or on the subject.

These strategies are effective when the situation can be changed.

Emotion-oriented strategies

They are strategies aimed at the emotional regulation of the person, that is, at changing how the situation is perceived and lived. They are focused on regulating in a more effective and functional way the negative emotional reactions , that arise as a result of the stressful situation. In other words, it is about changing the way in which what happens is interpreted.

Emotion-oriented strategies, unlike the previous ones, are effective when the situation cannot be changed.

3. Tertiary evaluation or re-evaluation

This is the feedback from two previous evaluations and the corrections that can be made to improve them.

Coping Strategies Questionnaire

Richard S. Lazarus designed a questionnaire called WCQ, aimed at evaluating 8 dimensions of coping strategies for stress:

  • Confrontation : direct actions directed towards the situation.
  • Distancing : trying to forget the problem, refusing to take it seriously…
  • Self-control : keeping problems to oneself, not rushing, regulating oneself…
  • Seeking social support : asking a friend for help, talking to someone…
  • Acceptance of responsibility : to recognize oneself as the cause of the problem.
  • Escape-avoidance : waiting for a miracle to happen, avoiding contact with people, taking alcohol or drugs…
  • Problem solving planning : setting up an action plan and following it, making some change.
  • Positive re-evaluation : bringing out the positive side of the experience.

Each of these 8 dimensions is grouped into one of the two types of strategies mentioned: problem-oriented or emotion-oriented.

Bibliographic references:

  • Amigo Vázquez, I. (2012). Manual of Health Psychology. Madrid: Pirámide.
  • Berra, E., Muñoz, S.I., Vega, C.Z., Rodríguez, A.S. and Gómez, G. (2014). Emotions, stress and coping in adolescents from the model of Lazarus and Folkman. Intercontinental Journal of Psychology and Education, 16(1), 37-57.