Stress is a main contributor to many modern ailments. So, the million dollar question is, how can we cope? How can we protect ourselves, and lighten the load? What do we need to know about stress so that we can manage it successfully?
Although some theoretical perspectives have focused on stress as a stimulus and others have focused on stress as a response, most modern conceptualizations of stress can be considered interactive or transactional in nature. Transactional theories incorporate the importance of both stressors and stress responses in explaining the linkage between stress and illness or disease.
Additionally, transactional theories of stress suggest that stress responses can serve as new stressors that elicit more intense stress responses. For example, if an individual responds to interpersonal conflict (a stressor) by drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes (an acute behavioral stress response), these behavioral responses may become new stressors that warrant additional stress responses.
Thus transactional theories of stress incorporate components of stress stimuli and responses that operate upon one another in a cyclic fashion. In addition, interaction or transactional theories emphasize the relation between the individual and the environment, something rarely discussed by purely stimulus or response theorists.
Transactional theorists recognize that a great deal of variability exists regarding the magnitude of acute stress responses to seemingly comparable stimuli. As such, they have looked to individual difference factors to help explain these common observations.
Lazurus and Folkman (1984) proposed a transactional theory of stress that has received considerable attention over the years. According to their perspective, it was not the initial stressor per se that was critical in linking stress to disease, but the individual’s response to the stressor that determined whether a cyclic stress reaction developed.
Focusing upon the acute cognitive stress response system, Lazurus suggested that three types of cognitive appraisal occurred in determining the magnitude of the stress reaction: primary appraisal, secondary appraisal, and reappraisal. Primary appraisal focused upon the degree to which a person detected a stressor as being harmful (leading to potential injury or illness), threatening (causing anxiety, fear, or damage to self-esteem), or challenging (leading to potential gain or growth).
According to Lazurus, individuals determined whether a stimulus was irrelevant, benign-positive, or stressful; only stimuli appraised as stressful elicited ongoing stress responses. Imagine, for example, brushing one’s leg against something furry while hiking. It might be appraised as irrelevant if it was moss, benign-positive if it was a baby rabbit, or stressful if it was a rabid skunk!
Primary appraisal was conceptualized as being accompanied by secondary appraisal, which focused upon a person’s determination of his or her resources to cope with the stressor perceived during primary appraisal. Most individuals clearly possess the resources to cope with brushing up against moss or a furry baby rabbit; however, many would question what to do when encountering a rabid skunk.
Finally, the process of reappraisal involved any change in the primary appraisal as a result of the assessment of coping resources that occurred during secondary appraisal.
Not all transactional perspectives rely on cognitive appraisal. Jay Weiss, for example, conducted seminal laboratory examinations of the stimulus characteristics of predictability and control on stress responses in rats (1970; 1971a; 1971b).
Weiss devised a set of sophisticated experiments demonstrating that rats that were provided with both control and predictability over a stressful stimulus exhibited reliably smaller stress responses and lesser tissue damage than yoked control animals without control or predictability (Weiss, 1970; 1971; 1971b).
Therefore, controllability and predictability represented contextual components of the laboratory experiment that were shown to determine the magnitude of the stress response evoked by the stressor.
Weiss’s influential work on the importance of control and predictability of the stimulus affecting an organism’s stress response provided the empirical foundation for a transactional theory of stress commonly referred to as the Defense-Defeat Model of Stress (Henry and Stephens, 1977). According to these authors, there are two distinct stress responses: the defense reaction and the defeat reaction (see Figure 3.2).
As depicted in Figure 3.2, the controllability of the stimulus was clearly related to the type of cortical response that occurred. In a situation that provoked a threat to an organism, the fight-flight response was triggered, resulting in the defense reactioncharacterized by fleeing or displaying aggression.
In contrast, if the situation resulted in a loss of control by the organism, the defeat reactionoccurred, characterized by limited activity and subordination. These two systems clearly were differentiated behaviorally as well as physiologically. Not only were they associated with distinct observable behavioral differences, they also involved different brain mechanisms, different neurotransmitter systems, and different peripheral manifestations of the response in the peripheral nervous system.