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Triggers and responses to stress

This article looks at different triggers and responses to stress, and discusses the Cognitive-Transactional model.
The image shows the word stress written out in red pencil.
© University of Glasgow

Stress represents the body’s natural reaction to a change or a threat that requires an adjustment or a response.

While stress is a normal part of life in some contexts, certain types and patterns of stressful events can have long-lasting negative implications for physical and mental wellbeing.

Triggers of Stress Varieties of Stress
Pressure: Expectation that an individual should behave in a particular manner Acute: Stress caused by a major event, usually short in duration with a clear endpoint
Frustration: When the pursuit of a goal is obstructed Traumatic: A stressful event that can result in PTSD
Conflict: When two or more goals are incompatible and decisions need to be made Chronic: Constant stress with no readily available end-point
Life changes: Readjustment is required in one’s living circumstances as a result of a significant change Episodic acute stress: Stress caused by repeated stressful events

Responses to Stress

An individual’s response to stress includes emotional, physiological, cognitive and behavioural reactions. An outline of the stress process is presented, with examples being included in the table below.

A graphic depicting five 'boxes' that indicate a causal relationship starting from a potentially stressful objective event, which triggers a subjective cognitive appraisal, which leads to emotional responses, physiological responses and behavioural responses.There is a causal relationship starting from a potentially stressful objective event, which triggers a subjective cognitive appraisal, which leads to emotional responses, physiological responses and behavioural responses. 

Potentially Stressful Objective Events A major exam, a big date, trouble with one’s boss, a financial setback, which may lead to frustration, conflict, change, or pressure.
Subjective Cognitive Appraisal Personalised perceptions of threat, which are influenced by familiarity with the event, its controllability or its predictability.
Emotional Response Annoyance, anger, anxiety, fear, dejection, grief.
Physiological Response Autonomic arousal, hormonal fluctuations, neurochemical changes.
Behavioural Response Coping efforts, such as lashing out at others, blaming oneself, seeking help, solving problems and releasing emotions.


Emotional reactions to stress

Common emotional reactions to stress include feelings of anxiety, dejection, anger, and annoyance. However, it is also worth thinking about positive emotional responses, such as excitement or determination, which may allow an individual to successfully adapt and cope with a stressful event.

The physical symptoms that individuals feel when they are faced with a stressful situation are the result of the physiological reaction of the individual’s body to the stressor.

Behavioural changes in response to stress may affect an individual’s day-to-day life by making them more withdrawn and thus spending less time with friends and family, or by leading an individual to develop new habits in order to cope with the stress, such as smoking or substance abuse.

The Cognitive-Transactional Model

Lazarus and Folkman (1986) developed a model of stress known as the Cognitive-Transactional model, in which stress is defined as the “relationship with the environment that the person appraises as significant for his or her wellbeing and in which the demands tax or exceed available coping resources”.

The definition highlights a key process that mediates how an individual reacts to a stressor: an appraisal.

The image shows a flowchart of the cognitive-transactional model of stress, as described above The image shows a flowchart of the cognitive-transactional model of stress, as described above. Based on similar diagrams from Turner-Cobb and Hawken (2019) and Weesie (2017). Click to see a larger version

Two-stage cognitive appraisal model

Lazarus (1970) proposed a two-stage cognitive appraisal model. The first stage involved a primary appraisal, in which an individual determines whether a potential stressor represents a threat.

If the potential stressor is not deemed a threat, no stress is experienced. However, if the stressor is appraised as threatening, a secondary appraisal takes place, during which the individual assesses whether they can cope with the threat. If the individual decides that they can cope with the threat, then no stress is experienced.

If the individual determines that they cannot cope with the threat, stress is experienced.


Lazarus R.S., Folkman S. (1986) Cognitive Theories of Stress and the Issue of Circularity. In: Appley M.H., Trumbull R. (eds) Dynamics of Stress. The Plenum Series on Stress and Coping.(pp. 63-80) Springer, Boston, MA.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer Publishing Company. Lazarus, R. S. (1970). Cognitive and personality factors underlying threat and coping. In: Levin, S., Scotch, N.A. (eds) Social stress. (pp. 143-164) doi: 10.4324/9781315129808-8

Turner-Cobb, J., & Hawken, T. (2019). Stress and Coping Assessment. In C. Llewellyn, S. Ayers, C. McManus, S. Newman, K. Petrie, T. Revenson, et al. (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine (pp. 229-236). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weesie, E. (2017). Psychological barriers in business transfers: how to cope with the transfer of SME ownership. Enschede: University of Twente. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.21660.18561.

© University of Glasgow
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