In This Article Psychology of Stress and Coping

  • Introduction
  • Definitions of Stress
  • Main Theories of Stress
  • Assessment of Stress
  • Consequences of Stress
  • Coping: Definitions and Main Theories
  • Classifying Coping: Coping Styles and Strategies
  • Assessment of Coping
  • Coping Process
  • Coping Functions and Goals
  • Coping Resources
  • Culture and Coping

Psychology Psychology of Stress and Coping
Angela R. Wendorf, Amanda M. Brouwer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0203


The psychology of stress and coping has been a prominent topic of scientific study and of popular interest over the last century. Applying the study of the mind and behavior to a concept such as stress and coping has led to an evolving definition of stress, more research on its physical, psychological and social effects, and the development of comprehensive ways in which individuals cope with stress. Our understanding of how individuals cope with stress has advanced to include perception of one’s ability to cope, approach to coping, assessment and utilization of coping resources available, and enacting of strategies. We review the psychology of stress and coping as it presents itself in the current evolving research and theoretical development, documenting historical, theoretical, and methodological perspectives on stress and coping. In so doing, we will provide sources and commentary on the definitions of stress, main theories of stress, categories of stressors, consequences of stress, definitions of coping, main theories of coping, coping styles and strategies, assessment of coping, descriptions of coping processes, coping functions and goals, coping resources, and coping and stress management interventions. We would like to acknowledge Samantha Lee for her assistance with this project.

Definitions of Stress

Stress, although universally experienced, is defined differently depending on theoretical context. The definition of stress has evolved in accordance with research and theory development. Cannon 1929 was one of the first studies to describe stress within a physiological context noting that stress is the body’s nonspecific response to stimuli in an attempt to restore homeostasis. Other theorists challenged the notion that stress was only a stimulus-response system rooted in physiology and went on identify stress as a process that requires appraisal of the stressor and the resources available to meet the demands of the stressor (Lazarus 1966). The introduction of this definition expanded the study of stress in a way that acknowledged the psychological and social contexts in addition to the physiological context of stress. McGrath 1970, for example, summarizes the stress research in a way that defines stress from the context of imbalance. Stress is experienced as a result of an imbalance between the demands put forth by one’s environmental context and the degree to which one is able to meet those demands. Other works such as Kaplan 1983 have further elaborated on the psychological context of stress to define stress in terms of the psychological and behavioral consequences that result from the inability of one distance oneself from undesirable circumstances. Elliot and Eisdorfer 1982 approaches the task of defining stress by categorizing the types of stressors relative to the time they are experienced. Here a stimulus–response definition is endorsed but modified in the degree to which the stressor is acute or chronic and intermittent or in sequence. Mason 1975 proposes that a single term of stress is too vague and suggested that there be distinctions based on external challenges (i.e., stressors), psychophysiological responses (i.e., strain) and the interaction of the stimulus, responses, and appraisal processes (i.e., stress). To sum the diverse definitions of stress and the degree to which these definitions are rooted within the trajectory of research and theory development, Fink 2016 is a good overview of the different definitions of stress and how it is related to psychological experiences like fear and anxiety.

  • Cannon, W. B. 1929. Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. Oxford: Appleton.

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    Cannon’s book provides a comprehensive overview of his physiological work wherein he discovered changes in the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine system in response to stress. Consequently, he identifies stress as a change in the body’s homeostasis and the stress response is an attempt to restore that homeostatic state.

  • Elliot, G., and C. Eisdorfer. 1982. Conceptual issues in stress research. In Stress and human health: Analysis and implications of research a study by the Institute of Medicine National Academy of Sciences. Edited by G. Elliot and C. Eisdorfer, 11–24. New York: Springer.

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    In an analysis of research, supported by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, Elliot and Eisdorfer attempt to unify the diverse perspectives of stress into a framework that represents three primary elements: the activator, the reaction and the consequence. They define stress using this framework and noting that many mediators that can alter the sequence.

  • Fink, G. 2016. Stress, definitions, mechanisms, and effects outlined: Lessons from anxiety. In Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior. Edited by G. Fink and G. Fink, 3–11. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800951-2.00001-7E-mail Citation »

    An overview of several different definitions of stress. The author highlights the relevancy of Hans Selys’s definition that stress is a nonspecific response of the body and how this founding definition fits in with the evolving perspectives of stress given the advancement of research in this field. Fink also describes stress relative to fear and anxiety and discusses how they are linked.

  • Kaplan, H. B. 1983. Psychological distress in sociological context: Toward a general theory of psychosocial stress. In Psychosocial stress: Trends in theory and research. Edited by H. B. Kaplan, 195–264. New York: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-397560-7.50010-6E-mail Citation »

    Kaplan presents a model specifically for psychosocial stress. He proposes that stress is experienced when an individual is unable to obtain a desired outcome. The unfulfilled need is then the source of distress. Kaplan supports the psychological role in the stress process noting that the cognitive interpretation of the separation of a desired outcome and one’s inability to obtain it is the source of one’s distress.

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

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    Lazarus defines stress as a process wherein the demands of one’s environment exceed the resources available for one to deal with those demands. Although the entire book is valuable to understanding the theory proposed by Lazarus, in the first chapter (pp. 1–29), he specifies the definition of stress from a psychological perspective and defines core principles that differentiate his theory from others.

  • Mason, J. W. 1975. A historical view of the stress field. Journal of Human Stress 1:22–36.

    DOI: 10.1080/0097840X.1975.9940405E-mail Citation »

    Mason outlines the state of research in the stress field and argues against Selye’s conclusions that stress has nonspecific effects (i.e., all stress results in the same physiological outcome). He provides evidence that stress has discrete effects and argues that the terminology for stress be differentiated into external challenges (i.e., stressors), psychophysiological responses (i.e., strain), and a transactional process of appraisal (i.e., stress).

  • McGrath, J. E., ed. 1970. Social and psychological factors in stress. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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    As a product of the proceedings from a conference, McGrath has put together several perspectives on defining stress and the methodological issues that are important to continuing stress research. In defining stress McGrath notes that stress is the imbalance between the responsibilities of one’s environment and the degree to which they are able to respond appropriately to them.

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