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Tenacious Goal Pursuits and Striving Toward Personal Growth: Proactive Coping


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Chapter 2 discusses goal pursuits, personal growth, and proactive coping. This includes trends in stress and coping theory (response-based perspective, stimulus-based perspective, cognitive-transactional theory of stress, antecedents of stress and coping, and dimensions of coping), proactive coping theory, and research into proactive coping.
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Tenacious Goal Pursuits and Striving Toward Personal Growth:
Proactive Coping
Ralf Schwarzer
Steffen Taubert
Freie Universität Berlin
Schwarzer, R., & Taubert, S. (2002). Tenacious goal pursuits and striving toward personal
growth: Proactive coping. In E. Frydenberg (Ed.), Beyond coping: Meeting goals, visions and
challenges (pp. 19-35). London: Oxford University Press.
Address correspondence to:
Ralf Schwarzer
Freie Universität Berlin
Habelschwerdter Allee 45
14195 Berlin, Germany
Fax: +49 (30) 838-55634
Trends in Stress and Coping Theory: Resources, Goals, and Positive
Researchers disagree about the definition of stress. In the biomedical sciences, stress is
understood as an organism’s response to adverse stimulation. In psychology, however, stress
is usually the process where a person and the environment interact, whereby research
sometimes focuses on the nature of the stressor. Health psychologists study the joint effects of
the person and environment on pathology, along with mediating and moderating factors, such
as coping and social support (Hobfoll et al., 1998). Basically, three broad perspectives can be
chosen when studying the stress process: (a) response-based, (b) stimulus-based, and (c)
cognitive-transactional. We will briefly address this distinction in order to provide a better
understanding of the history and scope of the topic. We will mention the theories of Selye
(1956), Holmes and Rahe (1967), Lazarus (1966, 1991), and Hobfoll (1998) and will
conclude with our Proactive Coping Theory (Greenglass, this volume; Schwarzer, 2000).
The Response-Based Perspective
When people say, ‘I feel a lot of stress,’ they are usually referring to their response to an
adverse situation. The focus is on the way their body reacts. Selye (1956) has distinguished
between a stressor (the stimulus) and stress (the response). Selye was not interested in the
nature of the stressor, but rather in the physiological response and the development of illness.
This response to a stimulus follows the same typical three-stage pattern in humans and
animals, called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). According to the GAS, the body
initially defends itself against adverse circumstances by activating the sympathetic nervous
system. This has been called the alarm reaction. It mobilizes the body for the ‘fight or flight’
response, which can be seen phylogenetically as an adaptive short-term reaction to emergency
situations. In many cases, the stress episode is mastered during the alarm reaction stage.
Often, however, stress is a longer encounter, and the organism moves on to the
resistance stage, in which it adapts more or less successfully to the stressor. Although the
person does not give the impression of being under stress, the organism does not function well
and eventually becomes sick. According to Selye, the immune system is compromised, so
some typical ‘diseases of adaptation’ develop under persistent stress, such as cardiovascular
Finally, in the exhaustion stage, the organism’s adaptation resources are depleted, and
a breakdown occurs. This is associated with parasympathetic activation that leads to illness,
burnout, depression, or even death.
This response-based perspective of stress has its merits, and it is still dominant in the
biomedical sciences. However, it is no longer supported in psychology, mainly because Selye
has disregarded the role of emotions and cognitions by focusing solely on physiological
reactions in animals and humans. Selye (1956) claimed that all these organisms show a
nonspecific response to adverse stimulations, regardless of how the situation appears. In
contrast, modern psychological theories highlight the individual’s interpretation of the
situation as a major determinant of a stressful encounter.
The Stimulus-Based Perspective
When someone says, ‘I have a stressful marriage,’ they refer to a trying situation, not to their
response to that situation. The stimulus-based perspective takes this approach, paying more
attention to the particular characteristics of the stressor. It is argued that each critical episode
has its unique demands, be it physical, social, role, or task, that specifically tax the
individual’s coping resources, thus triggering a particular stress response. The research
question is how to establish relationships between a variety of distinct stressors and outcomes,
including illness.
This line of research emerged when Holmes and Rahe (1967) attempted to measure
life stress by assigning numbers, called life-change units, to critical life events. They assumed
that the average amount of adaptive effort necessary to cope with an event would be a useful
indicator of the severity of such an event. Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend (1974) subsequently
edited a publication that was another milestone of the stimulus-based perspective of stress.
Today, research in this tradition continues, but it is often flawed by several problems. One
basic shortcoming is the use of average weights for events, neglecting the fact that different
individuals may perceive the same kind of event differently. Also, studies rely too often on
retrospective reports of previous challenges that might not be remembered correctly, or that
are distorted as a result of defense mechanisms. In addition, coping processes and changes in
social support are often insufficiently examined. The degree to which the objective nature of
the stressor should be emphasized in contrast to its subjective interpretation is still undergoing
debate (Hobfoll, 1998; Schwarzer and Schulz, in press).
Cognitive-Transactional Theory of Stress
The cognitive-transactional paradigm sees stress as an on-going process, initiated and
maintained by the cognitive appraisal of demands and resistance resources. It is the standard
paradigm in the field of psychology. The present section summarizes this approach. This
cognitive-transactional theory of stress emphasizes the continuous, reciprocal nature of the
interaction between the person and the environment. Since its first publication (Lazarus,
1966), it has not only been further developed and refined, but it has also been expanded to a
meta-theoretical concept of emotion and coping processes (Lazarus, 1991). Stress is defined
as a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the
person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being.
Within a meta-theoretical system approach, Lazarus (1991) conceives the complex
processes of emotion as being composed of causal antecedents, mediating processes, and
effects. Antecedents are personal resources, such as wealth, social networks, competencies,
commitments or beliefs, on the one hand, and objective demands, critical events, or
situational constraints on the other. Mediating processes refer to cognitive appraisals of such
resources and demands as well as to coping efforts. The experience of stress and coping bring
along immediate effects, for example affect and physiological changes, and long-term effects
concerning psychological well-being, somatic health, and social functioning.
There are three meta-theoretical assumptions: transaction, process, and context. It is
assumed, first, that emotions occur as a specific encounter of the person with the
environment, and that both exert a reciprocal influence on each other; second, that emotions
and cognitions are subject to continuous change; and third, that the meaning of a transaction is
derived from the underlying context, that is, various attributes of a natural setting determine
the actual experience of emotions and the resulting action tendencies.
Research has mostly neglected these meta-theoretical assumptions in favor of
unidirectional, cross-sectional, and context-free designs. Within methodologically sound
empirical research, it is hardly possible to study complex phenomena such as emotions and
coping without constraints. Also, because of its complexity and transactional character
leading to interdependencies between the variables involved, the meta-theoretical system
approach cannot be investigated and empirically tested as a whole model. Rather, it represents
a heuristic framework that may serve to formulate and test hypotheses in selected subareas of
the theoretical system only. Thus, in practical research, one has to compromise within the
ideal research paradigm. Researchers have often focused on structure instead of process,
measuring single states or aggregates of states. Ideally, however, stress has to be analyzed and
investigated as an active, unfolding process. Cognitive appraisals comprise two component
processes, namely (primary) demand appraisals and (secondary) resource appraisals.
Appraisal outcomes are divided into the categories challenge, threat, and harm/loss. First,
demand appraisal refers to the stakes a person has in a stressful encounter. A situation is
appraised as challenging when it mobilizes physical and mental activity and involvement. In
the evaluation of challenge, a person may see an opportunity to prove herself or himself,
anticipating gain, mastery, or personal growth from the venture. The situation is experienced
as pleasant, exciting, and interesting, and the person feels ardent and confident in being able
to meet the demands. Threat occurs when the individual perceives danger, anticipating
physical injuries or blows to one’s self-esteem. In the experience of harm/loss, some damage
has already occurred, for instance injury or loss of valued persons, important objects, self-
worth, or social standing.
Second, resource appraisals refer to one’s available coping options for dealing with
the demands at hand. The individual evaluates his or her competence, social support, and
material or other resources that can help to readapt to the circumstances and to reestablish an
equilibrium between person and environment.
Antecedents of Stress and Coping: Demands and Resources
To characterize demands or situational stressors, Lazarus (1991) describes formal
properties, such as novelty, event uncertainty, ambiguity, and temporal aspects of stressful
conditions. For example, demands that are difficult, ambiguous, unexpected, unprepared, or
prolonged under time pressure, are more likely to induce threat than easy tasks that can be
prepared for thoroughly and solved at a convenient pace without time constraints. The work
environment can be evaluated with respect to the stakes inherent in a given situation. For
example, demanding social situations imply interpersonal threat, the danger of physical injury
is perceived as physical threat, and anticipated failures endangering self-worth indicate ego
threat. Lazarus additionally distinguishes between task-specific stress, including cognitive
demands and other formal task properties, and failure-induced stress, including evaluation
aspects, such as social feedback, valence of goal, possibilities of failure, or actual failure. In
general, unfavorable task conditions combined with failure-inducing situational cues are
likely to provoke stress.
Personal resources refer to the internal coping options that are available in a particular
stressful encounter. Competence and skills have to match the work demands. Individuals who
are affluent, healthy, capable, and optimistic are seen as resourceful and, thus, are less
vulnerable toward stress at work. Social competence, empathy, and assertiveness might be
necessary to deal with specific interpersonal demands. It is essential to feel competent to
handle a stressful situation. But actual competence is not a sufficient prerequisite. If the
individual underestimates his or her potential for action, no adaptive strategies will be
developed. Therefore, perceived competence is crucial. This has been labeled ‘perceived self-
efficacy’ or ‘optimistic self-beliefs’ by Bandura (1997). Perceived self-efficacy and optimism
are seen as a prerequisite for coping with all kinds of stress, such as job loss, demotion,
promotion, or work overload.
Social resources refer to the environmental options that are available to a person in a
stressful encounter. Social integration reflects the person’s embeddedness in a network of
social interactions, mutual assistance, attachment, and obligations. Social support reflects the
actual or perceived coping assistance in critical situations (for a review, see Schwarzer and
Rieckmann, in press). Social support has been defined in various ways, for example as a
resource provided by others, coping assistance, or an exchange of resources the provider or
the recipient perceives to be intended to enhance the well-being of the recipient. Among the
types of social support that have been investigated are: instrumental (e.g., assist with a
problem), tangible (e.g., donate goods), informational (e.g., give advice), and emotional
support (e.g., give reassurance).
Dimensions of Coping
Many attempts have been made to reduce the universe of possible coping responses to
a parsimonious set of coping dimensions. Some researchers have made two basic distinctions,
such as instrumental, attentive, vigilant, or confrontative coping, as opposed to avoidant,
palliative, and emotional coping (for an overview, see Schwarzer & Schwarzer, 1996). A
well-known approach is that by Lazarus (1991), who separates problem-focused from
emotion-focused coping. Another conceptual distinction has been suggested between
assimilative and accommodative coping, whereby the former aims at modifying the
environment and the latter at modifying oneself (Brandtstädter, 1992). This coping pair has
also been coined ‘mastery versus meaning’ (Taylor, 1983) or ‘primary control versus
secondary control’ (Rothbaum et al., 1982). These coping preferences may occur in a certain
time order, for example, when individuals first try to alter the demands that are at stake, and,
after failing, turn inward to reinterpret their plight and find subjective meaning in it.
The number of dimensions that have been established theoretically or found
empirically also depends on the level within a hierarchy of coping concepts. Krohne (in
press), for example, distinguishes between a behavioral level and a conceptual level, each
consisting of two subclasses:
1. Reactions and acts constitute the behavioral level at the bottom of this hierarchy. A
coping reaction is considered as a single behavioral element, for instance tuning in to a music
channel instead of an information channel during a laboratory stress experiment. Several
similar reactions can be grouped into an act, such as executing a specific problem-solving
2. At the conceptual level, researchers can identify a set of acts reflecting a particular
strategy, for example making use of social resources or turning to religion. Strategies, in turn,
can be grouped into dispositional superstrategies, two of which are vigilance and cognitive
avoidance (similar to monitoring and blunting; Miller, 1987).
Theoretical Advancements in the Field
Hobfoll (1988, 1998) has expanded stress and coping theory with respect to the conservation
of resources as the main human motive in the struggle with stressful encounters. Resources
have also been an important ingredient in Lazarus’s theory. The difference between the two
theories lies mainly in the status of objective and subjective resources. Lazarus sees objective
resources only as antecedents that may have an indirect effect, whereas subjective resources
(resource appraisals) represent the direct precursors of the stress process. Actually, the
simultaneous appraisal of demands and resources constitutes the beginning of a stress
episode. In contrast, Hobfoll, considering both objective and subjective resources as
components, lends more weight to the former than Lazarus does. Thus, the difference between
the two theories, in this respect, is a matter of degree, not a matter of principle. Hobfoll tends
to interpret Lazarus’s approach as a highly subjective ‘appraisal theory’ and argues that
objective resources are more important. This reinterpretation does not do justice to the
comprehensive model of a stress episode that starts with objective antecedents, includes
appraisal as well as coping, and ends with more or less adaptive outcomes, such as health,
well-being, or social harmony. Viewed from a process perspective, Lazarus deals more with
initial appraisal, whereas Hobfoll deals more with prior objective resource status and
subsequent coping. Thus, his model could also be labeled ‘resource-based coping theory.’
Resource loss is central to Hobfoll’s theory. He distinguishes the categories (a)
resources threatened with loss, (b) resources actually lost, and (c) failure to gain resources.
This loss/gain dichotomy, and in particular the resource-based loss spirals and gain spirals,
shed a new light on stress and coping. The change of resources (more so the loss than the
gain) appears to be particularly stressful, whereas the mere lack of resources or their
availability seems to be less influential.
Failure to gain resources following an investment is another unique feature. Hobfoll
argues that burnout and ill health might be consequences of such a detrimental motivational
state. In a similar vein, Siegrist (1996
) has
suggested that ‘effort-reward imbalance’ may
compromise the health of employees. This is a highly attractive concept that enriches stress
and coping research.
Extensions of the Coping Construct
In general, there is a trend to broaden stress and coping research by including positive
strivings that were formerly domains of motivation and action theories. The notions of
mastery, optimization (Baltes, 1997; Freund & Baltes, 2000), challenge and benefit (Lazarus,
1991), and resource gain (Hobfoll, 1998) are in line with proactive coping theories (e.g.,
Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997; Schwarzer, 2000). People strive for more resources, desire to
maximize gains, and build up resistance factors either to ward off future crises or to grow and
cultivate their capabilities for their own sake. This forward time perspective opens new
research questions and helps to overcome traditional coping models that overemphasize the
reactive nature of coping.
The broadening of stress and coping research has also included the search for meaning
in stressful encounters (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Schwarzer &
Knoll, in press; Taylor, 1983; Tennen & Affleck, in press). Researchers have further
subdivided the construct. Davis et al. (1998) suggest a two-dimensional construal of meaning
as ‘sense-making’ and meaning as ‘benefit-finding.’ Sense-making relates to finding a reason
for what happened, integrating it into existing schemata, such as religion, knowledge about
health, or consequences of life stress. Benefit-finding, on the other hand, pertains to positive
implications of a negative event or the pursuit of the silver lining of adversity.
Baumeister (1991) has proposed four needs for meaning: (a) purpose (objective goals
and subjective fulfillment), (b) efficacy and control, (c) value and justification, and (d) self-
worth. Each of these can be regarded as general goals of coping with life stress. Specific
coping strategies in certain stress situations can be evaluated with respect to the degree that
they serve such higher-order goals in life. Examples of psychological markers of ‘efficacy and
control’ are: (a) perceiving a link between present behaviors and future outcomes, (b)
maintaining ‘illusions of control’ over uncontrollable events, or (c) reporting success in
overcoming difficult obstacles in one’s past. This need, as Baumeister (1991) calls it, is in line
with proactive coping (see Table 1).
Table 1 Four Needs for Meaning and their Psychological Markers (Baumeister, 1991)
Need Psychological Markers
Purpose: Objective goals and subjective
Forming new goals when old goals are reached;
linking negative events to future, positive fulfillment
states – such as greater appreciation for life; reflecting
on one’s accomplishments
Efficacy and control Perceiving a link between present behaviors and
future outcomes; maintaining ‘illusions of control’
over uncontrollable events; reporting success in
overcoming difficult obstacles in one’s past
Value and justification Downplaying the consequences of, or externalizing
responsibility for, immoral or hurtful actions;
reporting good and admirable intentions; claiming the
victim status
Self-worth Comparing the self with less fortunate others;
reiterating one’s appeal to others; relegating personal
failures to the past; assuming credit for success but not
failures; asserting superiority over others
A different approach at this general level of meaning in life has been taken by Wong
(1998), who proposes five dimensions that reflect meaning, namely cognitive, motivational,
affective, relational, and personal. The motivational dimension includes coping
characteristics, such as ‘pursues worthwhile goals,’ ‘seeks to actualize one’s potential,’ and
‘strives toward personal growth.’ Again, these represent proactive coping (see Table 2).
Table 2 Dimensions of the Conceptualization of a Meaningful Life (Wong, 1998)
Cognitive believes that there is an ultimate purpose in life
believes in moral laws
believes in an afterlife
Motivational pursues worthwhile goals
seeks to actualize ones potential
strives toward personal growth
Affective feels content with who one is and what one is doing
feels fulfilled about what one has accomplished
feels satisfied with life
Relational is sincere and honest with others
has a number of good friends
brings happiness to others
Personal likes challenge
accepts ones limitations
has a healthy self-concept
The recent broadening of coping theory might be a reaction to earlier
conceptualizations of coping that neglected goals, purpose, and meaning. As these become
more salient and explicit in the current thinking, it is appropriate to redesign coping theory in
order to extend it into volition and action theory. The present approach makes a systematic
distinction between proactive coping and three other kinds of coping that might shed more
light on some previously neglected aspects.
Proactive Coping Theory
This section provides a further perspective that stems from a time-related classification of
coping modes and proposes a distinction between reactive coping, anticipatory coping,
preventive coping, and proactive coping.
Stressful demands can either reflect a distressing loss in early life or an ongoing
harmful encounter. They can also exist in the near or distant future, creating a threat to
someone who feels incapable of matching the upcoming tasks with the coping resources at
hand. In light of the complexity of stressful episodes in social contexts, human coping cannot
be reduced to primitive forms, such as fight-and-flight responses or relaxation. Besides other
factors, coping depends on the time perspective of the demands and the subjective certainty of
the events.
The temporal aspect of coping has often been neglected. One can cope before a
stressful event takes place, while it is happening (e.g., during the progress of a disease), or
afterwards. Beehr and McGrath (1996) distinguish five situations that create a particular
temporal context: (a) preventive coping, long before a stressful event occurs or might occur
(e.g., a smoker might quit well in time to avoid the risk of lung cancer); (b) anticipatory
coping, when the event is expected soon (e.g., someone might take a tranquillizer while
waiting for surgery); (c) dynamic coping, while it is ongoing (e.g., diverting attention to
reduce chronic pain); (d) reactive coping, after it has happened (for example, changing one’s
life after a limb has been amputated); and (e) residual coping, long afterwards, by contending
with long-term effects (e.g., controlling one’s intrusive thoughts years after a traumatic
accident has happened).
To introduce an alternative perspective, we distinguish between reactive, anticipatory,
preventive, and proactive coping. Reactive coping refers to harm or loss experienced in the
past, whereas anticipatory coping pertains to imminent threat in the near future. Preventive
coping refers to an uncertain threat potential in the distant future, whereas proactive coping
involves upcoming challenges that are seen as potentially self-promoting (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Outline of Proactive Coping Theory.
Reactive coping can be defined as an effort to deal with a past or present stressful
encounter or to compensate for or accept harm or loss. Examples of harm or loss are marital
dissolution, being criticized by parents or friends, having an accident, doing poorly at a job
interview, being demoted, or losing one’s job. All of these events happened in the past with
absolute certainty. Thus, the individual has to either compensate for the loss or alleviate harm.
Another option is to readjust goals, find benefit, or search for meaning to reconceptualize
one’s life. Reactive coping may be problem-focused, emotion-focused, or social-relation-
focused. For coping with loss or harm, people need to be resilient. Because they aim at
compensation or recovery, they need ‘recovery self-efficacy,’ a particular optimistic belief in
their capability to overcome setbacks (Schwarzer, 1999).
Anticipatory coping is fundamentally different because the critical event has not yet
occurred. It can be regarded as an effort to deal with impending threat. In anticipatory coping,
individuals face a critical event that is certain or fairly certain to occur in the near future.
Examples are speaking in public, a dentist appointment, adapting to parenthood, an exam, a
job interview, increased workload, promotion, company downsizing, retirement, etc. There is
a risk that the upcoming event may cause harm or loss later on, thus the person has to manage
this perceived risk. The situation is appraised as either threatening or challenging, or is
associated with benefiting, or some of each. The function of coping may lie in solving the
actual problem at hand, such as increasing effort, enlisting help, or investing other resources.
Another function may lie in feeling good in spite of the risk, for example by redefining the
situation as less threatening, by distraction, or by gaining reassurance from others. Thus,
anticipatory coping can be understood as the management of known risks, which includes
investing one’s resources to prevent or combat the stressor or to maximize an anticipated
benefit. One of the personal resource factors is situation-specific ‘coping self-efficacy’
(Schwarzer & Renner, 2000), an optimistic self-belief of being able to cope successfully with
the particular situation at hand.
Preventive coping can be seen as an effort to prepare for uncertainty in the long run.
This is contrary to anticipatory coping, which is a short-term engagement with high-certainty
events. The aim is to build up general resistance resources that result in less strain in the
future by minimizing the severity of the impact, with less severe consequences of stress,
should it occur, or a less likely onset of stressful events in the first place. In preventive
coping, individuals consider a critical event that may or may not occur in the distant future.
Examples of such events are job loss, forced retirement, crime, illness, physical disability,
disaster, or poverty. When people carry a spare key, lock their doors twice, have good health
insurance, save money, or maintain social bonds, they cope in a preventive way and build up
protection without knowing whether they will ever need it. The perception of ambiguity need
not be limited to single events. There can be a vague wariness that ‘something might happen,’
which motivates one to prepare for ‘everything.’ The individual anticipates the nonnormative
life events that are appraised as more or less threatening. Coping here is a kind of risk
management because one has to manage various unknown risks in the distant future. The
perceived ambiguity stimulates a broad range of coping behaviors. Because all kinds of harm
or loss could materialize one day, the individual builds up general resistance resources by
accentuating their psychological strengths and accumulating wealth, social bonds, and skills -
‘just in case.’ Skill development, for example, is a coping process that may help to prevent
possible trouble. Preventive coping is not born out of an acute stress situation. It is not
sparked by state anxiety, rather by some level of trait worry, or at least some reasonable
concern about the dangers of life. General ‘coping self-efficacy’ seems to be a good personal
prerequisite to plan and initiate successfully multifarious preventive actions that help build up
resilience against threatening nonnormative life events in the distant future.
Proactive coping is not preceded by negative appraisals, such as harm, loss, or threat.
Proactive coping can be considered as an effort to build up general resources that facilitate
promotion toward challenging goals and personal growth. In proactive coping, people have a
vision. They see risks, demands, and opportunities in the far future, but they do not appraise
them as a threat, harm, or loss. Rather, they perceive demanding situations as personal
challenges. Coping becomes goal management instead of risk management. Individuals are
not reactive, but proactive in the sense that they initiate a constructive path of action and
create opportunities for growth. The proactive individual strives for life improvement and
builds up resources that assure progress and quality of functioning. Proactively creating better
living conditions and higher performance levels is experienced as an opportunity to render life
meaningful or to find purpose in life. Stress is interpreted as ‘eustress,’ that is, productive
arousal and vital energy.
Preventive and proactive coping are partly manifested in the same kinds of overt
behaviors, such as skill development, resource accumulation, and long-term planning.
However, motivation can emanate either from threat appraisal or from challenge appraisal,
which makes a difference. Worry levels are higher in the former and lower in the latter.
Proactive individuals are motivated to meet challenges, and they commit themselves to
personal quality standards.
Self-regulatory goal management includes ambitious goal setting and tenacious goal
pursuit. The latter requires ‘action self-efficacy,’ an optimistic belief that one is capable of
initiating and maintaining difficult courses of action. The role of beliefs in self-regulatory
goal attainment has been spelled out in more detail in a different theory that was designed to
explain health behavior change, the Health Action Process Approach (HAPA; Schwarzer,
1992, 1999; Schwarzer & Renner, 2000). Further amplification of the terms involved is given
below, in the context of assessment procedures.
The distinction between these four perspectives of coping is advantageous because it
moves the focus away from mere responses to negative events toward a broader range of risk
and goal management that includes the active creation of opportunities and the positive
experience of stress. Aspinwall and Taylor (1997) have described a proactive coping theory
that is similar, but not identical, to the present one. What they call proactive coping is mainly
covered by the term preventive coping in the current approach (see also Greenglass et al.,
Proactive Coping: Assessment and Findings
Coping has usually been measured by questionnaires, for instance checklists or psychometric
scales. In a review chapter, Schwarzer and Schwarzer (1996) describe 13 conventional
inventories that were designed to assess numerous aspects of coping. These measures include
various subscales that cover a broad area of coping behaviors, such as problem-solving,
avoidance, seeking social support or information, denial, reappraisal, and others. One
conclusion is that it will continue to be difficult to measure coping in a satisfactory manner
because it is highly idiosyncratic and determined jointly by situational and personality factors.
Nevertheless, theory-based psychometric scales can assess an important part of the coping
process if repeatedly administered. Approaches that try to tap innovative aspects of positive
coping are, for example, the mastery of future threats and challenges, as reflected by
preventive or proactive coping.
Preventive coping aims at dealing with uncertain threatening events that will occur
mainly in the distant future. People accumulate resources and take general precautions to
protect themselves against a variety of critical events. A preventive coping subscale is
included in the Proactive Coping Inventory (PCI; Greenglass et al., 1999). Typical items are,
‘I plan for future eventualities,’ and ‘I prepare for adverse events.’ Encouraging empirical
evidence is available for the PCI (Greenglass, this volume).
Proactive coping aims at uncertain challenging goals. People accumulate resources
and develop skills and strategies in their pursuit. The PCI includes the Proactive Coping
subscale (see Greenglass, this volume) that has been tested in various samples and that is
available in several languages. In the Proactive Coping subscale, there are 14 homogeneous
items that form a unidimensional scale. It has satisfactory psychometric properties, and there
is growing evidence of its validity. Several studies in Canada, Poland, and Germany have
found that proactive coping is positively correlated with perceived self-efficacy and
negatively with job burnout in different professions (Schwarzer & Taubert, 1999; Taubert,
unpublished thesis, 1999; see Greenglass, this volume). In the study by Taubert (unpublished
thesis, 1999), based on data provided by Greenglass, a Canadian sample and a Polish-
Canadian sample were examined with a large battery of psychometric scales, including the
PCI. The Proactive Coping subscale correlated with general self-efficacy, r = .70 and .65,
respectively. It was negatively associated with depression, r = -.49 and -.41, and also with
self-blame, r = -.47 and -.47, in these two samples. Moreover, it was positively correlated
with some of the Brief Cope (Carver, 1997, 1999) subscales, such as Active Coping .52 and
.50, and Planning, .42 und .45. With Behavioral Disengagement it was negatively correlated, -
.42 and -.54. This attests to the fact that the PCI subscale on Proactive Coping yields the
desired pattern of associations with other variables (see also Greenglass, this volume).
A more recent study was conducted with 316 German teachers (Schwarzer,
unpublished data). The internal consistency was alpha = .86. Correlations with proactive
coping were r = .61 with perceived self-efficacy, r = .50 with self-regulation, and r = -.40
with procrastination. Job burnout was defined three-dimensionally in terms of emotional
exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of accomplishment (Maslach et al., 1996). Burnout is
a relevant construct for the validation because it should not be compatible with proactive
coping. To illustrate the relationships, the sample was subdivided into low, medium, and high
proactive teachers who were plotted against the three dimensions of burnout. Figure 2
displays a significant pattern of decreasing burnout with increasing levels of proactive coping.
Proactive teachers report less emotional exhaustion, less cynicism, and more personal
accomplishments than their reactive counterparts.
Lack of AccomplishDepersonalEmotionality
Proactive Coping
Figure 2. Pattern of decreasing burnout with increasing levels of proactive coping.
The study also included brief scales to assess the three stress appraisal dimensions of
challenge, threat, and loss (Jerusalem & Schwarzer, 1992). High proactive coping should be
associated with high challenge appraisals, whereas low proactive coping should be linked to
higher threat and loss appraisals. Figure 3 confirms this assumption. Proactive teachers
perceive their stress as more challenging, and less threatening and loss-based, than their
reactive counterparts.
Proactive Coping
Figure 3. Proactive teachers perceive their stress as more challenging, and less threatening
and loss-based, than their reactive counterparts.
It is also of note that highly proactive teachers spent an average of about four extra
hours per week with their students, whereas the other two groups reported only three unpaid
hours. This attests to the professional engagement of proactive teachers. Figure 4 shows three
dependent variables: extra hours, individual reference norm, and idealism. The latter two were
measured by psychometric self-report scales. Individual reference norm pertains to a
preference of teachers to judge their students’ accomplishments longitudinally with a focus on
intraindividual changes, as opposed to social comparison. As can be seen in Figure 4,
proactive teachers base their judgments more on intraindividual changes than their reactive
counterparts, and they report themselves as being more idealistic. To summarize, proactive
teachers in this study experience less job burnout, perceive more challenges and less threat
and loss, and display more professional engagement than their reactive counterparts. These
and further data (see Greenglass, this volume) corroborate the usefulness of the construct and
the validity of the proactive coping measure.
IdealismIndividual NormExtra Hours
Proactive Coping
Figure 4. Extra hours, individual reference norm, and idealism, as expressed by proactive
versus reactive teachers.
The field of coping is becoming broader and now includes positive striving and emotions,
goals, benefit finding, and search for meaning. As one example of such a differentiation of
concepts, we have chosen proactive coping theory (Schwarzer, 2000; Taubert, unpublished
thesis, 1999). This theory builds upon Lazarus’s (1991) cognitive appraisal approach and adds
a temporal and other dimensions to earlier work. Moreover, it bridges the gap between coping
theories on the one hand and action and volition theories on the other. Extending coping to
tenacious goal pursuit and personal growth offers a more comprehensive picture of humans’
struggle with life. Under the assumption that life in itself is necessarily stressful, coping
becomes an appropriate label for many human behaviors over and above simple routines and
habits. When Selye (1956) coined the term ‘eustress’ and Lazarus (1966) introduced
‘challenge’ as one of the major cognitive stress appraisals, the stage was set for a positive
understanding of stress and coping. Not until later did Lazarus (1991) add ‘benefit’ to his
appraisal categories, which has now become one of the key arenas in coping research.
Proactive coping (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997; Greenglass et al., 1999; Schwarzer, 2000;
Schwarzer & Taubert, 1999) is the latest addition to this positive trend and constitutes goal-
oriented, long-term behaviors that take place before an actual stress episode occurs. There is
not necessarily a concrete ‘stressor.’ Self-imposed goals and visions may trigger the creation
of opportunities and risks, and the struggle for rewards and growth may have its stressful ups
and downs, some of them unanticipated. Building a career or a house, writing a book, leading
others to success, etc., represent continuous stress situations.
This description of proactive coping is reminiscent of leadership characteristics,
which will be discussed here in the context of coping. Proactive leadership is a personality
characteristic that has implications for motivation and action. It is a belief in the rich potential
of changes that can be made to improve oneself and one’s environment. This includes various
aspects, such as resourcefulness, responsibility, values, and vision.
The proactive leader believes in the existence of sufficient resources, either external or
internal. Goods, services, and people can be influenced to support goal attainment.
Intelligence, courage, and strength, for example, reside within and allow goal setting and
The proactive leader takes responsibility for his or her own growth. A life course is not
fully determined by external forces, but, rather, it can be chosen. Neither good nor bad events
are attributed mindlessly to external causes. Instead, the proactive leader faces reality and
adopts a balanced view of self-blame and other-blame in the case of negative events. Two
kinds of responsibilities are distinguished: those for past events and those for making things
happen. The latter is crucial here. The proactive leader focuses on solutions for problems, no
matter who has caused them.
The proactive leader is driven by values. The behavior of others might be determined
by social environment, whereas proactive persons are mindful of their values and choose their
path of action accordingly.
A proactive leader has a vision and creates meaning in life by striving for ambitious
goals. He or she imagines what could be and sets goals in line with this vision. Total Quality
Management (TQM), for example, is a principle of continuous improvement within
companies. The same idea can be transferred to a leader who constantly strives for self-
improvement, accumulates resources, prevents resource depletion, and mobilizes forces with
a long-term aim in mind, following a self-imposed mission.
We cannot supply empirical research on proactive leadership. However, the above
findings on German teachers point in this direction. Among the teachers who were studied,
evidence was found for the beneficial effects of proactive coping, which can be understood as
a form of leadership when individuals are in charge of other persons.
In conclusion, a few words on the future of coping measurement are in order. The
measurement of proactive behaviors, personal growth, positive reappraisals, and positive
emotions in the context of stress adaptation should not remain at the level of psychometric
scales, but should include dynamic data that account for changes within a particular coping
episode. Contrary to the cross-sectional design that characterizes much coping research,
theoretical considerations necessitate the examination of coping from a process perspective,
where changes can be studied over time. Rather than remaining static, coping responses
change in relation to the variations in the situational configuration as well as in response to
varying resources. Coping can be understood best when it is regarded as a transactional
process (Lazarus, 1991), which implies a longitudinal measurement approach. However, it is
not sufficient to simply select several points in time because the researcher cannot be certain
about the optimal time frame when significant changes take place. Therefore, a more
continuous measurement is recommended. The closest to this suggestion is the daily process
approach to coping, commonly referred to as Experience Sampling Method (ESM; Tennen et
al., 2000), where participants respond at least once a day when prompted by an ambulatory
device. The main disadvantage of this method, of course, is its reactivity, which means that
coping responses are artificially constructed, due to the demands of the particular study
design. But the overall approach appears to be promising. Perrez (in press) describes data
sources, such as self-report, systematic self-observation, external recording of psychological
features with respect to coping behavior, and the direct recording of psychophysiological and
biochemical parameters. In the future, we can expect advances in the computerized
simultaneous assessment of such data sources under real-life conditions. In contrast, cross-
sectional studies that often rely on hypothetical scenarios or that require the recall of single or
multiple past events will lose their importance.
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Author Note
The authors are grateful to Judith Bäßler, Esther Greenglass, and Nina Knoll for valuable
comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
... Coping modes can be distinguished using the time perspective of demands and the perceived certainty of events. Schwarzer (2001;Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002) developed a system with four modes of coping: reactive, anticipatory, preventive and proactive. ...
... It should be noted that Schwarzer's conceptualization of proactive coping (Schwarzer, 2001;Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002) differs from that by Aspinwall & Taylor (1997) as the latter is closer to preventive rather than proactive coping in terms of Proactive Coping Theory (Schwarzer, 2001;Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002). Proactive and preventive coping constructs are measured by corresponding scales in the Proactive Coping Inventory (PCI, Greenglass et al., 1999). ...
... It should be noted that Schwarzer's conceptualization of proactive coping (Schwarzer, 2001;Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002) differs from that by Aspinwall & Taylor (1997) as the latter is closer to preventive rather than proactive coping in terms of Proactive Coping Theory (Schwarzer, 2001;Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002). Proactive and preventive coping constructs are measured by corresponding scales in the Proactive Coping Inventory (PCI, Greenglass et al., 1999). ...
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... We are aware that have an element of a "chicken-egg-debate," (what comes first and which aspect affects the other). However, we prefer, on the basis of the construct of proactive coping (Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002) to test the second hypothesis, which should be implemented in future longitudinal studies. ...
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... Our results have practical implications, specifically the suggestion that women tend to be more troubled by identity issues and feel less secure than men. Therefore, to support women's identity formation, it is important to help them acquire future-oriented coping strategies, namely proactive and preventive coping (Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002). Proactive coping is a strategy that involves preparing resources for personal growth and coping with future challenges. ...
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This article first presents two theories representing distinct approaches to the field of stress research: Selye's theory of ‘systemic stress’ based in physiology and psychobiology, and the ‘psychological stress’ model developed by Lazarus. In the second part, the concept of coping is described. Coping theories may be classified according to two independent parameters: trait-oriented versus state-oriented, and microanalytic versus macroanalytic approaches. The multitude of theoretical conceptions is based on the macroanalytic, trait-oriented approach. Examples of this approach that are presented in this article are ‘repression–sensitization,’ ‘monitoring-blunting,’ and the ‘model of coping modes.’ The article closes with a brief outline of future perspectives in stress and coping research.
This article first presents two theories representing distinct approaches to the field of stress research: Selye's theory osystemic stress' based in physiology and psychobiology, and thèpsychological stress' model developed by Lazarus. In the second part, the concept of coping is described. Coping theories may be classified according to two independent parameters: trait-oriented versus state-oriented, and microanalytic versus macroanalytic approaches. The multitude of theoretical conceptions is based on the macroanalytic, trait-oriented approach. Examples of this approach that are presented in this article arèrepression–sensitization,monitoring-blunting,' and thèmodel of coping modes.' The article closes with a brief outline of future perspectives in stress and coping research.
Claims that attributions and their related behaviors may reflect a type of perceived control that is generally overlooked. People attempt to gain control by bringing the environment into line with their wishes (primary control) and by bringing themselves into line with environmental forces (secondary control). Four manifestations of secondary control are considered: (a) Attributions to severely limited ability can serve to enhance predictive control and protect against disappointment; (b) attributions to chance can reflect illusory control, since people often construe chance as a personal characteristic akin to an ability ("luck"); (c) attributions to powerful others permit vicarious control when the individual identifies with these others; and (d) the preceding attributions may foster interpretive control, in which the individual seeks to understand and derive meaning from otherwise uncontrollable events in order to accept them. (5½ p ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)