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Psychological Appraisal and Stress

At a time when psychology was in its reductionist phase and behaviourism and biological explanations reigned supreme, Richard Lazarus was a lonely pioneer in the field of emotive psychology, but it was he who came up with appraisal theory. The basic idea of this theory is that human emotion is based on split-second, often subconscious assessments we make of the situation at hand. This is important to stress reduction as negative emotions tend to increase stress and vice versa. 

The theory goes that there are two factors in deciding if a new situation will cause stress1:

  1. Is this threatening me?
  2. Will I have to use a lot of resources to deal with this?

Answering 'yes' to either or both of those means the situation is serious. However, it does not have to be harmfully stressful - this is where the power of appraisal theory comes into play. By controlling your reactions to a situation, even having determined that it's a threat and a resource-drain, you can have a positive- or no-stress response. 

The numbered points above deal with what the decision is - if it will be stressful or not - but primary appraisal and secondary appraisal decide how a person will handle the stressor. Despite their sequential names, these happen simultaneously1

Primary Appraisal

In this section of the overall situation assessment, a person classifies the new development as harmful, a challenge or a 'harm-loss'1. The last is the case where the 'damage has been done' such as a your child coming home from school having gotten their top dirty; it lacks the urgency of truly negative stress as only the aftermath must be dealt with. A challenge classification is the most positive way to see an event, and harmful is the worst. For example, if your boss says they will fire the lowest-performing member of your division, you can see it as a challenge to be the best and win the right to keep your job, or focus on the potential harm of losing your job instead. The latter causes significantly worse moods and negative stress.

Photo credit: Benjamin Chan

Secondary Appraisal

This is the more emotive side of the appraisal, where one can either resolve to try and persevere through a stressful situation, using the hormonal boost from the stress to their advantage in the short-term ("If this fails, I will try a different way to succeed."), or drown in feelings of despair and knock themselves down before they even have a chance ("my chances of success are too low; I can't hope to win")1. It's easy to see that the result of the secondary appraisal has much to do with the outcome of the primary one, and often influences it or is influenced by it. It is challenging to maintain a positive outlook, especially under mounting stressors, but results in healthier handling of the issue.

Techniques from appraisal theory are put into practice in many cognitive treatments of stress. Teaching people to change their outlook is difficult, especially as these appraisals can happen almost instantly and without cognitive thought, but once they are reformed, that same immediacy works for a client, giving them a positive first response to stress threats in everyday life.



1. Sincero, S. M. (2012). Stress and Cognitive Appraisal. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 6/5/2014].

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