Richard Lazarus conducted research on stress and emotions for four decades. He found a link between appraisals and stress. An appraisal is an evaluation of the significance of what is going on between the person and the environment in terms of that person’s well being. Appraisals establish the meaning of an encounter for us. At its simplest level, it is a quick assessment of what is going on and then what we can do about it. If we confront a snake, the first appraisal may be that it will harm us (e.g. it kills) and quickly, on the heels of that appraisal, we evaluate what we can do about it (e.g. move quickly away). These appraisals are instantaneous and automatic.
In understanding the role of emotions in regulation of stress the distinction between a primary and a secondary appraisal is most helpful. A primary appraisal is an evaluation of whether something (e.g. a snake) is of relevance to our well-being. What is our stake in the event (e.g. not being bitten)? A Secondary appraisal is an evaluation of our options for coping and expectations about what will happen.
Another key concept in understanding our capacity for self-regulation is coping. It is defined as activity to manage demands that tax or exceed our resources. When demands exceed our resources we experience stress. There are two important types of coping:
· Action-focused – which involves making changes in the environment (e.g. killing a snake
· Emotion-focused – which involves changing the way we interpret or we experience the event (e.g. “Oh, it’s not poisonous.”)
It is useful to view stress as having four stages:
Stage 1- Environmental demand
Stage 2- Perception or appraisal of the demand
Stage 3- Physical and psychological response to stress
Stage 4- Behavioral consequence or performance
An event in the environment makes a demand on the person. That demand is not automatically a source of stress unless the person views the event as a threat or that an adequate response may stretch the capacity of the person. In Stage 3 the body may show signs of increased tension and arousal (e.g. increased heart rate, perspiration, rapid breathing) and a flood of thoughts. Finally the person acts in a way that may either reduce the level of tension or increase it further, and the cycle renews at Stage 1. If the behavior succeeds in meeting the demand, the person will approach similar demands in the future with greater confidence. Learning is very important in determining our response to stress.