Stress Appraisal Theory

Stress Appraisal Theory Definition

Stress Appraisal TheoryStress appraisal refers to the process by which individuals evaluate and cope with a stressful event. Stress appraisal theory is concerned with individuals’ evaluation of the event, rather than with the event per se. People differ in how they construe what is happening to them and their options for coping. Stress appraisal comes in two forms, primary and secondary appraisal, which should be considered as two stages of appraisal or evaluation. These two types of appraisal are not mutually exclusive; they work in concert with one another to complete the appraisal process.

Primary Appraisal

Primary appraisal is the cognitive process that occurs when one is appraising whether an event is stressful and relevant to him or her. During this phase, a decision is made about whether the event poses a threat, will cause harm or loss, or presents a challenge. Harm or loss is associated with damage that has already occurred, such as a death or a job loss. Threat is the possibility of a harm or loss in the future, such as sickness or poor job performance. Conversely, challenge consists of events that provide a person an opportunity to gain a sense of mastery and competence by confronting and overcoming a dilemma. Such a struggle would be considered a positive type of stress and allows a person to expand one’s knowledge and experience, and to develop extra tools to embrace future challenges or stresses. Finishing a marathon or writing a book might be an example of a challenge.

Secondary Appraisal

Secondary appraisal is the cognitive process that occurs when one is figuring out how to cope with a stressful event. During this process, a person decides what coping options are available. A harmful event requires immediate evaluation of coping options because it has already occurred, whereas threatening or challenging events allow one time to gather more information about events. Prior experience or being exposed to similar situations previously provides a frame of reference to determine the options available for dealing with the situation.

Stress Appraisal Theory Background

Richard Lazarus, the originator of stress appraisal theory, became interested in the early 1950s in studying differences between individuals with relation to stress and the coping mechanisms. He was deeply impressed by a monograph written by two psychiatrists, Roy Grinker and John Spiegel, about how flight crews dealt with the constant stress of air war. He came to realize that stress was associated with the subjective meaning of what was happening to the personnel, who, in combat, were in imminent danger of being killed. A person constantly weighs coping options to deal with stress in the context of his or her personal goals or resources or environmental constraints. Lazarus argued that individuals differ in how they perceive circumstance as relevant and in how they react to and cope with situations.

Environmental and Person Variables

Stress appraisal theory takes into consideration precursory conditions that affect the process of appraisal. These antecedent conditions are divided into two classes, environmental variables and personal variables. Environmental variables are those that are beyond the person and lend rules of behavior that are governed by societal norms. Environmental variables include demands, constraints, opportunity, and culture. Person variables are those that lie within the person, including goals and goal hierarchies, beliefs about self and world, and personal resources.


Demands are pressures from the social environment to behave in certain ways and to conform to social conventions. Examples of demands include helping others in need, taking care of children, and performing well at one’s job. Although demands originate from external pressure, they are later internalized.


Constraints are composed of the behaviors in which one should not engage. They are defined by social norms or laws and are usually backed by punishment if violated. The punishment can come in social form, such as in banishment, or in legal form such as a fine or incarceration.


Opportunity refers to taking the right action at the right moment. Being able to take advantage of an opportunity involves recognizing the opportunity and knowing when to take action. An example of an opportunity would be making a decision right away to take a job that has been offered.


Culture generally refers to cultural norms and how those norms shape emotional perception. An example of a cultural norm would be understanding that (in most Western cultures) you should strive for individuality and distinction. This is inherent knowledge because of where you grew up, who your peers are, how people behave around you, and so on.

The four environmental variables—demands, constraints, opportunities, and culture—do not operate alone on the appraisal of an event. They interact with person variables on the appraisal of harm or loss, threat, and challenge, and the coping process. The person variables—goals and goal hierarchies, beliefs about self and world, and personal resources—give meaning to the events encountered and order them into an implicit understanding of how things work and how to cope with stresses elicited by environmental variables.

Goals and Goal Hierarchies

Goals and goal hierarchies refer to motivations to achieve one’s objectives and to order them into a meaningful succession of importance. When a person attempts to fulfill goals or has multiple goals in conflict, stress will arise. It is important to determine which goals he or she values most and least. An example of goal and goal hierarchies would be that a person contemplates current goals in term of importance, such as striving to achieve a good grade in one’s classes, getting more involved in community services, and cleaning one’s apartment every Sunday.

Beliefs about Self and World

Beliefs about self and world refer to what one thinks of oneself and the world. These beliefs form perceptions and emotions, lending information as to what one expects to happen in a given situation. A person operates in a certain way because he or she knows what the outcome will be. For instance, a person knows that one’s parents would withdraw their financial support if one fails one’s classes. Even though studying is not fun, this person studies hard to conceive of oneself as a good student for his or her parents.

Personal Resources

Personal resources are those things that a person has at his or her disposal that influence what he or she can and cannot do to satisfy his or her needs. Some of these resources a person is born with; others are acquired by effortful measures. Some examples of personal resources include intelligence, physical attractiveness, social standing, and money.

During the process of primary appraisal, environmental and person variables interact to determine whether an event is considered a threat, harm or loss, or challenge. If an event is considered a harm, threat, or challenge, the relationship between environmental and person variables is considered again during the secondary appraisal process to determine appropriate coping options. Take two persons, A and B, who have recently lost their jobs. Person A feels threat because A has a large family to support (demands) with little savings (personal resources). Person A decides to look for a job right away because supporting family is one’s most important role (beliefs about self and culture). Meanwhile, person B feels challenge because losing the job provides an opportunity to do something B has always wanted to try (opportunity and goal). Person B decides to send out applications to graduate schools because obtaining an advanced degree has long been one of B’s goals, and B’s partner can provide financial support (opportunity, goal, and personal resources).

Importance and Implications of Stress Appraisal Theory

Stress appraisal theory considers how individual differences play a critical role in assessing stressors and determining appropriate coping responses. By understanding how stress is appraised, one obtains information about the best methods for coping with stress. Understanding how stress occurs and the way in which one deals with it is important so that one can become more effective at reducing the adverse effect of negative stress and the ability to maximize positive stress.


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