Cognitive Appraisal and Stress

In simple words, stress can be defined as a physiological/ psychological response to internal/ external stressors. The nature of this phenomenon, like any other psychological phenomenon, is as interesting as it is subtle.

Nature of Stress

Exploring the nature of stress will include discussing some of the following issues.

  • As per the popular conceptualization of stress, it has an overt and covert nature. This is to say that stress can have some causes, manifestations, and internal effects, i.e., happen within the body and are not observable directly but inferred. These are the covert aspects of stress. On the other hand, there also exists causes, manifestations, and effects of stress that are external and directly observable and thus are called overt. It is interesting to note that stress is not always only overt or covert; rather, more than often, it is an amalgamation of both overt and covert nature.

  • Stress as a phenomenon is psychological and physiological, i.e., the process of experiencing stress includes physical and psychological aspects.

  • Stress also has a social dimension attached to it. People in different social and cultural contexts experience and react to stress differently. Furthermore, stressors may also differ over culture. For example, not performing well in school may be more stressful for a student in an Indian or Korean social context than in an American one. The social situation in itself can also be a cause of stress, and stress of an individual or among the society as a whole may affect society as one unit as well.

  • Not being normal according to the parameters of society and science is another significant part of describing the nature of stress. Simply put, this implies that stress is abnormal physiological, psychological, and social functioning.

  • There has to be some minimum level of discomfort for the phenomenon to be called stress.

  • It is experiential and, therefore, subjective. This is to say; that person may be different in their experience of stress even if the source of stress is not the same. Further, people differ in how they experience stress and how stress affects them. For example, the death of a loved one may result in extreme spells of crying and emotional numbness in another.

Many theories have been developed over a period of time to explore the nature, process, and effects of stress. One such theory that particularly tries to explain the nature and process of stress is cognitive appraisal theory.

Cognitive Appraisal of Stress

Cognition refers to "all forms of knowing and awareness, such as perceiving, conceiving, remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, and problem-solving." as described by APA. Beyond this basic definition, researchers also include that cognition can be both conscious and unconscious, and it plays an important role in the experience and effects of stress. Based on this basic understanding, researchers have added the concept of cognition within the understanding of stress leading to the emergence of cognitive theories to stress. One of the most popular and accepted cognitive appraisal theories was developed by Lazarus and Folkman (1966-1993), i.e., the transactional or cognitive appraisal theory of stress, which is based on cognitive appraisal.

Key Concepts

  • Appraisal − Lazarus (1993) suggested that appraisal is a simple evaluation of whatever happens to us, whether it has an internal or external source. This appraisal can be of two kinds, i.e., harmful to self or beneficial to self.

  • Cognitive appraisal − Lazarus and Folkman have defined cognitive appraisal as "the process of categorizing an encounter, and its various facets, concerning its significance for well-being." These evaluations, Lazarus suggested, are abstract and subjective. Cognitive appraisal is further divided into two types, i.e., primary and secondary.

    • Primary appraisal− It involves evaluating stress quality and identifying its harm and benefits, i.e., it works on understanding the threat level.

    • Secondary appraise− This refers to identifying the strategy and resources available to an individual to cope with the stress.

  • Antecedent− Antecedents refer to events and factors that happen just before and, therefore, greatly influence the appraisal. In this context, two kinds of antecedents have been suggested, i.e., originating from the person (like personal beliefs, attitude, past experiences, etc.) and originating from the situation or context (e.g., environment, social norms, time, familiarity, etc.).

  • Stress− Stress was defined as a "connection between the person and the environment that the person judges as straining or exceeding his or her resources and harming his or her well-being" by Lazarus and Folkman in 1984. They suggested that the cognitive evaluation and coping phases go hand in hand when describing the experience of stress. .

  • Coping− Coping is "cognitive and behavioral efforts to master, reduce, or tolerate the internal and external demands created by the stressful transaction." Lazarus and Folkman further suggest that coping regulate emotional distress (emotion-focused coping) and problem management (problem-focused coping). Interestingly, it has been observed that both coping occur during any stress, though their quality may vary.

Process of the Cognitive Appraisal

As per the transnational theory, the cognitive appraisal starts with the existence of some stressor (internal or external). When combined with antecedents’ factors, these events lead to an appraisal process that includes primary and secondary appraisal. The appraisal of the events is then followed by stress reaction, which is coped with using problem focused and emotion focused coping.

At this point, it is important to understand that coping may be maladaptive or adaptive, implying that coping will not always lead to stress reduction. Further, an appraisal is abstract and may differ for every person, and that knowledge of an event differs from the appraisal of an event. Additionally, Lazarus clarifies that cognitive appraisal can be fast and slow, conscious and unconscious, and deliberate and automatic.


The nature of this truly amazing phenomenon due to its widespread impact within and among individuals is very dynamic, and complex. Stress is not inevitable, but the cognitive appraisal is. The cognitive appraisal determines whether and to what extent any individual experiences stress. Further, one cannot deny the role of an individual as an active agent in experiencing stress, as it is the individual's subjective appraisal and cognition that influence stress perception and impact. After a detailed study of stress, one is left wondering how the nature of this truly amazing phenomenon due to its widespread impact within and among individuals is a very dynamic, interactions, and complex one.

Updated on: 25-Nov-2022

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