Appraisals, behaviours and stress


We are now in blog three of our series on stress.

In this post, we are going to dig deep and explore the effects of stress on how we think (cognition), emotions and behaviours. And how our behaviours, and thoughts impact our stress levels. 


When we talk about stress and thoughts we are referring to appraisals. Appraisals are your interpretation of the situation.

 There are two types of appraisals; primary and secondary.

Primary appraisals and initial thoughts

Primary appraisals are the initial thoughts we have about the event or stressor and how potentially harmful it could be. In this appraisal, we judge whether the stress is big or small. We also ask ourselves whether the stress matters and how it may influence us ( positive or negative). We may even question how likely the event is to actually happen ( if we are stressed about a hypothetical event in the future). If you primarily appraise the stressor as a low threat or challenge then you will experience little stress, however, if you appraise the situation as highly threatening and challenging then you will experience high-stress levels. 

Secondary appraisals and coping

After we have assessed the situation with our primary appraisals we then move on to secondary appraisals which estimate our coping skills and resources. 

Coping strategies can come in various forms and they generally fall into two categories, emotion-focused and problem-focused. Resources refer to the tools we have at hand to deal with the situation, for example, friends as social support or money to pay for what you need e.g a course or childcare.

Coping strategies 

Emotion-focused coping strategies include ways in which you try to make yourself feel better, for example, somatic quieting or positive thinking. Whereas, problem-focused strategies focus on the problem you face and changing the situation. A problem-focused approach may be studying for an upcoming test you are stressed about or, gaining a new qualification to increase your income.

Both emotion and problem-focused strategies are helpful but different situations will require a different strategy. What works in one situation may not be helpful when faced with a different problem. You may be faced with a highly emotional stressor such as finding out your spouse has cheated, reaching out to friends for emotional support may help to calm you down. In contrast, if you are faced with a challenging practical task such as a messy home that needs tidying. The best stress-relieving response might be to roll up your sleeves and start to tidy, rather than phoning a friend.

If the stressor is something chronic that you can’t change, for example, the death of a loved one, then scheduling fun or relaxing activities may help relieve stress by giving you a sense of joy and allowing you to escape for a short while.

Appraisals, Resources and Behaviour

Here we can use Veronica as an example. Veronica has just moved to a new apartment close to her job. She is faced with the task of unpacking and settling into her new home. 

Primary appraisal -’ Eurgh, the place is a mess and I have so many boxes to unpack. I can’t live like this any longer. I don’t know where anything is. At this rate, I am going to go crazy! It’s really stressing me out. I don’t think I can unpack all of this on my own. This is really bad.’

Secondary appraisal – ‘ I could just live out of the boxes until I have unpacked everything- that could take weeks and I can’t keep wearing the same clothes to work,’’ maybe I should phone Mary for a chat – speaking to someone might take my mind off of things, however, it’s not going to unpack the boxes,’ ‘Maybe I could call on my social supports to help- nope, they are all busy this evening,’ ‘ I could get these boxes unpacked in no time if I just started’. 

Resources– Veronica has friends she can call for social and practical help. She also has her own energy store and she could start unpacking.

Behaviour – If Veronica chooses to phone a friend she may feel better whilst she’s on the phone but, it won’t solve the problem of unpacking the boxes. On the other hand, if Veronica starts to unpack the boxes he’s one step closer to having a tidier home, being able to find what she needs easier and having more space.

Remember, analysing the situation will help you to find the most adaptive and helpful response to the situation at hand.

As you may see from the examples above, how we think about a situation ( primary appraisals) together with our chosen coping strategy and the tools we have available to deal with the situation will have an impact on our overall stress levels.

Next time you feel stressed take a step back and view the situation. Then decide whether emotion or problem-focused strategy will help cope better with the situation.

I hope you found this blog helpful, 

See you in the next and final blog of this series, where we look at mindfulness and stress reduction.

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