Appraisals and Psychological Stress

Lazarus (1966) was the first to emphasize that people's appraisal of the circumstance often matters more in the transaction than does the objective circumstance itself. Appraisals are cognitive processes that incorporate not only information from the stressor but also information from inside the person. Being approached by a small dog is not alarming for most people, but for people with phobias pertaining to dogs the circumstance is appraised quite differently.

Department of Psychology, University of Miami, 5665 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, FL 33124-0751, USA

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A student who is actively and thoughtfully engaged in a course will appraise the announcement of a surprise quiz very differently than will a student who uses that class hour mostly to text friends.

Also important is the person's appraisal of whether he or she will be able to handle the circumstance being confronted. A person who can readily bring to mind effective ways to avoid or minimize potential bad outcomes will experience less stress than a person who can think of nothing to do. The appraisal that an aversive outcome is looming or is at hand is termed primary appraisal; the appraisal of whether there are ways to respond to it is termed secondary appraisal. Obviously these appraisals influence one another. The more confident the person is about having useful strategies, the less problematic the circumstance is likely to seem.

Several further labels have been applied to different appraisals of stressors. Threat appraisal means that one views the stressor as an impending event that may have bad or harmful consequences. Harm appraisal implies that something bad has already happened. Loss appraisal is a specific kind of harm appraisal in which a desired end becomes inaccessible. That is, although harm can mean either occurrence of pain and punishment or removal of something desirable, loss tends to be restricted to the latter.

Another appraisal is also commonly mentioned in this context. Challenge appraisal means viewing the circumstance as difficult and demanding, but also as something the person can benefit from. Challenge constitutes an "optimal" obstacle - one that appears surmountable (with

effort), the removal of which will promote a better state of affairs. Challenge also implies expectation of good outcomes. The characteristics (and consequences) of challenge are different enough from those of threat and loss as to cast doubt on the position that challenge should be viewed as a form of stress (Blascovich, 2008; Tomaka et al, 1993).

Another popular analysis of stress uses an economic metaphor (Hobfoll, 1989, 1998), starting with the idea that people have resources that they try to protect, defend, and conserve. Resources are anything the person values. They can be physical (e.g., house, car), conditions of life (e.g., having friends and relatives, stable employment), personal qualities (e.g., a positive world view, work skills), or other assets (e.g., money or knowledge). From this view, stress occurs when resources are threatened or lost. Though this view emphasizes the utility of the resources as critical to stress, confrontation with threat and loss remains the crux of the issue.

1.1.1 Physiological Responses

Confronting threat and loss produces emotional distress. Distress emotions incorporate a variety of involuntary physiological changes within the body: cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune. Many kinds of emotional arousal (e.g., fear or anger) prepare the body for sudden or sustained action. Thus, the physiological changes that occur are those that make energy available to muscles and direct resources away from other functions such as digestion or self-repair (Miller et al, 2002). Fear prepares the body for escape, anger for attack. Some kinds of emotions associated with stress, however - particularly those related to loss - have a different character. Dejection or sadness is not about preparing for action, but about giving up the effort to attain desired ends (Nesse, 2000).

These responses are functional for the purposes to which they evolved. In the short term, it is more important to devote resources to escape an imminent threat than (for example) to quell an infection. However, even adaptive processes can result in problems if they are engaged too frequently or for too long. Several sorts of problems may occur. As one example, extensive and repeated cardiovascular stress responses place an abnormally high burden on arteries. Over time, this creates small tears in the artery and the depositing of protective plaques. This is normal. Too much depositing of plaques, however, eventually results in atherosclerosis, a clogging of the artery (e.g., Krantz and McCeney, 2002; Rozanski et al, 1999; Smith and Ruiz, 2002). This example represents an acceleration of a normal function, so that it reaches a maladaptive endpoint sooner than it otherwise would.

As another example, the processes by which blood pressure is regulated cause increases from baseline levels in response to situational demands. If those increases occur too frequently or are too sustained, the regulatory process begins to adjust the baseline upward. Now when the stressor ends, blood pressure returns not to its preexisting resting level, but to a higher level. Over iterations of adjustment, the resting level becomes elevated, becoming hypertension (cf. Fredrikson and Matthews, 1990). A gradual shift in resting level to a value that is too extreme for the well-being of the overall system has been termed allostasis (McEwen, 2000, see Chapter 42). Consistent with this line of reasoning, chronic stress has been linked to hypertension (Sparrenberger et al, 2009).

Another focal point in stress-related physiological responding is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. This set of structures plays a major role in the body's stress response (McEwen, 2006, 2008). HPA activation is reflected in increases in levels of several hormones, including the catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and cortisol. Cortisol is considered a particularly important stress hormone because of its links to other processes in the overall stress response. For example, elevation of cortisol can suppress diverse aspects of immune functioning (e.g., Choi et al, 2008; Kronfol et al, 1997). That is, as noted earlier, when strong demands are made on behavior (fight-or-flight), immune surveillance takes a lower priority and is suppressed (Miller et al, 2002).

Indeed, the immune system itself is another target of analyses of stress-related physiological responding (Segerstrom and Miller, 2004). The immune system obviously has important implications for health. The immune system is the body's main line of defense against disease agents, ranging from bacteria to cancer cells. If immune functioning is impaired over a sustained period, rather than just temporarily, the person thereby becomes more vulnerable both to opportunistic infectious agents and to agents of disease that had already been at work in the body. The result may be either disease promotion or disease progression (Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 1994). The immune system is far more complicated than was assumed two decades ago, and there are several ways in which stress can influence immune function (Kiecolt-Glaser et al, 2002; Robles et al, 2005).

One last point should be made here about the nature of psychophysiological response patterns. Stress can be acute (relatively short-term) or chronic (existing over sometimes extended periods of time). Short-term stress responses are generally adaptive, unless previous damage has primed the body for a system failure. However, chronic activation of the body's stress response itself can have damaging effects on the body. When you bring to mind an example of stress, it may be easiest to think of an acute and time-limited situation. Many of the stressors that people confront in today's world, however, are relatively chronic and long-lasting.

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