Topic 1: Cognitive Appraisal: Our Perception of Stressors


In understanding the stress experience, it’s vital to recognize that stress is not just about the events or the stimuli themselves but also about how we interpret or perceive them. This process of interpretation is termed “cognitive appraisal.” The seminal work by psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman sheds light on how cognitive appraisal plays a pivotal role in determining whether an event is considered stressful and, if so, to what degree.

The Two-Stage Process of Appraisal

  1. Primary Appraisal: This is the initial step where an individual evaluates the significance of an event. The event can be perceived as:

    • Irrelevant: No particular significance for the individual.

    • Benign-Positive: Potentially beneficial or positive.

    • Stressful: A potential threat, harm, or challenge.

      Example: Receiving a surprise job assignment can be viewed as a challenge (a chance to prove oneself) or a threat (fear of potential failure).

  2. Secondary Appraisal: If an event is identified as potentially stressful during the primary appraisal, secondary appraisal assesses one’s resources and ability to cope with the stressor.

    • Sufficient Resources: Belief that one possesses the skills, time, and resources to manage the stressor.

    • Insufficient Resources: Feeling ill-equipped to handle the situation.

      Example: If given a tight deadline for a project, one might feel they have the necessary skills to complete it (sufficient resources) or might feel overwhelmed due to other commitments (insufficient resources).


This is a continuous process where individuals reevaluate the situation based on new information or changing circumstances. As one gains more data or perspectives, the initial appraisal can change.

Example: Initially perceiving a new job as overwhelming (primary appraisal) and feeling unprepared (secondary appraisal), but after a few weeks of training, one might feel more confident and less stressed.

Influence of Past Experiences

Past experiences play a crucial role in cognitive appraisal. If someone has previously faced a similar situation and managed it well, they are likely to appraise a new, similar situation as less threatening.

Example: Someone who has previously navigated tight deadlines successfully might view a new short-term project as manageable.

Role of Cultural and Societal Norms

How we appraise events can also be shaped by cultural and societal expectations. Some societies might see certain events as more challenging or threatening than others due to cultural values or societal pressures.

Example: In some cultures, public speaking might be seen as a routine task, while in others, it might be appraised as a significant stressor due to the emphasis on not making mistakes in public.

Implications for Stress Management

Understanding cognitive appraisal offers a proactive approach to stress management:

  1. Reframing: By consciously changing our perspective on a stressor, we can reduce its impact.
  2. Skill Development: Recognizing areas where we feel we lack the resources can prompt us to develop those skills.
  3. Seeking Information: Sometimes, gathering more information can change our appraisal of a situation.


Cognitive appraisal underscores the fact that the perception of stress is deeply personal and subjective. What one individual finds stressful, another might view as a mere challenge or even an opportunity. By understanding and harnessing the power of cognitive appraisal, we can better navigate stressors, reframing them in ways that are manageable and less daunting.