From the cave to the modern city, survival has depended on the ability to quickly and reliably distinguish between harmless and dangerous situations. Today, distinctions are often subtle, complex, and abstract. The ability to make these distinctions has been made possible by the evolution of the prefrontal areas of our brain, which are capable of symbolic representation and can derive new knowledge about the self, world and the future through experience. This complex process of evaluation and distinction is called cognitive appraisal.
The cognitive appraisal of possible harm or loss, threat, and challenge is intimately implicated in the stress reaction. In recognizing harm or loss, we assess that some measure of physical or psychological damage has already occurred, e.g., an injury or an illness, some damage to our well-being or self-esteem, or the loss of a loved or valued person. In evaluating a threat, we assess damage or loss that has not yet occurred but that is anticipated, or perceived as likely to occur. Harm or loss that has already occurred is always suffused with threat because every serious injury or significant loss is also full of negative implications for the future. Challenges are often perceived as threats as every challenge, either psychological or physical, calls for the mobilization of our coping resources.
Thus, in this process of appraisal, we come up with an assessment of the seriousness of the situation that is before us. What we see or do not see determines the level of physiopsychological arousal and how we will respond. The idea that our emotional and behavioral response to a stressor is determined by the meaning we attribute to an event or situation has a long tradition in Western thought. The Roman philosopher Epictetus famously stated, "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” A few centuries later, the same idea was expressed by William Shakespeare in Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Act II, Scene 2, line 259).
The immediate outcome of appraisal, whether of a threat or a challenge, is the notion that something must be done to manage the situation, because it is serious enough to warrant our attention. This first level of assessment is often referred to as primary appraisal. Subsequently, and often almost without pause, our task becomes that of evaluating what might and can be done, a second level of processing that we call secondary appraisal. While neither is more important than the other, secondary appraisal activity is crucial in the choice we make between fight or flight, i.e., between approach and avoidance. The WYSIWYG of appraisal is that, in most cases, what we see in the situation is how we choose to respond to it. Whereas some will see in a particular event nothing but a nuisance, others will see the same event as a dangerous threat.
Primary Appraisal: How Serious Is the Stressor?
What determines the quality of our primary assessment of a situation or event are its novelty, its predictability, and event uncertainty. Also important are time factors, such as the imminence, the duration, and the temporal uncertainty of the stressor. Additionally, primary appraisal is affected by the ambiguity of the stressor and by the timing of stressful events in our life cycle.
Generally, the more imminent a stressful event, the more urgent and intense our process of primary appraisal will be, as for example in deciding whether or not to step out of the path of an oncoming truck. The less imminent an event, the appraisal process becomes more deliberate and thus more complex, as in deciding whether to take a new job. Ambiguity is unfortunately a salient characteristic of many of today’s stressors. Greater ambiguity signifies that more factors can shape the meaning of the situation, and vice versa.
The timing of stressful events as they happen throughout our life cycle can also affect the quality of our appraisal. Many life events, such as the death of a child, are more significant and turn into crises because they occur "off time." Off time events are more threatening because they are often completely unexpected and therefore pose a challenge for which no preparation or anticipatory coping was possible.
Secondary Appraisal: Can I Handle It?
Our individual assessment of a situation leads to an appraisal of our possible responses. When our vital interests appear to be at stake, secondary appraisal takes front and center and we can become literally and figuratively frozen in place, as we feel the enormous pressure of producing the right response.
Individual temperament, upbringing, personality, life experiences, and prior traumas play a leading role in determining the quality of our secondary appraisal.
A stress-prone individual is primed to make extreme, one-sided, absolute, and global judgments. Because the appraisals tend to be extreme and one-sided, the behavioral responses also tend to be extreme. A hostility-prone individual may be primed to react to a relatively minor slight by another as if it were a criminal offense and, consequently, will be inclined to attack the other verbally or physically. A person who is susceptible to fear reactions may interpret an unfamiliar noise as a gunshot or the start of an earthquake and will have an unstoppable urge to escape. A depression-prone individual may hear an otherwise humorous comment as a rejection and will want to withdraw.
In the primitive world of an instinctual stress reaction, the complexity, variability, and diversity of human experiences are lost and quickly reduced to a few crude categories. It is do or die, eat or be eaten, a survival of the quickest and strongest. In a more mature world of cognition, stimuli are analyzed along many dimensions or qualities, appraisals are quantitative rather than categorical, and are relativistic rather than absolutistic. When it comes to stressors, what you see can be just exactly what you get.