1.4 Cognition, appraisal and stress
Psychologists suggest that there are cognitive styles, or ways of thinking, that predispose people to stress and therefore the development of anxiety and depression.
Selye’s concept of stress and the idea that ‘it is how you take it’ that is important, informed the work of the eminent American psychologist Richard Lazarus. Lazarus suggested that how an individual interprets or evaluates an event or situation – a cognitive process he called appraisal – plays a critical part in feeling stressed (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Imagine that you are travelling in a desert and find your water bottle has been leaking. Half the water is gone: a classic ‘Is the bottle half full or half empty?’ scenario. The amount of water in the bottle is a constant, but one kind of evaluation could well lead to more stress and panic than the other. Lazarus and his colleagues also suggested that people are more likely to suffer from stress when they believe that they lack the resources to deal with difficult events than if they feel confident that they have the resources to cope.
How is the concept of appraisal relevant to understanding and treating emotional disorders?
First, it highlights the fact that unhelpful or unrealistic appraisals, rather than particular events or situations in themselves, can cause stress. Second, it holds out hope, as appraisals and styles of appraisal may be amenable to change.
Challenging and re-framing appraisals is a crucial part of some of the strategies used by psychotherapists to help people with emotional disorders, such as in the therapy ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’.
An important element affecting how stressed individuals feel is how much control they think they have: people feel more anxious and frustrated if they feel they cannot predict or control a situation or get the outcomes they want.
This kind of helplessness or hopelessness resembles that of subordinate, defeated non-human animals in status hierarchies (see the related OpenLearn course). In humans, it is easy to see how it might arise in an abused child, or in a woman experiencing domestic violence. Circumstances of entrapment and humiliation seem particularly potent in their capacity to trigger severe depression.
Activity 3 How you think and how you feel
Is there any truth in the assertion that ‘How you think affects how stressed you feel’?
Yes, ‘appraisal’ – how you perceive events or situations, and how much control you feel you have over them, makes a difference to whether you feel stressed or not.