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Appraisals of Acute Stress

Acute stress is a relatively short-term response (minutes to hours as opposed to days and months) to an environmental, personal, or interpersonal situation, during which the body mobilizes metabolic resources and the individual’s cognitive and affective resources are directed at the stimulus/event. Biological and physiologic responses are often used to quantify the body’s response to acute stress using a variety of outcomes such as cortisol, immune changes, blood pressure, cardiac responses (heart rate, cardiac output, pre-ejection period), and other peripheral measures like skin conductance, skin temperature, muscle contraction, pupil changes, and pulse related responses.

​While common language labels have been used in measures to quantify the “amount” of stress one is experiencing (e.g., “how much stress do you feel?”), these questions don’t align well with the varied responses that occur during acute stress episodes. That is, not all stress responses are created equal. While some stress profiles are detrimental to physical health and performance, others offer health and performance benefits (Blascovich & Mendes, 2010; Dientsbier, 1989: Epel, McEwen, & Ickovics, 1998; Jamieson et al., 2018; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987; McEwen, 1998; Selye, 1982). Importantly, stress responses appear to be strongly contingent upon situational or contextual features as well as individual differences. Thus, to quantify and differentiate stress responses, we need self-report measures that capture the contextualized and varied nature of stress reactions, as these are likely to have more predictive utility.

​Lazarus and Folkman’s identified two distinct and independent elements of stress: 1) perceived situational and personal demands, and 2) personal resources. To the extent that perceived demands outweigh resources then individuals are anticipated to be in a “threat” state, whereas when resources outweigh demands individuals are expected to be in a “challenge” state. Lazarus and Folkman’s theory was adopted to examine differences in cardiovascular (and, later, neuroendocrine) responses during acute stress episodes. Blascovich and Tomaka (1996) first identified cardiovascular patterns that differentiated self-reported appraisals of demands and resources such that a more adaptive/benign pattern of cardiovascular reactivity occurred when resources exceeded demands (i.e., challenge) and a more maladaptive pattern when demands exceeded resources (i.e., threat). This work led to the development of the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, which integrates primary and second appraisal levels such that an individual is believed to appraise situational demands and available coping resources in concert (e.g., Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996; Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey, & Leitten, 1993; Jamieson, 2017; Mendes et al., 2007).

Using this foundation, Mendes and colleagues (2007) developed measures emphasizing the multifaceted nature of demand and resource appraisals to be used in laboratory stress paradigms. Specifically, demands are made up of perceived uncertainty, required effort, and how demanding the task seems, among other factors, whereas resources comprise perceived knowledge and abilities, controllability, social support, and expectations. Two questionnaires were developed: one is a pre-task version that captures appraisals of the stressor after knowledge of the task demands is obtained but prior to the action/performance of the task (e.g., once a public speaking task is described, but before the speech is delivered); the other is a post-task questionnaire that assesses individuals’ perceptions of the demands and resources after the task. Importantly, published and unpublished analyses support the conclusion that pre-task appraisals are more predictive of physiological responses during the task than post-task appraisals (Quigley, Barrett, Weinstein, 2002).

The items and scoring instructions for these measures can be found here

Rooted in the pre- and post-stressor appraisal measures developed by Mendes and colleagues, a short form appraisal measure that includes two resource and two demand items was subsequently created to more efficiently assess appraisals (e.g., Jamieson et al., 2022). Moreover, single item assessments of the ratio of resources to demands have also demonstrated efficacy in predicting stress responses in naturalistic settings when response time is limited (e.g., Lee et al., 2019).

4-item stress appraisal measure

  1. The upcoming ___ is very demanding.

  2. The ____ will take a lot of effort to complete.

  3. I feel that I have the abilities to perform successfully

  4. I’m the kind of person that does well on these types of ____.

Response Anchors: 1 = strongly disagree, 4 = neutral, 7 = strongly agree

Single item assessment

From Lee et al., 2019 which was a study with HS students: Overall, how confident are you that you can handle the stresses you experienced today in school so far?  (7 response options anchored by “I can handle all of the stress really well” to “I can’t handle the stress at all”)

Author and Reviewers: Prepared by Wendy Berry Mendes. Reviewed by Alia Crum. Reviewed and updated by Jeremey Jamieson. If you have any comments on these measures, email wendyberry.mendes@yale.edu.

Version date: October 2023.

References:

 

Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2010). Social psychophysiology and embodiment. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 194–227). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470561119.socpsy001006

Blascovich, J., & Tomaka, J. (1996). The biopsychosocial model of arousal regulation. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 28, pp. 1–51). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60235-X

Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96(1), 84–100. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.96.1.84

Epel, E. S., McEwen, B. S., & Ickovics, J. R. (1998). Embodying Psychological Thriving: Physical Thriving in Response to Stress. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 301–322. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1998.tb01220.x

Jamieson, J. P., Black, A. E., Pelaia, L. E., Gravelding, H., Gordils, J., & Reis, H. T. (2022). Reappraising stress arousal improves affective, neuroendocrine, and academic performance outcomes in community college classrooms. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(1), 197.

Jamieson, J. P., Crum, A. J., Goyer, J. P., Marotta, M. E., & Akinola, M. (2018). Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: An integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(3), 245-261.

Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1987). Transactional theory and research on emotions and coping. European Journal of Personality. 1(3), 141-169. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2410010304

Lee, H. Y., Jamieson, J. P., Miu, A. S., Josephs, R. A., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). An entity theory of intelligence predicts higher cortisol levels when high school grades are declining. Child development, 90(6), e849-e867.

McEwen, B. S. (1998). Stress, Adaptation, and Disease: Allostasis and Allostatic Load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840(1), 33–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09546.x

Mendes, W. B., Gray, H., Mendoza-Denton, R., Major, B. & Epel, E. (2007). Why egalitarianism might be good for your health: Physiological thriving during stressful intergroup encounters. Psychological Science, 18, 991-998.

 

Selye, H. (1982). History and present status of the stress concept. In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds.), Handbook of stress: Theoretical and clinical aspects (pp. 7–17). New York: Free Press.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 248–260.

 

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