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 end outcome states 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. Some stress profiles are believed to be detrimental to physical health and performance, whereas others are believed to benefit health and performance (Blascovich & Mendes, 2010; Dientsbier, 1989: Epel, McEwen, & Ickovics, 1998; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987; McEwen, 1998; Selye, 1982). Using self-report measures that attempt to capture the varied nature of stress reactions may provide a more useful metric to quantify and differentiate stress and provide 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 (CV) patterns that differentiated self-reported appraisals of demands and resources such that a more adaptive/benign pattern of CV reactivity occurred when resources exceeded demands (i.e., challenge) and a more maladaptive pattern (i.e., threat) when demands exceeded resources. Using this foundation, Mendes and colleagues (Mendes, et al., 2007) developed a scale using the components of demands and resources. Specifically, demands are made up of perceived uncertainty, required effort, and how demanding the task seems, 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). There is also 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).

Measure items and measures scoring can be found in the PDF here.

When citing this measure*, use:

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.

*Note, this article is not a scale development article, but rather the first published article that used this scale. Many published papers have followed using this scale (see references).

Author and Reviewer(s):

This summary was prepared by Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD. If you have any comments on these measures, email Wendy.Mendes@ucsf.edu. Version date: March 2017.