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Factors Determining Whether Stressors are Experienced as Negative or Positive

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Different factors determine whether a particular demand will cause eustress or distress in a given individual.  How we think about a stressor (our appraisal and our self-talk), how we think about our own capabilities (our self-concept) and how we think about the specific characteristics of the stressor itself (e.g., how intensely it creates demands on us, how long it lasts, etc.) will all collectively determine whether we will experience stress over handling any given situation. 

Primary and Secondary Appraisal

As we discussed previously, Dr. Lazarus and Dr. Folkman described the importance of the cognitive appraisal process in determining whether stress is positive or negative. According to Lazarus and Folkman, there are two aspects to cognitive appraisal: primary appraisal and secondary appraisal.

In primary appraisal, we evaluate whether we have anything at stake in an encounter (e.g., by asking ourselves "Does this matter for me?").  A stressor that is perceived as important is more likely to cause a stress reaction than a stressor that is viewed as relatively trivial. 

In secondary appraisal, we evaluate our existing coping resources (e.g., how healthy we are, how much energy we have, whether family and friends can help, our ability to rise to the challenge, and how much money or equipment we have), our available options, and the possibilities we have for controlling our situation.  If we believe that we lack the coping resources necessary to deal with the situation, we will perceive it as negative stress.  Conversely, if we believe that we have the necessary coping resources, the stressor will not overwhelm us and may instead be perceived as eustress.  For example, an adolescent girl with limited social and financial support might view being pregnant as a negative stress, while a middle-aged woman with adequate financial and social support might see pregnancy as an exciting and hopeful time.

Appraisals Influence How You Feel: The Cognitive Model

According to the highly influential and widely accepted cognitive theory of emotions, based on the seminal work of Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Aaron Beck, your beliefs (driven by your appraisal process) strongly influence your subsequent mood state.  If you believe that you have the ability and resources to handle the stressors you are faced with, your mood will be generally positive, and vice versa, if you believe that you do not have what it takes to meet the demands you are faced with, your mood will turn negative and sour, possibly causing you to become anxious or depressed. 

That your thoughts determine your mood is a good thing, because while it is difficult to alter your feelings at any given moment, it is always possible to re-evaluate and change your thoughts.  If you can find a way to see your situation in a more positive light, you can alter your mood from negative to positive.  This insight has been incorporated into a therapeutic technique called Cognitive Reframing, which we will elaborate upon in greater detail later in this document. 

As preparation for our later discussion of Cognitive Reframing, we can talk now about an easy way to visualize the process of how thoughts and beliefs that result from the appraisal process end up causing feelings to change.  According to Dr. Ellis, the relationship between thoughts and emotion can be represented by the simple equation A+B=C.

In this equation, the letter "A" stands for an "Activating Event."  Activating Events are the triggers or stressors that create demands on us and therefore cause us potential stress.  As previously mentioned, there are different types of stressors, including life events and daily hassles.
 
The letter "B" in the equation stands for "Beliefs."  We come into the world with no preconceived beliefs or opinions.  From the moment we start interacting with the environment, we start to learn the opinions of our parents, our peers, schools, etc, and also start forming opinions of our own.  All of these opinions eventually become internalized into a consistent (but often biased) world view which we use as a measuring stick against which to interpret and appraise ourselves, other people, and the world around us.  The degree of bias and rigidity in our belief system is important, because, as a general rule, the more biased and rigid our beliefs are, the more often we will find ourselves becoming stressed out.  Beliefs which are accurate, flexible and optimistic in nature help to reduce stress, while beliefs which are rigid, negative, inflexible and pessimistic tend to exacerbate stress. 

The final letter "C" in the A+B=C equation stands for "Consequences."  Consequences refer to the feelings that occur as a result of our beliefs and self-talk in response to the activating event.  The consequences we experience can include stress, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, aggression, frustration, etc.

 Here is a "real-life" example of the A + B = C equation applied to a stressful situation:

There are two people stuck in traffic.  One driver starts thinking that, while the slow traffic is a bummer, it's not the end of the world.  She also realizes that there is no point in "freaking out" since that won't make the cars move any faster.  Instead, she uses the extra time to pull out her cell phone and chat with her sister and then to listen to the radio.  She calmly waits until the traffic starts moving again and continues on her way. 

The other driver reacts very differently to the slow traffic.  She punches the steering wheel, and sits and fumes, thinking that the traffic jam is totally awful and has ruined the whole day.  She becomes increasingly agitated as the traffic jam continues. 

In this example, the same stressor (the traffic jam) produces two entirely different outcomes.  The first driver comes away from the situation none the worse for wear, while the second driver experiences significant negative stress, which is particularly upsetting because she cannot react in a physical way (e.g., by fighting or fleeing) to relieve her tension. 

It can be useful to break down an event such as the example above using the A+B=C equation.  In this example, the traffic jam is the trigger or Activating Event, each driver's individual expectations about how the traffic should be flowing are the Beliefs, and the emotions and stress reactions that the drivers do or do not experience in response to the interaction between the traffic jam and their beliefs is the Consequence. 

The first driver may initially experience a mild stress or neutral response, and she may end with having a a pleasant time chatting with her sister.  In other words, she has experienced neutral or positive consequences to her beliefs about the activating event.  The second driver however, has become very stressed, upset, and angry.  Her beliefs have triggered a fight/flight response which will probably continue to cause her to remain angry and upset long after the traffic has resumed moving.

The cognitive theory of emotion suggests that our self-talk (our "automatic thoughts" and our beliefs) is influential in determining whether we will experience eustress or distress. We will talk more specifically about how to use this theory (employing the ABC model) to relieve negative stress in a later section where we discuss methods of stress reduction.