Chapter 8: Fear, Anxiety, and Stress

Lazarus’ View of Stress

Lazarus views stress as a process during which our interpretation of the event causes changes in our emotions. In a classic study, Folkman and Lazarus (1985) assessed undergraduate students’ emotions at three time periods of a mid-term exam (see Table 10 below). During the anticipatory stage, students are preparing for the exam, but the actual exam is ambiguous – students do not know the difficulty or questions on the exam. The waiting stage occurs after students complete the exam and are waiting for the outcome – their grade! At this point, students should have a better idea about their exam performance compared to when they were in the anticipatory stage. The outcome stage is when students learn about their grade. Because Lazarus views stress as an unfolding process of emotions, he suggests that our emotions in each stage should be different because we will have different cognitive appraisals in each stage.

Table 10
Stages of Stress based on Folkman and Lazarus (1985)

A table with 3 different stages and information about them
Stage Stage Type When stage occurs
T1 Anticipatory Stage 2 Days before mid-term
T2 Waiting Stage 5 days after mid-term
T3 Outcome Stage 2 Days after grades announced

 

During each of the stages, participants reported the extent to which they felt 15 different positive and negative emotions. Folkman and Lazarus hypothesized that the emotions participants reported would depend on whether they made one of four cognitive appraisals. Table 11 displays the four cognitive appraisals, their definitions, corresponding emotions, and the scale range on which participants rated each group of emotions. Each appraisal causes these emotions. Threat and challenge appraisals are called anticipatory appraisals because people are predicting or anticipating the outcome of an upcoming stressor. Harm and benefit appraisals are called outcome appraisals because the emotions are elicited based on whether the outcome was perceived as good or bad.

Table 11
Definitions of Stress Appraisals from Folkman and Lazarus (1985)

A table of Stress appraisal definitions
Appraisal Definition Emotion Range of Scale Responses
Threat Appraise the situation and determine we DO NOT possess the resources needed to successfully overcome the stressor. Worried, fearful, anxious 0-12
Challenge Appraise the situation and determine we DO have the appropriate resources to successfully overcome the stressor. Confident, hopeful, eager 0-12
Harm Appraise the situation and we PERCEIVE the outcome was negative Angry, sad, disappointed, guilty, disgusted 0-20
Benefit Appraise the situation and we PERCEIVE the outcome was positive. Exhilarated, pleased, happy, relieved 0-16

 

Figure 23 shows how threat and challenge emotions changed across the three stages, while Figure 24 shows how harm and benefit emotions changed. Results showed that students reported the highest levels of threat and challenge emotions in the anticipatory stage – when they were evaluating whether they have the resources to deal with the upcoming event. In the outcome stage, threat and challenge emotions have significantly decreased from the anticipatory stage. Why? Well in the outcome stage participants now know their grade and they are no longer anticipating the outcome of the midterm. In the anticipatory stage, 94% of students reported the simultaneous experience of challenge and threat emotions – which suggests that during the anticipatory stage people experience mixed positive and negative emotions! Why would this be? Well in the anticipatory stage people perceive that either a good or bad outcome could occur.

Figure 23
Threat and Challenge Emotions across Three Stages
A line graph with two lines plotted. one line for threat (blue), and one line for challenge (red). The x axis elapses over 3 labels. From the left to right those labels are: Anticipatory, Waiting, and Outcome. The Y axis is labeled: Extent feel each emotion (range 0 to 12), and starts at 0 and increases in increments of 1 to a maximum of 5..
Adapted from “If it changes it must be a process: Study of emotion and coping during three stages of a college examination,” by S. Folkman and R.S. Lazarus, 1985, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(1), p. 155 (https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.48.1.150). Copyright 1985 by the American Psychological Association.

Figure 24 below shows how harm and benefit emotions change over time. Harm and benefit emotions were lowest in the anticipatory stage, increased in the waiting stage, and further increased in the outcome stage. Harm and benefit emotions change over time because at each stage students receive more information about the outcome of the midterm exam – as their appraisals change, their emotions change. These findings show that during the outcome stage, students experienced either harm OR benefit emotions. In fact, harm and benefit emotions were negatively correlated. Remember, harm and benefit emotions are based on people’s perceptions of the outcome. So, people who perceived their midterm exam was good – felt benefit emotions, while people who perceived their midterm grade was bad – felt harm emotions. This means that for some students, a B on the exam would cause harm emotions and for other students a B would cause benefit emotions.

Figure 24
Harm and Benefit Emotions across Three Stages
A line graph with two lines plotted. One line for harm (blue), and one line for benefit (red). The x axis elapses over the same 3 labels as the previous line graph: Anticipatory, Waiting, Outcome. The y axis is labeled: Extent feel each emotion (range 0 to 16/20). The y axis starts at 0 and increases in increments of 1 to a maximum of 6.
Adapted from “If it changes it must be a process: Study of emotion and coping during three stages of a college examination,” by S. Folkman and R.S. Lazarus, 1985, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(1), p. 155 (https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.48.1.150). Copyright 1985 by the American Psychological Association.

One last thing to consider are the emotions that occurred during the waiting stage. By comparing the two figures above, one could conclude that during the waiting stage students felt all four groups of emotions. This is because they have more information about the difficulty of the exam, so they could start to engage in harm and benefit appraisals. But they still do not know their grade and are still anticipating their grade (maybe the professor will curve!) – so they still show challenge and threat emotions too!

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Psychology of Human Emotion by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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