Understanding our appraisal process
Eve Ekman brings you a brief talk on emotions and stress.
How do our emotions intertwine with our stress? Stress is a natural part of our life. It can be adaptive when it moves us, motivates us to take action. When we have the resources and means to take on a challenge, we may feel adequate in taking on a stressor. Alternatively, when we don’t feel that we have the resources and means to meet the stressor or demands in our life, this can become overwhelming.
Our appraisal (or evaluation) of a stressor can also play a role in how we then feel about taking on a stressor. Attending to our emotions can help us be proactive in handling our stress.
Things you’ll learn from this episode:
- Definitions of emotion and stress
- The different kinds of stress
- How emotional awareness helps
- Why recognizing emotions helps in handling stress
Emotions and Stress Talk
The scientific definition of emotion is when we appraise something important is happening to us in the world and we respond with an automatic set of physiological and psychological changes. This means that when we see something in the environment or when we remember something in our mind and we attribute it to be something important, our entire system is revved up to respond to meet this need or important challenge.
When we think about the definition of stress, on the other hand, stress is an over arousal of that emotional experience. This means that we perceive something important happening to us and we feel overwhelmed or the emotional response is high and strong. It’s interesting to consider that in order for us to feel stress, we have to perceive the emotion is greater than something we can manage. This is described in the literature as feeling as though there are more demands than there are resources. When we have that feeling that we lack the resources to meet the demands of our environment, we experience stress.
This helps us understand that there are actually different kinds of stress. There is a “good” or effective stress that helps us simply to respond to our environment around us. And then there’s the difficult or more challenging type of stress that makes us feel overwhelmed. Now, in order for us to feel that good stress and to be motivated to respond, we have to believe that we have enough resources to meet the demands. Importantly, these resources are perceived and the demands are also perceived, meaning they come through our appraisal system.
What is stressful to me and feels overwhelming may not be stressful to you or feel overwhelming. It all has to do with whether or not I feel I’m equipped. Maybe having encountered this experience before; maybe recognizing that “I know how to handle it” or whether I feel instead that it’s overwhelming and I won’t be able to manage it. So giving ourselves that ability to appraise the situation can make all the difference. We then come to consider how we can improve our resources to meet the demands. One important way we can do that is by simply becoming aware of our emotional arousal; recognizing we’re feeling the emotion. For example, noticing the sensations in our body as we feel fear, anger or sadness, and giving ourselves a moment to reflect on the source of the emotion and what we can do to manage or respond to the situation that’s triggering it.
In the case of stress, we’re often responding to a thought or rumination. For example, “Will I be able to manage all the work I have to do this week?” When we stop having the ability to recognize where that stress is coming from, we have an overwhelming experience of the emotion of anxiety or anticipation, which are both in the family of fear. So, consider instead, “Gosh, I recognize I’m feeling fear this week, it seems as though it might be more than I can handle.” But we take a moment to pause and to reflect and to consider this emotion of fear will pass. We can say to ourselves, “This week I’ll work as hard as I can.” That will give us that important pause and opportunity for reflection. It allows us hopefully to step back a bit and get out of the tangle of our emotional experience.
Resources mentioned by Eve Ekman
About Eve Ekman, PhD, MSW
Eve Ekman, PhD, MSW, is a contemplative social scientist designing, delivering, and evaluating tools to support emotional awareness in the fields of health care, wellbeing, and technology. Eve draws from interdisciplinary skills and first-person experiential knowledge from clinical social work, integrative medicine and contemplative science, and meditation. Eve is lead teacher for Cultivating Emotional Balance, is wellbeing lead on the health team at Apple, is a Senior Fellow at Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and a fellow at the Mind and Life Institute.