Although stress is an inevitable part of a person’s life, it has different effects on different people.
Some people develop a disorder after exposure to major environmental stressors, while others do not.
Scientists have been trying to find out and explain what causes this difference in outcomes.
The diathesis-stress model is one explanation based on scientific understanding.
What is the diathesis-stress model?
The diathesis-stress model describes how the interaction of predisposition (diathesis) and stressful situations (stress) can trigger physical or mental health disorders. It is also known as the stress-vulnerability model or stress-diathesis model.
What is diathesis?
Diathesis is a person’s predisposition or vulnerability to a medical condition, which can be a psychological or physical disorder. This terminology was first used in psychiatry in the study of schizophrenia and later depression and other disorders.
Predispositions can be inherited genetically1, created by environmental stressors early in life, or caused by the genetics x environment interaction (GxE) 2.
According to the diathesis-stress theory, stress is more likely to develop physical or mental illnesses in someone predisposed to it than in someone without the disposition3.
The Dual Risk Model
The diathesis-stress model is also known as the dual risk model4 because the effects of stress play two roles.
A person’s predisposition can be genetic or acquired after birth.
Certain early life experiences can lower an individual’s threshold for developing mental disorders and allow subsequent stressors to trigger disorders more easily. Therefore, environmental risk factors in early life can increase a person’s predisposition later in life.
Stress, therefore, plays a dual role5:
- Early stress exerts a formative influence on children increasing their underlying vulnerability to disorders.
- Later stress exerts a precipitating or triggering influence by activating the actual onset of the disorders.
Diathesis And Stress Interaction
According to the Diathesis-Stress Model, mental health problems can be triggered by the presence of both diatheses and stress.
This is a plausible explanation for why some people develop mental disorders when facing stressful life events while others don’t.
At first glance, this model suggests that diathesis and stress are two independent qualities that could exist on their own without the other. In this early version of the Diathesis-Stress Model, the interaction between vulnerability and stress was clear-cut: Stress activated the diathesis, which in turn brought about the onset of the disorder6.
But in recent years, researchers have discovered several ways in which diathesis and stress may interact and influence each other.
Diathesis Can Cause Stress
One possible interaction between diathesis and stress is that the underlying predisposition may cause or affect the experience of stress. That is, having certain vulnerabilities may increase one’s likelihood of incurring a high level of stress.
For instance, a genetic vulnerability may cause a person to cope with life in a way that creates a stressor that normal people without the trait will not experience.
This bidirectional influence can be seen in some individuals predisposed to depressive symptoms.
These individuals may exhibit irritability, fatigue, and social withdrawal. These symptoms can cause problems in their interpersonal relationships and employment. If those problems end up causing the loss of a close relationship or job, those experiences become the stressors that catalyze the onset of major depressive disorder5.
In this scenario, stress is not just a random event but a consequence of vulnerability.
Another type of interaction is that vulnerabilities can alter a person’s perception of stress.
For example, a vulnerable person may perceive an ordinary experience as highly stressful. The vulnerabilities essentially cause high levels of psychological distress. Less stress is required to trigger a disorder. For these people, a disorder may develop even without experiencing extreme stress.
Stress Can Cause Diathesis
While diathesis can lead to stress, stress can also lead to diathesis. As previously discussed, environmental stress can cause a person to develop vulnerability.
In the depression scar hypothesis, the first episode of a person’s major depression may cause them to form negative thinking patterns. These new thinking patterns become the vulnerability and lead to later episodes of depression when further stressful events are encountered7.
In recent years, scientists have found another pathway for stressful events to create a biological vulnerability. They found that some environmental factors can modify gene expression through epigenetic processes. Such modifications are independent of the genetic makeup of a person.
That means even if a person is not born with a genetic predisposition, certain environmental or social factors can still alter the person’s DNA to create a biological predisposition.
Diathesis Stress Model Examples
The diathesis stress theory is a complicated psychological theory that keeps evolving as scientists continue to gather new information. Meanwhile, this model helps to explain why some people seem more resilient than others.
It clarifies the roles of biological factors and situational factors in the development of a disorder. There is no longer a debate on nature-vs-nurture because disorders can be caused by a combination of nature and nurture.
This model also consolidates existing research on parenting, proving that parenting matters because parents can contribute to risk and protective factors.
Examples of Risk Factors
- punitive parenting style8
- overprotective parenting style
- childhood maltreatment
- physical or sexual abuse9
- being a young girl10
- family history of depression11
- domestic violence12
- community violence13
- witnessing violence14
- school bullying12
- life-threatening event
- the traumatic loss of a parent
- impulsive temperament
Examples of Protective Factors
Protective factors in early life likely buffer against the onset of disorders following negative events for vulnerable children.
- warm, responsive parenting style15
- caring adults
- consistent care, structure, and supervision
- emotionally supportive environment16
- high self-esteem17
- less “adventurous” temperament18
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- 16.Yeung R, Leadbeater B. Adults make a difference: the protective effects of parent and teacher emotional support on emotional and behavioral problems of peer-victimized adolescents. J Community Psychol. Published online January 2010:80-98. doi:10.1002/jcop.20353
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