Diathesis-Stress Model is not a common vocabulary you can find on a parenting blog. But for parents who want to raise resilient children, this is an important theory to understand. Let’s see how stress can affect our children’s health.
Table of Contents
What Is Diathesis
Diathesis is one’s predisposition or vulnerabilities to suffer from a certain medical condition which can be a psychological or physical disorder.
The terminology, diathesis, was used often in psychiatry first in the study of schizophrenia, and later depression.
A diathesis can be a biological inheritance, i.e. genetics, but it can also be vulnerabilities created by certain environmental stressors early in life1.
The three types of diathesis in psychology are hereditary, hereditary-environmental, and environmental.
Diathesis-Stress Model, also known as Stress-Vulnerability Model in psychology, describes how the interaction of a predisposition and environmental stress can result in a disorder. The vulnerability makes an individual more likely to develop a psychological disorder or suffer from maladjustment if certain stress is experienced.
Normally, if an individual does not have dispositions, it will take a very high level of stress to trigger the disorder.
But if the individual has a high vulnerability, the model hypothesizes that it will take lower levels of stress to cause the disorder2.
The Dual Risk Model
Stress plays an important role in the development of psychological disturbances3.
Some stressors can lower an individual’s threshold of developing psychopathology allowing subsequent stressors to trigger the disorder more easily.
This early life stress increases individuals’ risk of developing a disorder when the individual encounters stress again later.
Stress plays a dual role in this model:
- Early stress exerts a formative influence on children increasing their underlying vulnerability to psychological disorders.
- Later stress exerts a precipitating or triggering influence by activating the actual onset of disorders.
Diathesis-Stress Model is therefore also known as the Dual Risk Model1.
Diathesis and Stress
In the Stress-Vulnerability paradigm, mental disorders are caused by the presence of both predispositions and stress.
That explains why some people develop mental disorders when they encounter 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 formation of the Diathesis-Stress Model, the interaction between diathesis and stress was clear cut: Stress activated the diathesis, which in turn brought about the onset of the disorder4.
But in recent years, researchers have discovered several ways in which diathesis and stress can actually interact and influence each other.
Diathesis’ Influence On Stress
One possible interaction between diathesis and stress is that the predisposition may cause or affect the experience of stress.
Having certain genetic traits may increase an individual’s likelihood of incurring a stressful experience that triggers a disorder.
That is, the traits may cause a person to deal with life in such a way that creates a stressor that precipitates the disorder.
For example, if an individual is predisposed to symptoms of depression, they may exhibit irritability, fatigue, and social withdrawal. These symptoms may cause problems in that person’s interpersonal relationship and employment. If those problems end up in the person losing a close relationship or job, then the experiences become the stressors that catalyze the onset of depression3.
In this scenario, stress is not just a random event, but the consequence of having the diathesis.
Another type of interaction is that vulnerabilities can alter a person’s perception of stress.
The person may perceive an ordinary experience as a high-stress event.
Then the vulnerabilities are essentially part of the stress.
Stress’ Influence On Diathesis
Another potential interaction is that environmental stress can cause a person to develop diathesis previously not present.
For example, in the depression “scar” hypothesis, the first episode of major depression may cause a person to form negative thinking patterns and these traits subsequently lead to later episodes of depression5.
In recent years, scientists have found another pathway stressful events can create biological susceptibility.
They found that specific 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 biological predisposition, certain social environments can still alter the person’s DNA to create a diathesis.
Final Thoughts On Diathesis-Stress Model
The Diathesis-Stress Model is a complicated psychological theory that keeps evolving as scientists continue to gather new information.
So what is the takeaway for parents?
Well, first, we see how this model helps to explain why some children are considered more resilient than others.
When we feel that our children are not being resilient, we need to remember that the apparent lack of resilience is the effects of genetic factors, environment or community.
It is not because our children are weak or stubborn.
Second, the Stress-Vulnerability Model adds to the mounting evidence proving that tough love parenting, which focuses on creating unnecessary stress for children, does not work.
Not only does tough love not work the way parent wants, i.e. toughen up their child, but it may also cause harm by catalyzing the development of psychopathology.re
- 1.Richters J, Weintraub S. Beyond diathesis: toward an understanding of high-risk environments. In: Rolf J, Masten AS, Cicchetti D, Nuchterlein KH, Weintraub S, eds. Risk and Protective Factors in the Development of Psychopathology. Cambridge University Press; :67-96. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511752872.007
- 2.Hertenstein MJ, Dean RS, Patanella D, et al. Diathesis-stress Model. In: Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer US; 2011:502-503. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_845
- 3.Monroe SM, Simons AD. Diathesis-stress theories in the context of life stress research: Implications for the depressive disorders. Psychological Bulletin. 1991:406-425. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.3.406
- 4.Ingram RE, Luxton DD. Vulnerability-Stress Models. In: Development of Psychopathology: A Vulnerability-Stress Perspective. Sage Publications, Inc.; 2005:32-46.
- 5.Rohde P, Lewinsohn PM, Seeley JR. Are people changed by the experience of having an episode of depression? A further test of the scar hypothesis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1990:264-271. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.99.3.264