Understanding the Stress-Diathesis Model of Mental Health

Stress-Diathesis Model

Have you ever wondered why some people develop mental health issues while others don’t?

The Stress-Diathesis Model might have some answers for explaining this tendency. According to this model, mental health problems, like schizophrenia, happen because of two main things:

  • First, an individual’s genetic makeup can predispose them to certain mental health issues. This genetic predisposition is referred to as ‘diathesis’.
  • But stressful life events can also trigger these problems. Therefore, the second factor, stress, is caused by external stressors they encounter in life.

This means that even if someone possesses genes that make them more susceptible to a mental health issue, they might not experience any problems unless they encounter significant stress in their life.

This balance between nature and nurture, our genes and our life experiences, is what the Stress-Diathesis Model is all about.

In this article, we’ll help you understand the stress-diathesis model of mental health and explore its crucial role in therapeutic interventions.

A Historical Perspective of the Stress-Diathesis Model

The roots of the Stress-Diathesis Model can be traced back to the 1800s, long before it was formally introduced in the 1960s. During this earlier period, many psychiatric experts recognized that the causes of mental illness could be divided into two categories: predisposing factors and triggering events. This early understanding, known as the “predisposition-excitation framework” (PEF), was the basis for what we now call the Stress-Diathesis Model (Kendler, 2020).

The Stress-Diathesis Model was first introduced in the 1960s by a psychologist named Paul Meehl. He used it to explain why some people develop schizophrenia, a serious mental health condition. Meehl suggested that people might be born with certain genes (the ‘diathesis’) that make them more likely to develop this condition. But he also believed that stressful life events (the ‘stress’) could trigger the condition in those who have these genes.

Over time, this model has been used to understand not just schizophrenia, but many other mental health issues too. Therefore, this understanding has been really important in developing effective therapies. Today, therapists use the Stress-Diathesis Model to help people manage their mental health and build resilience against stress.

How Does the Stress-Diathesis Model Work?

Did you know that, according to various studies, around 35% of our susceptibility to depression can be attributed to genetic factors?

In fact, twin studies have shown that genetic factors significantly contribute to the likelihood of developing psychiatric traits. While the heritability estimate is approximately 35% for major depression, it’s over 60% for schizophrenia (Pettersson et al., 2018).

The remaining variance is explained by non-genetic factors, including environmental influences. This is in line with the main idea of the Stress-Diathesis Model — the interaction between our genetic makeup and the environment we live in.

In this model, we all carry within us a set of genetic vulnerabilities, or ‘diathesis’, to certain mental health issues. However, these predispositions don’t cause problems on their own. It’s the stressors we encounter in life that can trigger these predispositions and lead to the development of mental health issues.

Still, it’s not a guaranteed outcome — having a predisposition doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop a mental health issue. Just as not everyone with a genetic risk for a disease will get that disease, not everyone with a predisposition will develop a mental health issue, even when faced with significant stress.

Diathesis — Genetic Factors and Their Impact

Genetic factors play a significant role in mental health and contribute to the predisposition to certain disorders. These factors are embedded in our DNA, inherited from our parents, and can influence our susceptibility to conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

For instance, research has identified specific genes associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia (Salleh, 2004). Similarly, certain genetic variations have been linked to a higher prevalence of mood disorders. These genetic factors can influence various aspects of our biology, from the structure and function of our brain to the way our body responds to stress.

The role of genetic factors in mental health extends beyond the genes we inherit. Epigenetics, a field that studies changes in gene activity without altering the DNA sequence, has shown a significant impact on mental health. These changes can be triggered by various factors, including stress, diet, or exposure to toxins.

Stress — Environmental Stressors and Their Impact

Environmental stressors are external events or circumstances that can trigger the symptoms of various mental health disorders in individuals with a genetic predisposition. These stressors can be major life events, such as the loss of a loved one, or ongoing challenges like work stress or financial difficulties.

Understanding the role of these external stressors is crucial. It allows us to identify potential triggers and develop strategies to manage stress. That’s how therapists try to help clients reduce the impact of mental health disorders on their well-being.

What Disorders Are Linked to Stress-Diathesis Model?

The Stress-Diathesis Model can be used to understand a variety of mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and psychosis spectrum disorders (Chasiropoulou et al., 2019).

  • Schizophrenia – This was the first disorder linked to the Stress-Diathesis Model. Studies show that Schizophrenia is a highly heritable disorder. However, environmental factors also contribute to its etiology (Owen et al., 2016). Therefore, people with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia may never develop the disorder unless they experience significant life stressors.
  • Depression – Genetic factors can make a person more susceptible to depression, but stressful life events often act as triggers. For example, the loss of a loved one, a major life change, or chronic stress can trigger a depressive episode in someone with a genetic predisposition.
  • Anxiety Disorders – Similar to depression, people with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders may not develop symptoms unless they experience significant stress. This could include traumatic events or ongoing stressors like work-related stress or financial difficulties.
  • Bipolar Disorder – Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of bipolar disorder (e.g., Aldinger & Schulze, 2016) Consequently, certain stressful life events can trigger episodes of mania or depression in individuals with a genetic predisposition.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – While anyone can develop PTSD after a traumatic event, individuals with a genetic predisposition are more likely to develop the disorder (Banerjee et al., 2017). The traumatic event acts as a significant stressor and has the potential to trigger PTSD symptoms.

Role of Stress-Diathesis Model in Therapy

As you can see, the Stress-Diathesis Model has revolutionized our understanding of mental health and shifted the conversation from a ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate to a more integrated view of ‘nature and nurture’.

As a result of recognizing that both genetic predispositions and environmental stressors play a role in mental health disorders, treatment approaches nowadays are more holistic and personalized. In fact, therapists can develop strategies that not only address the symptoms of mental health disorders but also target the underlying genetic and environmental factors.

At Health for Life Counseling, our professional therapists understand the unique interplay of genetics and environment for each individual and provide personalized care for each client. Our holistic approach, guided by the Stress-Diathesis Model, underscores the importance of considering all factors that contribute to your mental health.

So, if you’re struggling with mental health issues, reach out to us today at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or talk to us online. Our licensed counselors are willing to support you on your journey to better mental health.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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