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The diathesis-stress model of abnormality offers one explanation for why some people have psychological problems and others don’t. In this lesson, we’ll discuss the three main components of the diathesis-stress model.

Diathesis-Stress Model

Kathleen hears voices that aren’t there, and she believes that she’s a famous actress, even though she’s never acted a day in her life. Other people notice that she acts oddly: she talks back to the voices only she can hear, and she’s shocked when people don’t recognize her as a star.Kathleen is suffering from schizophrenia, a mental disorder that involves having hallucinations and delusions, among other symptoms.Gene isn’t like Kathleen; he’s not hearing things or delusional.

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But, he is depressed. He’s sad a lot and has lost interest in the things that used to make him happy. Not only that, he sometimes has trouble getting out of bed in the morning and focusing at work.What could cause schizophrenia, depression, and other psychological disorders? Psychologists don’t all agree. Some believe that psychological problems are primarily biological in nature; that is, they are caused by some underlying physical or neurological condition. For example, Kathleen’s brain works differently from most people’s. When she hears voices, the part of her brain that deals with hearing is active, as though she was actually, physically hearing someone talk.

Others believe that abnormality is mostly caused by a person’s environment. They say that problems in a person’s life cause psychological problems. Take Gene, for example: he and his wife are in deep debt, and they might lose their house to foreclosure. That could be causing his depression.But, most psychologists agree that psychological problems are caused by a combination of biology and environment.

The diathesis-stress model of abnormality tries to explain how biology and environment work together on people’s minds. According to this model, people are born with a certain biological or genetic predisposition to a mental illness.But, not all of those people will actually develop the mental illness they are predisposed to. Some will go on to lead happy lives and not end up schizophrenic, like Kathleen, or depressed, like Gene.Some, though, will experience situations in their lives that increase the likelihood that they will develop the mental illness. If their life situation is serious enough, the combination of environment and biology will lead them to developing the illness.Let’s look a little closer at the diathesis-stress model, including the three main concepts linked to it: diathesis, stress, and protective factors.


The first part of the diathesis-stress model is diathesis, or vulnerability to a mental illness. Think of this like the starting line of a race, and think of the finish line as a specific mental illness, like depression.In this race, though, not everyone starts at the same place. Some people are miles and miles away from depression, while others are very close to it.

Genetics and biology determine how close you are to the ‘finish line’ of depression.Someone like Gene, for example, might have a diathesis that is very high for depression. That is, he was born with a vulnerability for depression.

That doesn’t mean that he will definitely get depression, only that his starting line is closer to depression than yours or mine.Kathleen, on the other hand, might have a diathesis that is very low for depression. Her starting line is very far away from depression. But, she might have a high diathesis for schizophrenia. Maybe her aunt and grandfather both had schizophrenia, and she inherited a gene that puts her ‘starting line’ for schizophrenia very close to the disease.Each person’s diathesis for any particular mental illness is different from other people’s and can be influenced by biology or genetics.


Let’s go back to the depression race. Gene’s starting line is very close to the finish line: he’s got a high diathesis for depression. Meanwhile, Kathleen’s starting line is very far from depression. But, what does this mean? Does it mean that Gene definitely will get depressed and Kathleen definitely won’t?Not at all. Like a race, a person has to move past their diathesis to reach a mental illness.

If Gene just stands around at his starting line and doesn’t move, he’ll never become depressed. Meanwhile, even though Kathleen is further away, if she races to the depression finish line, she’ll get there eventually.So, what makes a person move closer to a mental illness? That’s where the second part of the diathesis-stress model comes into play. Diathesis, remember, is your vulnerability to a mental illness.

It’s your baseline starting point. But stress, or a change in condition that causes negative effects, can move a person closer to or further away from a finish line.In short, the diathesis-stress model says that the combination of your diathesis and your stress is what causes mental illness.Some things are obviously stressful: Gene’s financial situation is a stressor that is making him feel very worried and upset. This moves him from his starting line closer to the finish line of depression.But, stress is more than just emotional. Take Kathleen, for example: as a baby, Kathleen was exposed to a virus that made it more likely that her brain would develop differently from normal.

This virus is an example of stress: it moves Kathleen beyond her genetic diathesis closer to the possibility of having schizophrenia.So, stress can be emotional and caused by many things in your life, or it could be physical, like being sick or malnourished.

Protective Factors

So, you’ve got your starting line (your diathesis), and you’ve got something moving you forward (your stress). Does that mean that you’ll definitely end up with the mental illness you’re predisposed towards?Not necessarily.

There is a third factor important in the diathesis-stress model. Protective factors are things that provide a buffer between you and a mental illness. Think of these kind of like a group of people who jump in between you and the mental illness and keep you from reaching it.Protective factors can be many things. Common protective factors include having a loving and supportive group of family and friends, feeling competent and confident, and even physical exercise.

The more protective factors you have, the less likely you are to end up with a mental illness.

Lesson Summary

The diathesis-stress model of abnormal psychology says that mental illness is caused by a combination of biology or genetics and a person’s life situation. There are three main components of the diathesis-stress model: diathesis, or a person’s genetic or biological vulnerability to a mental illness; physical or emotional stress, or something that causes negative effects on a person; and protective factors, which help keep a person from developing a mental illness.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve reviewed this video lesson, you will be able to:

  • Describe the diathesis-stress model of abnormal psychology
  • Explain why some people develop mental illness, while others do not, according to this model
  • List common stress factors and protective factors

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