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Diathesis Stress Model of Psychopathology

The diathesis-stress model is a theory that tries to explain the development of mental and physical disorders that are caused by an interaction between biological genetics and stress (Nielsen et al., 2020). Psychopathology is a scientific name that refers to the study of mental disorders that affect the normal functioning of individuals. The latter focuses on the hereditary genes and environmental factors that influence psychological and mental disorders. Psychopathology aims at discovering the possible cure and treatments for mental illness. The term may also be used as a synonym for mental illness other than the study of social and mental disorders. Psychopathology may mean different depending on the type and style of therapy; for example, according to a behaviorist, the term originates from maladaptive.

The model of abnormality explains how biological and environmental factors react to human minds to cause mental disorders. According to the model, certain genetic predispositions are passed directly from the parents to the children during birth. Not all children will suffer from the illness; the ones predisposed will; however, the ones not predisposed won’t. Some will have a healthy life, but within the line of life, they will face situations that may stress them increasing the likelihood of developing mental disorders. If the stress persists, the biological and environmental factors may combine, making the individual vulnerable and developing the disorder. According to the model, psychological disorders are genetically hereditary. The author argues that stress is caused by imbalances of chemicals in an individual’s mind.

Stress may be defined as a series of life events that affect individuals’ physical or psychological functioning (Pruessner et al., 2017). Stress may stimulate the development of mental disorders if they combine with genetic diathesis. The diathesis-stress model explains how genetic traits combine with environmental stressors to cause mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. This model argues that if the reaction of stress and predisposition exceeds, the individual will automatically develop a disorder. The diathesis model is mostly used in psychology to explain the existence of psychopathology (Kendler, 2020). It explains and brings into understanding the concept of nature and nurture in the susceptibleness of psychopathology for an individual’s entire life. The model also differentiates between those who are likely to develop the disorder and those who will not suffer. For example, it explains why a certain individual may suffer depression while another person may not suffer even when exposed to the same stressors as the other one.

The diathesis-stress model has been used to explain why some groups are more vulnerable than others. For example, people from a family known for depression are likely to suffer depression if exposed to stressors such as rejection. People from a family known for no depression may not suffer depression even if they face rejection. The amount of stress required to facilitate the development of a disorder depends on the individual’s vulnerability; the more the vulnerability, the lesser stress required to develop a disorder. Several diatheses contribute to the development of a mental disorder. These factors include genes, trauma, situational, and cognitive. Genetics is the predisposition inherited from the parent to the offspring. Trauma is the things within our surroundings that may cause stress, including noise, weather changes, and crowding. Situational factors are the challenges individuals face, such as living with sick parents or living in a low-income family.

Cognitive factors are the possible characteristics of an individual that affect or change their performance and learning in general. These factors may include memory, reasoning, and attention. There are seven common types of psychopathology disorders which include depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety, personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive, and post-traumatic stress (Broerman, 2020). Symptoms of each mental disorder vary according to the disorder; for example, symptoms of depression are different from anxiety symptoms. Symptoms of depression include changes in weight, carelessness, confusion, fatigue, excessive sleeping and forgetfulness, change in speaking tone, restlessness, and suicidal thoughts. Anxiety disorder symptoms are tiredness, worry and fear, stomach aches, sweating, headache, high heartbeat, dizziness, and fear of embarrassment.

In explaining diathesis-stress through depression disorder, the theory indicates that the magnitude of stress on depression depends on how an individual is vulnerable. The model uses a polygenic risk score to identify the vulnerability to depression of certain individuals from a given family sample. The diathesis-stress theory on depression was discovered early in the 1960s to explain how schizophrenia came into existence. Finally, in the 1980s, it was adapted to explain the origin of depression. This model states that stress may stimulate vulnerability causing a predisposition to developing into psychopathology. The author argues that stress and diathesis are dependent on each other in the generation of depression (Arnau-Soler et al., 2019). In the early 1970s, David Rosenthal defined diathesis-stress theory as” the one in which genuine meaning attaches to the commonly repeated statement that heredity and environment interact.” He later criticized the formulation of genetic and environmental stressors supported by the theory.

Other scientists like Monroe later highlighted Rosenthal’s criticisms and did more research on the diathesis-stress premise. He described how certain elements interact in the process of etiology over a specified period. Some scientists have criticized the research and theory of diathesis stress for being empirically or theoretically unproductive. According to the diathesis model, people differ in the levels of vulnerability to depression. Some people pose more factors than others. The more vulnerable an individual is, the more the chances of developing depression. The model argues that high sensitivity to depression may not cause a disorder, but the stressful life of an individual catalyzes it. These stress events may be biological, social, or psychologically driven. In people with low sensitivity to depression, it may need high levels of stress for the condition to take place. Without this amount of stress, these individuals will have a normal life, and their vulnerability is considered hidden.

According to the diathesis-stress theory of depression, stressful events impact people differently. Deaths, drug abuse, divorce, or poverty may cause depression depending on how much such individuals are sensitive to the situation. Each event impacts people differently; for example, divorce may trigger depression in a certain individual but may not affect another person experiencing the same divorce. Since depression is mainly caused by social, genetic, and psychological factors, the model argues that it must interact with the individuals’ unique sensitivity for the condition to occur (Colodro-Conde et al., 2018). Depression is a complex disorder that needs a holistic approach to treatment. Since a series of factors causes the condition, the model states that no one treatment can fix it. It is unreasonable to expect the treatment that heels one person to work for another.


Arnau-Soler, A., Adams, M. J., Clarke, T. K., MacIntyre, D. J., Milburn, K., Navrady, L., … & Thomson, P. A. (2019). Validation of the diathesis-stress model for depression in Generation Scotland. Translational Psychiatry9(1), 1-10.

Broerman, R. (2020). Diathesis-stress model. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1107-1109.

Colodro-Conde, L., County-Duchesne, B., Zhu, G., Coventry, W. L., Byrne, E. M., Gordon, S., … & Martin, N. G. (2018). A direct test of the diathesis-stress model for depression. Molecular psychiatry23(7), 1590-1596.

Kendler, K. S. (2020). Prehistory of the diathesis-stress model: predisposing and exciting causes of insanity in the 19th century. American Journal of Psychiatry177(7), 576-588.

Nielsen, J. D., Mennies, R. J., & Olino, T. M. (2020). Application of a diathesis-stress model to the interplay of cortical structural development and emerging depression in youth. Clinical psychology review82, 101922.

Pruessner, M., Cullen, A. E., Aas, M., & Walker, E. F. (2017). The neural diathesis-stress model of schizophrenia revisited: An update on recent findings considering illness stage and neurobiological and methodological complexities. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews73, 191-218.


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