What Is the Diathesis-Stress Model?

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The diathesis-stress model is a theory suggesting that mental disorders and medical conditions are caused by a combination of an inherent predisposition and and the person's experience of stress. Also known as the vulnerability-stress model, it is a framework for understanding how existing vulnerabilities and environmental stresses interact to influence mental health conditions.

While the term sounds unwieldy and complex, the phenomenon it explains is relatively easy to understand. 

Diathesis and Stress

  • Diathesis refers to a predisposition or vulnerability to developing a mental disorder. This can be due to genetic factors, early life experiences, or other biological susceptibilities. 
  • Stress refers to the environmental factors that trigger the onset of mental illness or exacerbate existing conditions. These can include significant life events, trauma, and daily stressors.

This article discusses the diathesis-stress model, how it explains the onset of different mental health conditions, and how you can use this information to better moderate the stress in your life.

History of the Diathesis Stress Model

The model can trace its origins to the 1950s, although roots of this theory date to much earlier. Paul Meehl, in the 1960s, applied this approach to explain the origins of schizophrenia. Since then, it has also been utilized to understand the development of depression. According to researchers who use this viewpoint, people with a predisposition for depression are more likely to develop the condition when exposed to stress.

This theory was later expanded to include other mental health conditions, including anxiety and eating disorders. 


The diathesis-stress model is one of the most widely accepted theories for explaining the etiology of mental disorders. 

How the Diathesis Stress Model Works

Everyone has vulnerabilities due to genes, genetic abnormalities, or the complex interaction of various genes. But just because these predispositions exist does not mean that an individual will develop a particular condition. 

In many cases, a disorder will only emerge when stress-related pressures trigger the underlying diathesis. This exposure to stress can trigger the mental disorder's onset or worsen existing symptoms.

However, it is essential to note that not everyone with a predisposition will develop a mental disorder, just as not everyone who experiences stress is destined to experience mental illness. The diathesis-stress model is one way to explain why some people are more vulnerable to mental illness than others. It also explains why some people may develop a mental disorder after exposure to stressful life events while others do not.

The heritability of mental illness ranges from around 40% for depression to about 80% for schizophrenia.

However, it is essential to remember that in most cases, no single gene is responsible for causing a mental disorder. Instead, it is often the result of many genes or other biological factors interacting with environmental variables that determine overall risk.

Types of Conditions Linked to Diathesis and Stress

The diathesis-stress model has been utilized to explain the etiology of many different types of mental health conditions, including:

Anxiety Disorders

While the exact causes of anxiety disorders are unknown, genetic vulnerabilities and exposure to stressful life events can play a role. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, and having an inherited predisposition means that traumatic experiences are more likely to trigger anxiety. Genetics can also impact how people manage stress.


A combination of factors is believed to contribute to the onset of depression, including genetics, a family history of depression, and exposure to stressful life events.


Experts suggest that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetics and stressful events. For example, around 25% of individuals with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome (aka DiGeorge Syndrome) develop schizophrenia, indicating a significant genetic component. Not everyone with this genetic variation experiences schizophrenia, suggesting that environmental factors also play a part.

Eating Disorders

Genetic, environmental, and psychosocial factors are believed to contribute to the development of eating disorders. For many people, stressful life events that leave them feeling a loss of control can lead people with inherent vulnerability to extreme behaviors to control weight and food intake.

Uses for the Diathesis Stress Model

The diathesis-stress model has been used to help improve research, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. Some uses for this model include:

  • Understanding the causes of mental illness: Where other models of mental illness focus primarily on nature or nurture, the diathesis-stress model suggests that mental disorders are best understood as resulting from biological and environmental influences. 
  • Reducing the stress that contributes to mental disorders: Because of the emphasis on the role stress plays in causing mental illness, this model encourages the use of stress reduction strategies to help limit disease risk. While genetic and other biological factors cannot be controlled, stress is a modifiable risk factor that people can address through lifestyle changes. This may include stress-relief techniques, such as relaxation and mindfulness.
  • Exploring the interactions of biological and environmental influences: The diathesis-stress model is also helpful in understanding the complex interaction of biological and environmental factors in developing mental disorders. It can help guide research to identify the causes of mental illness, ultimately leading to the development of more effective treatments.
  • Understanding the impact of genetics and environment: This model helps explain why some people are more likely to develop mental health conditions following stressful events and why others are not.

Impact of the Diathesis-Stress Model

The diathesis-stress model has influenced how researchers investigate mental health conditions. It has helped shift the focus of research from nature vs. nurture debates to a more nuanced understanding of how biological and environmental factors contribute to mental illness.

The diathesis-stress model has also helped change how mental disorders are treated. The model suggests that treatment should reduce stress and address the underlying diathesis to the degree possible. This has led to the use of new therapies, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, that might mitigate these risks.


The diathesis-stress model is a widely accepted theory with important implications for research and treatment. The model has helped to improve our understanding of mental disorders and develop more effective treatments.

How to Manage Your Stress

While avoiding all sources of stress is impossible, limiting your stress and developing strong stress management skills may help limit your health risks. Some things you can do include:

Making lifestyle changes and developing healthy coping mechanisms can help reduce stress and protect your mental health. 

Protective Factors

Stress and genetic factors contribute to increased vulnerability, but protective factors can counteract some of the effects of stress. Some protective factors that can affect the interaction of diathesis and stress include secure attachments, positive relationships, stress management skills, and emotional competence.

Certain traits and characteristics can also make people more resilient to stress. For example, the big five personality traits of extroversion and conscientiousness have been linked to increased resilience.


The diathesis-stress model is a widely accepted theory with important implications for research and treatment. The model suggests that a mental disorder develops when an individual has a vulnerability or predisposition combined with exposure to stressful life events. This exposure can trigger the mental disorder's onset or worsen existing symptoms. The diathesis-stress model has helped to improve our understanding of mental disorders and led to the development of more effective treatments.

10 Sources
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."