What Is the Stress-Vulnerability Model?

This is why some people develop mental health conditions—and others don't.

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What Is the Stress-Vulnerability Model?

Stress-Vulnerability Model

The Stress-Vulnerability Model is a tool that tells us how and why mental health ailments develop.

Read on to learn more about the vulnerability stress model, some criticism it has received, the impact stress can have on us, and ways to boost protective factors to fight against stress. 

History of the Stress-Vulnerability Model

The Stress-Vulnerability Model was developed in 1977 by Zubin and Spring to explain the development of schizophrenia.

After its initial introduction to the mental health world, the model extended to include a broad range of psychiatric diagnoses. 

Criticism of the Stress-Vulnerability Model

While the Stress-Vulnerability Model has been instrumental in helping us better understand psychiatric ailments, it hasn’t been without its critics.

The Term 'Vulnerability' Is Limiting

A 2022 article published in Frontiers in Sociology found the model’s focus on vulnerability to be disempowering. Noting the nearly 50 years that have passed since the model was introduced, the article found the model’s emphasis on vulnerability to be a distraction from the actual harm at hand.

Example

For example, if one’s form of stress is abuse at the hands of caregivers, simply removing the caregivers will not solve the issue of stress as a key vulnerability. Instead, there must be support from individuals who understand the needs of someone who has experienced abuse.

What Are the Elements of the Stress-Vulnerability Model?

According to the Stress-Vulnerability Model, biological vulnerability and stressors are responsible for developing a psychiatric disorder. Then, protective factors are what can help reduce biological vulnerability and stress.

Elements of the Stress-Vulnerability Model

  1. Biological Vulnerability
  2. Stress
  3. Protective Factors

Biological Vulnerability

Biological vulnerability refers to one’s genetic predisposition. For example, bipolar disorder is known to have a genetic link and is often passed down in families.

Biological vulnerability also accounts for experiences that could have occurred in the womb or as a baby.

Stress

While stress can contribute to developing a mental health disorder, it isn't the only factor at play. For example, someone may already have a genetic predisposition to a mental health disorder, but they have not developed it yet.

Therefore, if a person is genetically predisposed to a mental health condition, a major life event or a series of stressful events can trigger the onset of a mental health disorder.

Examples of these life stressors include:

  • Life crises (e.g., death of a loved one, major illness)
  • Substance use
  • Personal and job-related stressors

When this significant life crisis occurs, some of the disorder's symptoms can emerge. However, remember that the probability of this depends on the type of psychiatric condition the person is predisposed to.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are critical in reducing both stress and biological vulnerability.

Protective factors can include:

  • A support system with individuals who have strong communication skills
  • A structured daily routine
  • A low-stress lifestyle

How to Boost Protective Factors

Decreasing stress is a great way to minimize your vulnerability to developing severe ailments. However, this may seem challenging while living in an already complicated world. Rather than solely focusing on reducing stress, let's consider how you can build upon your protective factors:

  • Assess your current points of stress and take a look at your community resources. For example, if food insecurity is a stressor, does your community offer any discounted or free food provisions? If you're not sure, take a look at any community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. These programs will sometimes offer weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables at a steeply discounted price.
  • What is your support system like? If you're looking around and feeling under-supported by others, it may be worth looking into a support or therapy group. Both of these offer the opportunity to build closeness and community with others while focusing on your healing.
  • Do you have any hobbies or talents? Perhaps you love creating art and find it to be a strong emotional outlet. Also, running might be a source of stress relief. Regardless of what your chosen hobby is, see how you can lean into it to support yourself.

A Word From Verywell

If you're experiencing stress or trauma, please know that you are not alone. A mental health professional can help support you in your healing process.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Demke E. The vulnerability-stress-model—holding up the construct of the faulty individual in the light of challenges to the medical model of mental distress. Front Sociol. 2022;7:833987. doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2022.833987

  2. Goh C, Agius M. The stress-vulnerability model how does stress impact on mental illness at the level of the brain and what are the consequences?Psychiatr Danub. 2010;22(2):198-202.

  3. Pruessner M, Iyer SN, Faridi K, Joober R, Malla AK. Stress and protective factors in individuals at ultra-high risk for psychosis, first episode psychosis and healthy controlsSchizophr Res. 2011;129(1):29-35. doi:10.1016/j.schres.2011.03.022

  4. O’Connell KS, Coombes BJ. Genetic contributions to bipolar disorder: current status and future directions. Psychol Med. 51(13):2156-2167. doi: 10.1017/S0033291721001252

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.