Biology and environment can influence if and when you develop a mental illness, but how do changes in our biology and environment affect us? In this lesson, we'll look at how changes affect our likelihood of developing psychological issues.
Diathesis and Stress
Fred is the life of the party. He loves to hang out with his friends at bars and parties. But recently, his drinking has gotten a little out of control. He doesn't remember things he did, and his grades in school are starting to suffer. Last week, his girlfriend threatened to break up with him if he didn't stop drinking. But, Fred just can't seem to stop.
Substance abuse disorders like alcoholism are only a small group of disorders studied by psychologists. And, just as there are a wide variety of disorders in psychology, there are also many different ways to approach those disorders. For example, some psychologists might say that Fred's problem is biological: He's inherited a gene from one of his parents that leads to addiction.
On the other hand, some psychologists might say that Fred's problem is that he has learned that he gets attention from his friends when he drinks. He has learned behaviors that are hard to break. Still other psychologists might say that Fred's problem is emotional. He deals with stress from life by drinking.
The diathesis-stress model of psychology says that a combination of vulnerability to a mental illness and life stress causes a person to develop a psychological disorder. For example, perhaps Fred did inherit a gene that causes a higher likelihood of becoming an addict. That doesn't mean that he absolutely will become an addict, only that he has a vulnerability, or diathesis, to addiction.
But then stress, emotional or physical, comes into play: He's getting pressure from his friends to drink to be cool, and he's worried about his midterms. These stresses, combined with his original vulnerability, lead him to being addicted.
You might have noticed that the stresses of Fred's life are specific to someone of a certain age. An eight-year-old is probably not going to experience a lot of peer pressure to drink alcohol, and someone who has left college and is out in the workforce is not going to be worried about midterms. As we grow and develop through our lives, the stresses and vulnerabilities that we have change. Let's look at some ways that the diathesis-stress model is influenced by development, including the areas of addiction and wisdom development.
Fred's drinking problem began when he was 16 and first started going to parties and drinking alcohol. But, the problem got even worse when he went off to college. Like many people, Fred's college experience gave him more freedom and less parental supervision than ever before in his life.
At the same time, he found even more peer pressure to go to parties and drink, and he felt even more anxious about life now that he was away from home. All of these are common experiences for college students, and all of them are added stress that can lead to addiction. Remember that the diathesis-stress model says that Fred has a vulnerability to addiction already. If he doesn't experience stress, or if he experiences only a little bit of stress, he will not become an addict. That vulnerability will lie dormant inside of him.
But, the more stress he experiences, the more likely it is that he will become addicted. Since many college students experience increased stress in the form of peer pressure and academic and life stresses, this is a time when many people end up succumbing to addiction.
It's not just addiction, either. The diathesis-stress model covers all sorts of psychological issues. For example, if a person has a diathesis for depression, they might discover that the pressures of college cause them to become depressed. Likewise, the mental disorder schizophrenia is usually first diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 25, which are the stressful college years for many people.
The diathesis-stress model and the high levels of stress during college can explain why drug and alcohol abuse are most common during the late teens and early twenties. After all, the stress part of the diathesis-stress model is increased at that point in life. But, what happens when your stress stays the same but your vulnerability increases?
One example of how the diathesis, or vulnerability, part of the diathesis-stress model can increase is in the high number of older adults who develop addictions. Unlike college students, who are experiencing lots of peer pressure to drink, the stresses that older adults face are different but not necessarily higher than those they have faced at other times in their lives.
However, one thing that changes among older adults is their physical capacity to handle alcohol. Partly due to the aging process and partly due to the fact that many older adults are taking medications that don't mix well with alcohol, many older adults become more sensitive to alcohol and other drugs. As a result, some of them develop addiction problems later in life, even if they've never been addicted in the past.
This is a prime example of how the diathesis in the diathesis-stress model can change. It's not a fixed thing: Just as a person's stress level changes throughout his or her life, so does their vulnerability to certain psychological problems.
However, old age doesn't mean all bad news. Most mental illnesses are diagnosed before retirement age. The diathesis-stress model has a theory to explain why psychological issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are almost always diagnosed first in younger patients.
The theory is simple. If mental illness occurs as a result of a mixture of diathesis and stress, then reducing stress can help prevent a person from developing a new psychological disorder. Of course, old age comes with just as many stressors as any other time in life, but there's one thing that people gain as they age: wisdom. As a person ages and gains wisdom, they become better at handling stress. When something goes wrong, they put it in perspective better and are less affected by it. As a result, the stress part of the diathesis-stress model is also less severe.
There are some things to keep in mind with regards to mental illness and aging, though. First of all, most mental illnesses are diagnosed in younger adults, but some mental illnesses are more common in older adults, like dementia and delirium. Also, just because a mental illness isn't first diagnosed in old age doesn't mean it goes away. If Fred is diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder in his twenties, he might still have symptoms in his eighties.
Likewise, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19 might still be schizophrenic at 79. But, the onset of the disorder occurs at a younger age, perhaps because younger adults are not as well equipped to cope with stress.
The diathesis-stress model of abnormality says that it is a combination of nascent vulnerability and stress that leads to mental illness. Both stress and vulnerability can change throughout a person's life. One example is the change in stress during the college years, which can lead to mental disorders. Likewise, physiological changes in older adulthood can lead to an increased vulnerability for some disorders. Finally, aging also brings wisdom and the ability to handle stress better, which in turn can lead to a decreased chance of being diagnosed with a psychological disorder later in life.
Following this video lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the diathesis-stress model of abnormal psychology
- Explain ways that stress and vulnerability can change throughout a person's life, using examples
- Understand why mental illnesses are less likely to be diagnosed in older adults