Resilience: Vulnerability, Stress and Coping
When we are in trouble – particularly with emotional or personal problems – there is a simple model that can help us understand our circumstances. This model is called the Vulnerability, Stress and Coping model, and it can give us a clear and quick insight into what's happening. It can also help us know what we can do about it, even when our troubles make it hard to think straight. So, how does it work?
The first element of this model is vulnerability. Vulnerabilities can be best thought of as personal soft spots. They are a tendency towards unwelcome emotional states such as feeling depressed, overwhelmed or anxious. The key thing to understand is that all of us are vulnerable to nearly everything; but the degree to which we are vulnerable varies. It might also be useful to rethink your ideas about what negative emotions are – it's not so straightforward.
The reason for these variations in vulnerability include genetic factors and the way we have been affected by the things we have experienced in our past. Your level of vulnerability can also change over time; even though it might be high now, it may reduce later if your circumstances change.
The second element is stress. The definition of stress here is anything that can disrupt your day-to-day life and cause you to try and cope. Many of these stressors are external – unemployment, financial problems, relationships, family etc – but many of them are internal; illness, substance abuse or changes due to age.
Many of these stressors are things we can't do anything about, but we can change some.
The third element here is coping, and this is where we do something about the stressors. Our normal experience is to try and cope either by changing our environment or trying to fight back, and most of the time our coping mechanisms are quite automatic. Some of these ways of coping work well but others don't work well at all, depending on our response and the circumstances. One big trap is believing the myth that self-criticism leads to self-improvement.
A third way of coping which we are reluctant to use – and sometimes only use as a last ditched effort – is changing ourselves to increase our resilience. Often we only turn to this when our other coping mechanisms fail us and we are in real trouble.
Bringing it together
This comes together when we consider how our vulnerabilities make us susceptible to stressors, but this is modified by our coping strategies. If we use the right coping strategies, then this can decrease our vulnerability to stressors. Further, if we become good at using the right coping strategies, it could also decrease our vulnerability to other stressors.
Here's a quick example; we might have a vulnerability of a tendency towards low self-esteem. When we are subject to a stressor (like the criticisms of our boss) then our coping mechanism might be to get angry at our family.
How do you apply the Vulnerability, Stress and Coping model?
So how do we apply the Vulnerability, Stress and Coping model to our lives? Firstly have a look at what your most pressing current stressors are. There might be more than just one emotion that you are feeling here. Secondly, have a look at what your key vulnerabilities are, and how they are affected by your stressors. Lastly have a look at what you're really doing as coping mechanisms. Do your coping mechanisms really help with the stressors, or just avoid them? Do these coping mechanisms really reduce your vulnerabilities, or just hide them?
If you can see your circumstances clearly, you might be able to choose a coping mechanism that better fits the vulnerabilities that you have on their current stressors. To take the example above, getting angry the family doesn't change your vulnerability and it doesn't change your boss' criticism. One of the strengths of the Vulnerability, Stress and Coping model is it can be applied to many problems.
Getting help to cope better
If you decide you'd like to cope better, than psychotherapy can help you decide what you'd like to change and help you as you go through the process of changing it. This will help you meet your stressors head-on, and protect (and even reduce) your vulnerabilities.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Now, read about facing your unfinished business.
– Tim Hill
Reference: Meadows, G., Singh, B., & Grigg, M. (Eds.). (2012). Mental health in Australia : collaborative community practice (third.). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
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