A Word About Vulnerability Factors

Something that comes up a lot in DBT, is the term “vulnerability factors”. This is typically in reference to dealing with emotions and when applying the skills.

What vulnerability factors present in any given situation can vary from person to person, and even day to day. They are factors that can be significant enough that they determine what emotion you feel in response to a situation, and they can inhibit how you handle an emotion, and what, if any, skills you try to use.

Some examples of vulnerability factors include, but not limited to:

  • Poor, or not enough sleep
  • Unbalanced diet, or missing meals
  • Mood-altering substances
  • Medications
  • A distressing situation occurring prior to the current event or emotion
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

Any of these on their own can be a vulnerability factor affecting your mood, emotions, capability, sensitivity, or even the desire to apply the skills.

The more vulnerability factors that are present the more your emotions and mood can be subject to sensitivity or susceptibility to feeling emotions that don’t seem to fit the situation, or feeling the emotion stronger than had there not been any vulnerability factors present.

For example:
You have trouble falling asleep one night, and end up waking up late. You don’t have time to eat breakfast, or make your lunch because you’re running too late, and you end up being late for work.
In the morning, you attend a meeting and realize you’ve forgotten your notes for the presentation and now the meeting has to be rescheduled.
You go for lunch and since you woke up late, and didn’t have time to make your lunch, you have to buy your lunch today instead, except you’ve forgotten your bank card at home. So now you’re forced to eat a small apple and granola bar that you keep in your desk.
At the end of the day as you’re leaving work, you see that it’s raining, and you don’t have your umbrella with you.
As you enter the subway, someone accidentally bumps into you, and before you can stop and think, you turn and your response is to freak out on the person, yelling at them, calling them an idiot for bumping into you, and they should be paying attention to where they are going.

So as you can see, this would be a crap day for pretty much anybody.

Now let’s consider the situation and the emotion and the vulnerability factors present.

The Situation: Someone accidentally bumped into you.
The Emotion: Anger, specifically hostility or even rage.

Considering the situation and the emotion, is hostility or rage towards the other person justified?

The emotion of anger as frustration or irritation may be justified but the intensity spiked up at rage or hostile doesn’t quite fit. And the reason why lies in the vulnerability factors that were present at the time that the situation occurred.

The vulnerability factors for this situation started the night before when you didn’t get to sleep on time, and woke up late the next morning. Then not having the time to eat breakfast or make your lunch has added on to the first two factors. Then you got to work late, and forgot the notes for the presentation, so now you’ve added more factors, and slowly your mood is becoming more and more sensitive. Next we have forgetting your bank card, and missing eating a proper lunch, adding another significant factor since by now all you’ve had to eat all day is an apple and a granola bar. Then we have leaving work, and not having an umbrella to use in the downpour has compounded onto an already hefty pile of factors, so that when the person in the subway accidentally bumps into you it has caused an intense reaction that is disproportionate to the situation.

Think about if you had gotten a good night’s sleep, and woken up on time, had breakfast, had time to make your lunch, and gotten to work on time. You were prepared for the meeting and then had a proper lunch, and leaving work you had your umbrella with you. When the person in the subway accidentally bumped into you, you most likely either wouldn’t have been as hostile to the person, or more likely, you probably wouldn’t have even noticed the bump in the first place.

Vulnerability factors can make a significant impact on your emotions whether it’s one factor or twenty, so as part of DBT, but really for anyone, having an awareness of your vulnerability factors when trying to manage emotions can help to understand why the emotion that did came up, how intense the emotion may feel, and how we handle it with skill, or not.

Some vulnerability factors can’t be helped sometimes, no matter how much we try to keep things balance. The key is to first do what you can to take care of yourself and minimize your vulnerability factor low, but also when they are present, to be aware of them and take them into consideration when dealing with situations that spark a heightened reaction.

There are several Handouts and Worksheets covered in Emotion Regulation that include how to reduce vulnerability factors, so there will be more info on this to follow in a later post or two.

Good luck!

Bye for now!

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