The Vulnerability Schema

Katia came to see me after a work team-building weekend. She was “encouraged” to partake in some fear-inducing and physically challenging exercises. She refused. “There was no way I was going on that rope bridge, that thing could fall at any time”. This refusal lead to a conversation with her boss who suggested she attend therapy. “He opened my eyes to my own anxiety issues”.

In my previous post I discussed catastrophising – the thinking trap which involves imagining worst-case scenarios. This thinking trap happens to most people from time to time. For some people this thinking trap is more than just an occasional upset, it takes over most aspects of their lives. These people have had upbringings or experiences which lead them to believe themselves to be fragile or unsafe or weak. These people are said to have the Vulnerability Schema.

Katia was raised in a loving, but overprotective family. Her mother was always warning Katia about potential physical harms. Not a natural sports person, Katia avoided sport and physical activity. Her father was overprotective in a different way – always warning Katia about how unsafe the world was and how careful she, a girl, had to be in the outside world.

Children have a need to build their confidence, independence and anti-fragility. To do this, they need to be exposed to potential harms. Only by successfully negotiating these harms do they build competence and confidence in their own abilities. Without these experiences children often grow into cautious and anxious adults.

On the other hand, severe experiences of fear or trauma can have a similar effect. Children who have been seriously injured or witnessed unpredictable bad things happening can also grow up to feel fearful. Children of parents who have been through traumatic experiences often develop a sense of fragility.

Katia’s day was full of catastrophic thoughts. “When I wake up, I’m often already worrying” she explains. “Silly things like- ‘I wonder if my sore throat is cancer, or ‘what if I get fired today?”. Even though Katia knows some of these thoughts are unlikely they seem real at the time because she can imagine them happening. “I can just get caught up daydreaming this stuff and before I know it, I’m in a panic”.

Once the underlying vulnerability schema is set, the mind darts from thought to thought seeking out confirmation that the person truly is vulnerable, and the world truly is a scary and threatening place. Even (or maybe especially) in the absence of real threats this schema will produce terrifying catastrophic thoughts. These thoughts tend to group in three main categories – threats of health/illness, threats of danger, or threats of poverty. Katia had the first two.

“I basically don’t try anything new!” Katia’s main method of coping with this schema is to avoid “risks”. Going new places especially makes her nervous. “I just think, the moment you walk out the door, you are massively increasing your chances of getting hurt. Why tempt fate any further?”. Katia has taken to spending all her free time at home.

People with this schema often use avoidance as their primary coping strategy. By avoiding reminders and triggers of catastrophic thoughts, anxiety can be minimised. Unfortunately, this effective short-term strategy fails in the long-term. As the person retreats further into avoidance their comfort zone shrinks. The catastrophic thoughts simply follow them deeper into their comfort zone.

“I need to do something about these thoughts and to get a life!”. Luckily for Katia she knew what she needed out of therapy. Katia was sick of feeling anxious and scared – nothing really bad had happened to her! It was finally time to face her demons.

Beating the Vulnerability Schema means 1. Breaking patterns of avoidance, and 2. Challenging the deep belief that the person is especially vulnerable and unable to cope. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, in a graded fashion is essential. Having strategies for dealing with negative automatic thoughts about vulnerability is another must.

Ultimately, Katia started to live life more fully. She never truly was rid of all her catastrophic thoughts, but because she didn’t let them tell her what to do, she was truly free of them.

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