Summary of the Multi-factorial Model and How it Relates to the Diagnosis of Illnesses

For centuries there has been an unstoppable move in the scientific community towards a unified theory of everything. From Edison’s theory of gravity, which explains both the falling of an apple and the moon’s orbit, to Oersted’s theory of electromagnetism, science is being propelled towards more inclusive explanations for natural phenomena (Lindner, 2007). The multifactorial model seems to follow the same thread. Rather than evaluate only biological or sociocultural factors, as some theories try to do, the multifactorial model attempts to weave the entire spectrum of human psychology into an integrated understanding of human behavior.

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The multifactorial model is comprised of six different factors of human activity: biological factors, sociocultural factors, environmental factors, personality, behavior, and stressors. As the text points out, there are some of these that are within our direct control and there are some that are outside of our control. Some of the areas that we cannot control would be genes, family circumstances, gender, ethnicity, in some cases second-hand smoking, and access to proper healthcare, at least while a child. Now some of the factors that we can control: moderation of stress, anxiety, frustration; social interactions, practicing safe sex, and attributional style. Even though some of these factors are outside of our control that does not mean that they should excluded when evaluating health risks. For instance, someone’s family might have a history of diabetes but through proper eating and exercise, the next generation might be able to avoid the disease entirely. Like the text says, 440,000 deaths could be prevented through the elimination of tobacco, 300,000 through dieting and exercise, and 100,000 through the control of underage and excessive drinking (Nevid & Rathus, 2005). According to the multifactorial model, all possible causes in any health problem must be evaluated in order to get a better grasp of the factors involved. To keep going with the diabetes example, the history of diabetes in someone’s family might be more related to eating habits and stress moderation, than genes. It could be that the family has a history of eating in order to better cope with stressors, such as anxiety or frustration. A multifactorial model is an all-inclusive approach to the diagnosis and treatment of many psychologically related health problems. Next let’s take a look at two specific examples, muscle-tension headaches, and migraine headaches.

Nearly 20% of Americans suffer from severe headaches. The two main types of headaches are muscle-tension headaches and migraine headaches. First let’s take a look at muscle-tension headaches, as they pertain to the multifactorial model, and then we will look at migraine headaches.  

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Muscle tension headaches are sometimes a direct result of poor stressor moderation. During the first two stages of GAS, the alarm reaction stage and the exhaustion stage, the body’s response to a stressor is heightened. During the alarm stage, the heart rate goes up and breathing intensifies. If the stressor is not quickly moderated, then the body enters the resistance stage where it tries to replenish itself. During this stage, prolonged stress can cause tensing of the head and neck muscles which can lead to muscle-tension headaches. This is only a biological factor of muscle-tension headaches though. There are several other factors which could include: consumption of alcohol, diet, or non-compliance with medical advice, which are all behavioral factors. A personality factor might be a tendency to overstate or over-exaggerate a situation, which can also lead to stress. An environmental factor might be whether the person in question lives in the city or in the country. Smog, traffic, and overcrowding all contribute to stress which can lead to tension headaches. Lastly, family circumstances can make a big impact on headaches because families can be a stressor in and of themselves.

Next, let’s take a look at migraine headaches. According to the text, migraine headaches can have the opposite effect of tension headaches. During tension headaches, a stressor or other factor causes a headache, but with migraine headaches, a headache can be the stressor. Many factors can bring on migraine headaches, such as stress, hormonal fluctuations, changes in barometric pressure, consumption of MSG, or pollen. But rather than look at the causes of this type of a headache let’s look at migraine headaches as a stressor, a factor of other health-related illnesses. In one study discussed in the text, it was established that women who had regular migraines, “…tended to be more self-critical, more likely to catastrophize stress and pain, and less likely to seek social support when under stress…” (Nevid & Rathus, 2005, 132). So as you can see migraine headaches can be a stress in and of itself, which can negatively impact the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and even sexual activity. Migraine headaches differ from tension headaches in that they are not caused simply by a reaction to stress, but rather complex chemical reactions that go on inside of the brain. Migraines, in particular, seem to be caused by an imbalance in the neurotransmitter serotonin which can affect the body in many different ways. Migraines as a health-illness could be caused by behavioral factors such as diet or sleep patterns or maybe environmental factors such as barometric pressure or the type of indoor lighting. Migraines also seem to be habit-forming illnesses. Someone who gets a migraine could potentially get in the cycle of letting the migraine become a stressor which could bring on another migraine in the future; therefore, a migraine could be both a factor and a health-related illness.

Psychology has played a pivotal role in understanding and managing these health problems. Two psychological treatments for both tension headaches and migraine headaches are relaxation training and biofeedback training. I was particularly fascinated with biofeedback training. Apparently, this process entails hooking a patient up to a machine that monitors bodily processes such as heart rate and blood pressure. This practice can help bring autonomic function under conscious control by allowing the patient to observe physiological changes that occur during daily activity. This treatment can then help pinpoint sources of stress that can be moderated through psychological therapy. Relaxation training can also be used in both tension headaches and migraine headaches. In tension headaches, relaxation training can be used to prevent headaches however the technique would probably best be used to control migraines after they have started. Migraines can be caused by many things but are usually accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound which could both be limited through relaxation training.

In conclusion, the multifactorial model can help explain many illnesses and health issues by looking at a broad spectrum of causes. Likewise, headaches, both tension and migraine, can be adequately understood and treated through a better understanding of the multifactorial model.


Nevid, J.S., Rathus, S.A. (2005). Psychology and the challenges of life: Adjustment in the new millennium. Danvers, M.A.: Wiley.

Lindner, J. (2007). Theory of everything. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 Web site:


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