Vulnerability to Harm/Illness Schema

We may all occasionally be worried about bad things happening to us. However, for individuals with the vulnerability to harm schema, they experience a persistent sense of imminent threats to their safety. This is due to the belief that the world is a dangerous place.

When activated, this schema triggers an overwhelming feeling of fear, withdrawal, avoidance, protective measures, and fight or flight responses. These emotions are experienced even in environments that are relatively safe. The true need behind this schema is physical and emotional stability and safety in our environments; and the ability to handle threats or challenges.


Possible Fears

  • Medical Issues and Severe Illnesses (e.g. Cancer, HIV)
  • Emotional Issues
  • Financial Problems
  • Being a Victim of Crimes (e.g. Robberies, Murder)
  • Environmental Disasters (e.g. Earthquakes, Warfare)

If you agree with most of these statements, you may have this schema:

  • I worry excessively about potential bad things happening to me or my family
  • My predominant feelings are anxiety and tension
  • I feel unsafe when interacting with my environment
  • I feel that the world is unpredictable and dangerous
  • I tend to catastrophise potential outcomes of challenges I am facing
  •  I worry that I have a terminal illness or that I am going to have a heart attack even though there is no evidence for this
  • I worry about losing all my money 
  • I worry that I may be a victim of a crime

How this Schema Affects People’s Lives

✽   Mental Health Issues

✽   Interferance With Daily Living 

  • Be afraid to leave the house or travel far away from home

✽   Problems With Physical Health

  • Lack of sleep
  • Prolonged high levels of stress may lead to hypertension, heart attack, or stroke
  • Frequent illnesses

✽   Relationships


Causes of the Schema

  • Overprotective, very fearful, or very stressed parents, or sudden changes in life could have caused individuals to believe that the environment was dangerous.
  • This would have led to an area in the brain called the amygdala being on constant alert, causing it to become over-sensitive and hyper-reactive. This is the brain's way of protecting us from imminent danger.
  • This continues into adulthood as the brain tries to keep individuals alive in this “dangerous” environment.


Schema Therapy

Schema Therapy is commonly employed to help individuals with the Vulnerability to Harm/Illness Schema. The therapy aims to help individuals:

  • Understand the fear they experience in their daily life and where it comes from
  • Guide them to judge risk more accurately
  • Reduce reliance on others for reassurance or engaging in reassurance-seeking behaviours 
  • Change unhelpful beliefs and maladaptive behavioural patterns