How Is Abnormal Psychology Defined? (+3 Reviewed Theories)

Envision yourself in line at the supermarket and you notice that the person in front of you has a tic – their arms intermittently twitch around and their head sways to one side. 

This is a trademark side effect of Tourette syndrome, one of three tic disorders distinguished by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth Edition (DSM-5). 

Individuals that have Tourette syndrome display involuntary movements, such as arm twitching and head swaying as in the previous example, which is considered abnormal due to the fact that most individuals do not have tics – this behavior is not the standard. 

In any case, abnormal psychology is about more than examining behaviors that affect a minority of individuals.

Rather, it is a broad field of research that studies and attempts to comprehend why individuals carry on the manner they do. 

Abnormal Psychology Definition 

At its core, abnormal psychology is the study of behavior, emotions, feelings, and thoughts that are not typical.

Abnormal psychology research inspects why these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors happen with regards to environmental, social, or physiological stimuli. 

In spite of the fact that it may sound simple enough to mark something as abnormal, this is not the case – one of the central challenges that therapists experience is attempting to characterize what is and is not ordinary. 

For instance, the first DSM, which was distributed in 1952, characterized homosexuality as a type of paraphilia, or a sexual arousal disorder.

In the DSM-II (1968), it was delegated a “sexual orientation disturbance,” and in the DSM-III (1980), it was introduced as “ego dystonic homosexuality.” 

At that point, in the DSM-III-R (1987), it was dropped, mirroring the changing understanding that homosexuality is simply a variation of ordinary human sexuality as opposed to an abnormal behavior. 

Previously, abnormality was simply characterized as a measurable peculiarity, yet throughout the years, therapists have discovered that abnormal behaviors, musings, etc. are the after-effect of a blend of components – most strikingly, psychological dysfunction, personal distress, and aberrance from social standards.

Indeed, the DSM-5 uses these models in its qualification of mental disorders: 

“A psychological disorder is a disorder described by clinically unsettling influences in a person’s insight, feeling, decision-making, or behavior that mirrors a dysfunction in the psychological, developmental, or cognitive aspects of mental function.” 

How about we analyze these variables of abnormality in closer detail.

There is another branch of psychology, called Neuropsychology which focuses on an individuals nervous system, rather than his emotions/behaviors (Like in abnormal psychology)

Dysfunction, Distress, Deviance, and Danger: Determining Abnormality 

The DSM-5 is evidence that no single definition can encompass the broadness and depth of abnormality.

However, it requires that specific components be present in making the determination – dysfunction, distress, deviance, and danger. 

From the point of view of dysfunction, abnormal behavior is seen as something that lessens one’s success.

Dysfunction is when there is a problem an individual is experiencing and it inferes in one’s ability to function.

Dysfunction gives clinicians a method to contrast the typical behavior of a person with what they are currently going through to decide whether dysfunction is present. 

As per this perspective, whatever is causing the dysfunction (i.e., a child’s grades drop due to the immense worry they are experiencing at home because of their parents getting a separation), when the issue is settled, the dysfunctional behavior should return to normal. 

Distress happens when a person encounters a type of debilitating condition, which can be in a wide range of domains from social distress to internal distress to environmental distress. 

Whatever the case, distress can present as physical agony, for example, a devastating migraine, or psychological distress such as extreme sadness.

What is critical to note is that distress alone cannot characterize something as abnormal. It must present with other aspects. 

For instance, even the most advanced, typical adult can encounter physical and psychological distress due to the passing of a pet.

It is when that distress prompts dysfunction and prohibits the individual from navigating their day to day life that it would be considered as a factor in causing abnormal behavior. 

Deviance alludes to behaviors that go against the cultural and societal norms.

As humans, we all have some sort of overall standards when it comes to specific behaviors.

When those behaviors are breached, they are considered deviances.

An example of this is a sexual interest in children 13 years old or younger.

Lastly, danger is frequently used to portray abnormal behavior, too.

It is not necessarily the case that individuals who carry on abnormally are a peril to themselves or others, but every diagnosis in the DSM-5 has a level of danger related to it.

Well known Abnormal Psychology Theories 

When contemplating abnormal brain research, there are a few schools of thinking that try to clarify why abnormalities happen.

While some mental health clinicians may follow just one of these perspectives, many others use a little of each to best serve their clients.

The psychoanalytic approach – Rooted in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that all abnormal behaviors stem from the unconscious.

To treat these individuals, psychoanalysts believe that uncovering these unconscious thoughts through analysis, the individuals can deal with their feelings and move on. 

The cognitive approach – The cognitive approach focuses on the internal aspects of a person, such as thoughts, perceptions, and reasoning as what impacts the person’s behaviors.

Treating with this approach tends to involve identifying and changing such behaviors, involving balance theory.

The cognitive approach also takes into account the development of one’s Theory of Mind.

The medical approach – Focusing on the medical side of things, this approach looks to the biological reasoning behind the mental illness.

Typically, medications are given as the medical approach’s preferred treatment, but it is often with the suggestion of conjoint psychotherapy.

The behavioral approach – Just like it sounds, the literal behaviors are what is targeted in the behavioral approach.

The therapist utilizes both positive and negative reinforcement to help eliminate maladaptive behaviors and cultivate positive ones. 

This approach also explains Deferred Imitation.

Psychological Disorders 

The DSM-5 outlines specific diagnostic criteria for all mental health disorders.

To sort out psychological disorders, the DSM utilizes general classifications to aggregate similar disorders.

Among the most well-known sorts are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, maniacal disorders, eating disorders, and memory disorders. 

The following are instances of each class of these disorders. 

Generalized anxiety disorder (a type of anxiety disorder) is when an individual has extreme anxiety over anything and everything.

They may ruminate on the worst-case scenario of a situation and be unable to let go of that worry until the situation is finished (and even then might not easily let go of the worrying). 

Depression (a type of mood disorder) is the most well known psychological disorder and is regularly called “the common cold” of disorders.

Depression is characterized by extreme sadness, a decrease in enthusiasm for activities the individual typically enjoys, weight reduction or increase, exhaustion, feelings of uselessness or helplessness, difficulty focusing or concentrating, and repetitive thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation.

Schizophrenia (a type of a psychotic disorder) is a mental health disorder where there is an interruption in both judgment and feeling.

Individuals that have schizophrenia typically have a cracked sense of self, experience hallucinations and/or delusions of grandeur, disorganized thinking (which then affects their speech), and abnormal physical movements (such as childlike stillness or unpredictable agitation).

Anorexia nervosa (a type of eating disorder) is a disorder in which a person severely limits their food intake that results in extremely low body weight.

This is joined by a serious fear of gaining weight and an unreasonable perception of one’s own body weight, shape, and appearance. 

Alzheimer’s disease (a type of memory disorder) is when a person has a significant loss of memory, as well as a decrease in physical and mental functioning.

These progressions must be both significant and occur over a brief timeframe.

Alzheimer’s is technically not 100% diagnosable while a person is living due to the limited testing available.

However, physicians are able to determine the severity of one’s memory loss to determine the likelihood of it being Alzheiimer’s versus another memory disorder.

The DSM incorporates numerous classifications of mental disorders, from neurodevelopmental disorders to dissociative disorders to substance use disorders.

For each situation, the standards for diagnosing (and for measuring abnormality) are clear. 

Diagnostic rules change with time and with the growing comprehension of why individuals carry on the manner in which they do.

Improving our understanding of abnormal psychology can help to continue to improve treatments and become better supports to our loved ones who experience these diagnoses.

Despite the fact that is anything but an ideal framework, it is one whereupon clinicians examining abnormal behavior must depend.

All the disorders mentioned above can be treated by the use of psychotherapy (like flooding psychology) or medicines.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are abnormal psychology disorders?

Abnormal psychology is a section of psychology that deals with mental health issues and the behaviors that classify them.

The term covers the broad range of disorders found in the DSM-5, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder to neurodevelopmental disorders

What are examples of abnormal behaviors?

Behavior is considered abnormal when it strays away from the typical, expected behaviors within society (cultural norms in other words).

They often consist of undesirable behaviors and interfere in the individual’s functioning, thus affecting their day to day life.

Is depression considered an abnormal behavior?

Depression is, in fact, an example of abnormal behavior.

It is seen as a deviation from ideal mental stability and frequently impairs the individual’s ability to function.

What are the four D’s of abnormal psychology?

The “Four D’s” of abnormal psychology are deviance, dysfunction, distress, and danger.

What type of treatment is available for someone diagnosed with an abnormal disorder?

Several forms of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy to name a few, have been found to successfully treat many disorders.

Medications are also a way to treat many disorders.

A combination of both psychotherapy and medication is often a successful treatment method for many people.

What are the causes of psychological disorders?

There are no known specific causes of psychological disorders, but contributing factors may include genetics/heredity, chemical imbalances in the brain, trauma, illnesses, prenatal exposures, and stress.

If you want to learn more about abnormal psychology, check out these books:

Essentials of Abnormal Psychology

This book describes abnormal psychology through the author’s standard-setting integrative approach.

Through this approach, the readers learn the nuances of psychological disorders, such as their multi-influence causes and the variety of treatment methods through explanations and case studies.

Abnormal Psychology

This book is the eighth edition and the author continues to best create a textbook that blends the most contemporary research with incredible compassion for those living with psychological disorders.

Abnormal Psychology, 10th edition

The authors lay out the psychological theories, details of diagnosing, and best ways to treat mental illnesses.

The authors strive to give perspective and connect all aspects of abnormal psychology to best teach the reader.


Understanding Abnormal Psychology, Better Help

Understanding Abnormal Psychology, VeryWellMind

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