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Looking at Abnormal Psychology

Updated on August 11, 2017

Abnormal Psychology

What is “abnormal?” What is “normal?” The term abnormal psychology once referred to psychological behavior that was “deviant,” that is, significantly different from the norm. Today, we hear very little about what is “deviant.”

Instead, abnormal psychology usually involves a disorder in which there is emotional distress (a painful symptom) plus dysfunction (impaired behavioral or psychological functioning). By emotional distress, we mean internal conflicts that produce intense, prolonged feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear, or unhappiness. There are many categories of emotional distress not considered abnormal.

For example, it isn't abnormal for a person to be depressed after the death of a loved one. Grief, though painful, is functional and enables a person to recover from the shock of loss. Grieving is what a person is supposed to do after a major loss.

Most psychologists and psychiatrists believe a person should not be considered abnormal simply because they exhibit behavior or thinking that is not “normal.” The individual may be unusual and behaviorally different from the norm without exhibiting dysfunctional behavior or thinking.

Deviance means not meeting the expectations of society. But what's normal in one society can be deviant in another. So, if deviance from the norms of society does not automatically define abnormal psychology, what does? In truth, we live in a dysfunctional world.

There are several other ways to understand abnormality. For example, we view those who have severe emotional problems as having a disorder. The prevalent approach among psychologists today is to separate the disorder from the person, to say the disorder is something a person has.

For example, an individual is not an alcoholic; that individual has an alcohol dependency. Other professionals advocate individual choices and responsibility are key components of emotional healing and it does no service to the disordered person to suggest their abnormality is a “disease.” They believe it's only valid to separate the individual from their disorder when a physical problem such as brain damage, or hormonal problems are the cause.

Perhaps the best way to understand what is abnormal is to draw a contrast between what good mental and emotional health is. A healthy person is able to function well intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Healthy individuals can adapt to new situations, tolerate stress, and exercise self-control. Healthy individuals are in touch with reality. They face life with confidence and relate well with others.

Causes of Emotional Problems

Mental illness is usually caused by a number of factors. One or more of the following may be the cause:

  • Disease and other organic causes (perhaps the most obvious organic disorder with a mental/emotional component is Alzheimer’s disease).

  • Genetic background (heredity).

  • Environmental background (childhood issues).

  • Spiritual problems such as sin, religious addiction, and legalism.

  • Precipitating stress (recent or current issues).

Environmental influences leading to emotional disorders include such childhood hurts as:

  • Nutritional deprivation.

  • Emotional trauma.

  • Parental rejection and neglect.

  • Physical or sexual abuse.

  • Lack of discipline or overindulgence.

  • Religious abuse (having been raised with the teaching God’s love is conditional and His judgment harsh.

  • Excessively passive father and excessively dominant mother.

  • Parents who were excessively demanding and perfectionists.

  • Parents who were excessively protective.

  • Having been raised in conditions of continual conflict.

These environmental factors indicate trends and statistical tendencies, meaning we tend to find a number of these factors in emotionally troubled people. That doesn't necessarily mean those exhibiting such behavior are fated to have emotional problems. Nor does this they are automatically excused for irresponsible behavior. Genetic and environmental backgrounds are important factors, but they don't

A precipitating stress is an event or situation any person’s current life that contributes to a psychological problem. Examples of precipitating stress include marital difficulties, job stress, or financial problems.

When people see a counselor or therapist for help, it's usually because of stress they feel is unmanageable. During counseling, they often uncover other hidden issues.

Many believing they are in control might actually be dominated by hidden emotions, conflicts, and motives. They blame existing circumstances as the source of their pain and life. “If only my spouse would change, my life would be great,” or “If only I had enough money, all my problems would be solved.” Through therapy, support of caring family members and friends, individuals can learn to cope with these factors and experience mental and emotional healing.

Varieties of Emotional Disorders

Following are seven basic categories of emotional disorders. There are others besides, but the ones we will discuss here are the most common.

  1. Anxiety disorders

  2. Mood disorders

  3. Psychotic disorders

  4. Stress and adjustment disorders

  5. Dissociation disorders

  6. Somatic disorders

  7. Personality disorders

Anxiety Disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health has estimated that 8 to 15% of the population has some form of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include:

  • Phobias. Anxiety from past to present stress is focused on a specific object or situation. Phobic individuals avoid the specific objects or situations because of irrational fears.

  • Panic disorder. Anxiety is left unfocused and free-floating, so a person feels panic without knowing why.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety is displaced onto obsessive thinking, worry, and impulsive behavior.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. The anxious individual demonstrates excessive talking, over-dependence, poor concentration, and lack of sleep.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are characterized by emotional extremes of either depression or elation. Examples of mood disorders include:

  1. Manic depression. Also called bipolar disorder, because it involves swings from one emotional pole to the other. In the manic or euphoric mode, the individual appears happy, energetic, nervous, talkative, enthusiastic, ambitious, and optimistic. They have a grandiose, inflated view of their abilities and self-worth. In the depressed mode, they are sad, filled with painful thoughts, anxious, and delusional, and feel little or no self-worth.

  2. Guilt and despondency. The most dangerous aspects of manic depression is the increased possibility of suicide, and can also lead to individuals to making serious social mistakes in relationship, and financial commitments.

  3. Cyclothymia. This disorder is similar to manic depression, but less severe. Whereas a manic depressive may frequently swing between depressed and euphoric phases, the cyclothymic individual experiences much slower, longer cycles, perhaps remaining either euphoric or depressed for a period of months or years.

  4. Major depression. This disorder affects more women than men and is most common among those in their 40s and 50s. Symptoms include moodiness, frequent crying, unkempt personal appearance, painful thinking, guilt, self blame, or anxiety.

There are other physical symptoms such as sleep and appetite problems, decreased sexual interest, headaches, and interrupted menstrual cycles.

Psychotic Disorders

In a psychotic disorder, individuals are out of touch with reality. Examples of psychotic disorders include:

  1. Schizophrenia. The four distinguishing features of schizophrenia are (1) flat, dull, or inappropriate mood, indicated by blank stare or laughing and smiling while relating a sad narrative; (2) a tendency to ramble from one topic to another without logical association; (3) detachment, preoccupation, and absorption in a world of private fantasies (autism); and (4) severely reduced motivation and ability to make choices. Schizophrenia may also be accompanied by delusions and hallucinations.

    2. Delusional Disorder. This disorder is similar to schizophrenia in that individuals are out of touch with reality, may have a flat, inappropriate mood, and may be detached and self absorbed.

The delusional individual, unlike the schizophrenic, tends to have orderly ways of thinking. Their thinking is unrealistic, but it's still possible carry on a conversation with them.

Stress and Adjustment Disorders

Stress and adjustment disorders are related to specific stresses. A post traumatic stress disorder is related to the intense stress of a traumatic event such as war, natural disaster, rape, car accident, or airplane crash. It's characterized by anxiety, recurrent nightmares, disturbed concentration and disturbed sleep, guilt, and depression. Adjustment disorders result when one's functioning is impaired because they aren't able to cope with stress and change. Symptoms may include a depressed or anxious mood, withdrawal, hostile conduct, lack of motivation, and physical symptoms such as sleep and appetite disturbances, decreased sexual interest, and headaches.

Dissociation Disorders

These are recognized by changes in an individual’s consciousness or identity. Symptoms and forms of dissociation disorders include memory loss, sleepwalking, some types type of amnesia, and multiple personality disorders. Dissociation disorders are usually triggered by events or an individual is unable to remember.

An individual experiencing amnesia may wander away from home and even establish a new identity as a totally different person.

They won't realize they have forgotten anything. When the individual returns to the normal state, they remember the past but forget everything that happened during the amnesiac state.

An individual with a multiple personality disorder is dominated by number of personalities, and they may change dramatically and suddenly from one personality to the next. Sometimes one personality will have no knowledge of the others. In such cases, the primary personality is usually very proper and moralistic while one of the secondary personalities may be be quite the opposite.

Somatic Disorders

Somatic disorders are physical disorders for which no medical cause can be found. Some disorders include:

  1. Somatic disorder. This involves dramatic, multiple complaints, often concerning various parts of the body, having no medical explanation. Sexual difficulties are often involved and more common with women than men. Somatic disorders should not be confused with fake disorders in which people, for whatever reason, consciously make up symptoms of illness.

  2. Conversion disorder. Emotional conflicts are represented in various ways:

  • As sensory or muscle control problems, such as loss of feeling, deafness, blindness, disturbances in skin sensation, pain paralysis of limbs, paralysis of vocal cords, involuntary twitches, or recurring peculiar movements. Symptoms may come and go in response to precipitating stress.

  1. Hypochondriacs. Individuals are preoccupied with bodily function and fear of disease.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are deeply ingrained patterns of negative, self-defeating behavior. In a truly disordered personality, these patterns are so firmly entrenched the affected individual is extremely resistant to treatment, and the personality disorder tends to be present throughout the individual’s life. The number of emotional problems humans are subject to is staggering.


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