Understanding Abnormal Psychology

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Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with psychopathology and abnormal behavior, often in a clinical context. The term covers a broad range of disorders, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to personality disorders. Counselors, clinical psychologists, and psychotherapists often work directly in this field.

The term abnormal itself is the subject of considerable debate. What exactly is "normal" and who gets to decide? The social norms that are often used to determine what is normal versus abnormal can also shift over time, so settling on a standard definition isn't simple.

What Is Abnormal Psychology?

Abnormal psychology focuses on the patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior that can be signs of a mental health condition. Rather than the distinction between normal and abnormal, psychologists in this field focus on the level of distress that behaviors, thoughts, or emotions might cause.

If a behavior is creating problems in a person's life or is disruptive to other people, then this would be an "abnormal" behavior. In such cases, the behavior may require some type of mental health intervention.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness.

Perspectives on Abnormal Psychology

There are a number of different perspectives used in abnormal psychology. While some psychologists or psychiatrists may focus on a single viewpoint, many mental health professionals use elements from multiple areas in order to better understand and treat psychological disorders.

Psychoanalytic Approach

This perspective has its roots in the theories of Sigmund Freud. The psychoanalytic approach suggests that many abnormal behaviors stem from unconscious thoughts, desires, and memories.

While these feelings are outside of awareness, they are still believed to influence conscious actions.

Therapists who take this approach believe that by analyzing memories, behaviors, thoughts, and even dreams, people can uncover and deal with some of the feelings that have been leading to maladaptive behaviors and distress.

Behavioral Approach

This approach to abnormal psychology focuses on observable behaviors. In behavioral therapy, the focus is on reinforcing positive behaviors and not reinforcing maladaptive behaviors.

The behavioral approach targets only the behavior itself, not the underlying causes. When dealing with abnormal behavior, a behavioral therapist might utilize strategies such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning to help eliminate unwanted behaviors and teach new behaviors.

Medical Approach

This approach to abnormal psychology focuses on the biological causes of mental illness, emphasizing understanding the underlying cause of disorders, which might include genetic inheritance, related physical illnesses, infections, and chemical imbalances. Medical treatments are often pharmacological in nature, although medication is often used in conjunction with some type of psychotherapy.

Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach to abnormal psychology focuses on how internal thoughts, perceptions, and reasoning contribute to psychological disorders. Cognitive treatments typically focus on helping the individual change their thoughts or reactions.

Cognitive therapy might also be used in conjunction with behavioral methods in a technique known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Topics in Abnormal Psychology

The main topics in abnormal psychology are the study, understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of psychological disorders. Psychological disorders are defined as patterns of behavioral or psychological symptoms that impact multiple areas of life. These conditions create distress for the person experiencing symptoms.

The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and is used by mental health professionals for a variety of purposes. The manual contains a listing of psychiatric disorders, diagnostic codes, information on the prevalence of each disorder, and diagnostic criteria. Some of the categories of psychological disorders include:

  • Anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder
  • Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as an intellectual disability or autism spectrum disorder
  • Neurocognitive disorders including delirium
  • Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders


The field of abnormal psychology is not without criticism. In addition to debates over the use of the term "abnormal" itself, some believe that this area has a number of shortcomings.

  • In particular, some feel that this area stigmatizes vulnerable and oppressed people.
  • It also does not account for the fact that there are major cultural differences in what is deemed normal and abnormal.
  • Critics also suggest that the field of abnormal psychology tends to pathologize normal variations in human behavior.
  • Some also propose that the medical approach to mental illness often focuses only on biological and genetic determinants of distress rather than taking a more holistic view. 

One study found that teaching students about abnormal psychology did not reduce mental health stigma, improve attitudes toward mental illness, or increase help-seeking behaviors among students.

A Word From Verywell

Abnormal psychology may focus on atypical behavior, but its focus is not to ensure that all people fit into a narrow definition of "normal." In most cases, it is centered on identifying and treating problems that may be causing distress or impairment in some aspect of an individual's life. By better understanding what is "abnormal," researchers and therapists can come up with new ways to help people live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

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