Defining 'Pathologize' In Everyday Terms

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Pathologize is a term often used in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to describe the tendency to overemphasize physical, mental, or psychological symptoms as indicators of pathology. However, a few elements can go into this term and its definition, so it can be helpful to explore each before using the term in conversation. 

It may also be helpful to look at the broad definition of pathologizing and examples such as "overmedicating," cultural biases when diagnosing ailments, treatment based only on diagnostic labels, and other challenges that may occur due to pathologizing. 

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Understanding the definition of “pathologize”

Pathologize means to classify or label something as abnormal or pathological. This terminology can be applied to behavior, emotions, or physical symptoms. However, it is often relevant in psychology and medicine as a way to diagnose symptoms and conditions. 

In some cases, pathologizing is seen in a negative light. The danger with pathologizing is that it can lead to stigma and judgment towards those labeled as abnormal. Therefore, it can be essential to approach labeling cautiously and be aware of its potential impact on individuals and society.

Examining the effects and consequences of pathologizing

The act of pathologizing has been debated in recent years, with some experts weighing in on the effects and consequences of this practice. At its core, pathologizing involves labeling certain behaviors or traits as abnormal or indicative of mental illness. While labeling may be helpful for those seeking treatment, it can also have unintended consequences, such as stigmatization and over-diagnosis.

In addition, pathologizing may lead to a narrow definition of what is considered "normal," which could limit individual expression and creativity. Therefore, some professionals attempt to carefully examine the effects of pathologizing to ensure that it's being used responsibly and ethically.


How does pathologizing affect mental health?

Pathologizing, a term used to describe the process of labeling behaviors or emotions as abnormal or pathological, can significantly impact one's mental health. 

Being constantly told that one's thoughts or feelings are abnormal can lead to shame, isolation, or self-hatred. In addition, the labels put on people can obscure their individuality and prevent them from understanding their experiences. This obscurity might lead to an inaccurate diagnosis and potentially harmful treatment.

Instead of pathologizing, some professionals attempt to acknowledge that everyone's experiences are unique and that there is no one "normal" way to think or feel. Instead, they aim to create a society that supports mental health by embracing individuality and diversity.

Therapy is for everyone 

Pathologizing in society can cause some individuals to believe they can't seek help from a therapist if they don't have a diagnosis of a "severe illness." However, anyone can seek therapy. Whether you're living with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or a severe illness, therapy can help you navigate complex emotions and thoughts. You can also attend therapy for relationship challenges, career decisions, or any topic you want to discuss with a professional. 

Another reason people may neglect going to therapy is the stigma about seeking support in person. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be beneficial. You can use a nickname through an online platform to sign up and meet with a therapist from home. You can also choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your provider. 

Studies have found that groups who face significant stigma about seeking in-person therapy, such as men, often find more significant benefits in online therapy due to its remote nature and the option to remain discreet while receiving support. You may also be able to choose the gender of your therapist if it makes you more comfortable. 

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Over-pathologizing humans can have potentially destructive effects on individuals and their experiences. Therefore, it may be helpful for professionals and individuals to know how pathologizing leads to mental health consequences. You may work toward combating this process by being aware of the potential dangers that come with pathologizing. 

However, note that diagnosis and wanting a label for one's symptoms is not necessarily unhealthy or harmful. Often, having a diagnosis provides a reach to life-saving treatments. When a diagnosis is made correctly, people with severe illness or mental health conditions may be able to extend their lifespan and receive empathy and support instead of being invalidated. For this reason, it can be essential for workers to provide a balance. 

If you're living with a mental health condition, whether you've been diagnosed or not, you're not alone. Contact a provider online or in your area for further compassionate guidance and support.

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