Understanding The Impacts Of Abnormal Psychology Conditions

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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To understand abnormal psychology, it can be helpful to define “normal” in the clinical sense. People can have vastly different experiences from their typical baseline, with a nearly limitless number of variables. Understanding the clinical implications of the field of abnormal psychology can be an important step to create an environment of validation and understanding for those who live with associated conditions. 

Read on to learn about what abnormal psychology is, the mental health conditions included in this category and how related conditions can affect one’s behavior. 

What is abnormal psychology?

Abnormal psychology is generally defined as thoughts and actions that are rare to encounter in the cultural and environmental context, and which may cause significant distress in the person experiencing it, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). 

The DSM-5 is a handbook used to help diagnose mental health conditions and psychological disorders, offering descriptions of possible symptoms and suggested diagnostic criteria. 

Medical professionals commonly found supporting the field of abnormal psychology can include counselors, psychotherapists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. They can work with people to describe, explain, and change abnormal behavior or thought patterns. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health conditions affect nearly one in five adults in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the total number of adults living with mental illness in 2021 was 57.8 million.

Exploring terminology: What does it mean? 

Each person’s mental health management experience is unique, which can make it difficult for specialists to determine a true, accurate “baseline.” The study of abnormal psychology, and its subsequent naming, dates to the dawn of modern psychology, which many presume to be in the 1960s and later. No condition is truly “abnormal,” as it is within the scope of a person’s lived experience. Abnormal, in this sense, is the designating term for any condition which specialists identify as statistically and quantifiably rarer than other forms of any given diagnosis.  

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The four Ds of diagnosis in the field of abnormal psychology

Timothy Davis, Ph.D., proposed the “Four Ds of Diagnoses” in a 2009 paper in the Internet Journal of Psychiatry. The theory offers four categories of assessment to help medical professionals define abnormal psychology and determine when a patient’s symptoms elevate enough to diagnose a psychiatric condition included in the DSM-5. This theory and the DSM-5 can offer quantitative analysis to help a professional determine if a diagnosis is statistically relevant in the classification and scope of most disorders that fall under the umbrella of abnormal psychology.

When asked about his formation of the 4 D’s of Diagnosis, Dr. Davis stated: “Every human being experiences a range of problematic emotions, cognitions, and behaviors across the life span. When does a problem become a disorder? To answer the question in part, mental health professionals can utilize the “four Ds,” danger, deviance, dysfunction, and distress to conceptualize mental disorders.” — Timothy O. Davis, Ph.D., LSCSW

Deviance

Many mental health conditions may involve symptoms, thoughts or abnormal behaviors related to deviance — otherwise known as what is considered outside the generally reported baseline of society as a whole. Statistical files about the general population worldwide can offer a helpful supporting comparison when determining the degree of deviation from the baseline average of any given region.

Dysfunction

While negative feelings may linger after a difficult day or adverse experiences, they can usually fade as you process your related emotions and adjust to any changes as necessary. However, those living with conditions that may be classified as conditions related to abnormal psychology might display maladaptive behavior or symptoms that interfere with their lives in a significant way, which can coincide with an inability to process emotions effectively. 

Distress

The symptoms of mental illness and the resulting dysfunction may cause distress in an individual, which can be used to assess the effect of mental health conditions on a person’s overall well-being. 

Danger

Many field experts agree that one of the critical components of diagnosing mental health conditions is “danger,” which can be separated into two categories — danger to oneself and danger to other people. The level and scale of the risk can vary substantially by psychological disorder and can be used to help determine if a patient’s symptoms constitute a diagnosable condition. 

Abnormal psychology mental health conditions 

The field of abnormal psychology focuses on covering many different categories of conditions depending on their clinical presentation and severity. Some classifications of these related conditions and psychiatric disorders include: 

  • Anxiety disorders (including obsessive-compulsive disorder, various phobias, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder) 
  • Mood disorders (including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, dysthymia, and seasonal affective disorder)
  • Adjustment disorders (which often present as a comorbidity to anxiety and depression)
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders (including autism spectrum disorder, conduct disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
  • Neurocognitive disorders (including Alzheimer's disease and dementia)
  • Personality disorders (including borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder)
  • Substance use disorders (including opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder, and stimulant use disorder)
  • Psychotic disorders (often referred to as psychoses)

Abnormal psychology approaches

Because abnormal psychology deals with a vast array of mental health conditions and behavioral disorders, many professionals may favor different approaches and often utilize elements from multiple schools of thought. Understanding the methods and ideas used to treat psychological disorders can help patients know what to look for, which may result in a more complete healing experience. 

We’ve summarized several abnormal psychology approaches below: 

Psychoanalytic

Generally rooted in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic approach proposes that unconscious memories, thoughts and desires influence our conscious actions. This approach usually proceeds from the idea that people are driven by their unconscious impulses, and meaningful change is possible through cognitive analysis that makes unconscious thoughts conscious.

Behavioral

Observable behaviors are a core concept of the behavioral approach. Treatment generally focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors and thought patterns, helping the patient recognize adverse behaviors and maladaptive coping mechanisms. It also supports the patient as they establish practical coping skills to help manage stress and symptoms. 

This approach can target behaviors directly, using strategies like classical and operant conditioning. It may not address the potential underlying causes with the same precision as other methods. 

Medical

Some clinicians prefer a medical approach, examining the potential biological causes of serious mental illnesses. In this treatment category, patients may receive medication as part of the treatment plan or may undergo testing for further differential diagnosis support and analysis. 

Underlying causes that medical treatments and analysis can identify may include conditions such as a chemical imbalance, infection or toxin exposure. 

Cognitive

The cognitive approach generally involves addressing a person’s underlying thought patterns and beliefs, reframing them to be more healthful and supportive. In this context, cognitive therapy may center on identifying adverse behaviors and maladjusted coping skills, shifting thinking over time toward positive habits that the patient can tangibly experience in their daily life.

How to help a loved one with mental health diagnoses

  • There are many ways you can support a loved one who is living with a mental health condition. For example, you might choose to: Express your concern and listen without judgment if they are ready to talk about their experiences. You may choose to ask what you can do to help or identify any needs they have — emotionally or otherwise. 
  • Encourage them to seek out mental health services or speak to a professional about their symptoms and offer to assist in making the appointment if they feel too overwhelmed. 
  • Offer your support as they work to make meaningful changes in their life. 
  • Reinforce the idea that mental illness doesn’t make a person weak, harmful or a burden nor does it define their personality.. Mental health is a crucial part of overall well-being. 

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Reach out for professional support and guidance

Mental health conditions and their related symptoms can be challenging to handle on one’s own. The support and guidance provided by behavioral therapy or a trained professional can be valuable tools to evaluate any underlying difficulties and may help someone find healthy ways to cope with emotions and mental health. 

Online therapists can serve a similar role as in-person therapists — helping people to improve communication skills for more effective work, social, family and romantic relationships. They can also teach practical coping strategies to help people manage their stress and process their emotions, addressing unresolved experiences and feelings from one’s past.

How can online therapy can help treat abnormal psychology?

If you or a loved one is living with a mental health condition, you may consider speaking to a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. When you connect with a therapist using our platform, you will be able to receive treatment from the comfort and convenience of your own home or safe place, conveniently located on your smart device. 

Many may find this more convenient, taking advantage of therapeutic support on their own time. 

Is therapy effective for those related to abnormal psychological conditions?

After conducting multiple studies, the American Psychological Association (APA) published results confirming that online therapy can be an effective, affordable alternative to treatment in the traditional clinical setting. 

Per the APA, online therapy is generally available for many mental health conditions, and the APA has also been quoted affirming that internet-based treatments can be a helpful way to provide assistance to many people who could not receive help previously. 

Takeaway

The field of abnormal psychology can include the management and acknowledgment of many mental health conditions and symptoms. The information provided in this article may help you understand how differences in emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors can affect people. If you or a loved one is living with a mental health condition, online therapy can be a helpful tool to support you in healthier patterns and management techniques.  
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