Understanding Abnormal Psychology

By Rachel Lustbader|Updated August 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC

In any given society, there are established behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that are considered standard and normal. Abnormal psychology studies the atypical or abnormal members of that society. In other words, members who fall outside of the most common parameters and outside of "regular" psychology.

Falling outside the normal parameters or being abnormal does not correlate with being good or bad. A genius or somebody with high intelligence, for example, falls outside the normal parameters. However, this is often not considered a negative characteristic in this case. Considering this example of higher intelligence, think of abnormal psychology in the same way.

One of the most critical aspects of abnormal psychology is the process of diagnosis. According to the Internet Journal of Psychology, there are four elements when diagnosing psychiatric disorders.


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The first "D" is deviance. Deviance is any behavior departing from the cultural norms. Some tests provide norms for the general population, which are helpful to determine what the degree of the deviation is from the norm. Also, collecting information from clinical interviews are useful to determine the amount of deviation. However, various disorders share common patterns of deviance, and examination through several diagnostic models can help.

Pedophilia is one example of deviance. Pedophilia is "a specific paraphilia, a class of disorders characterized by recurrent intense, sexually arousing fantasies, behaviors or urges" (Davis). Diagnostic tools describe pedophilia by recurrent urges or behaviors that exist for at least six months. Pedophiles direct these behaviors or urge at children 13 years of age or younger. Another criterion is that the individual must be over 16 years of age and at least five years or older than the subject at hand.

One particular study showed that between three and five percent of the general population admit an interest in underage children. Disturbingly, many of these studies determined it could facilitate this interest into action under particular circumstances.

Given the legal and social attitudes concerning pedophilia, the number of individuals who receive the diagnosis is few and far in between. That up to five percent of males may have a sexual interest in children may set an upper limit to the prevalence.

This, however, is still questionable due to a potential bias against reporting (e.g., potential respondents would find it taboo to admit to specific tendencies/feelings/thoughts). Females with these propensities are even rarer in the literature. Both factors are an example of factors that can together illustrate the statistical and societal specificity of deviance in pedophilia.


The second "D" is dysfunction. Dysfunction is another criterion used to determine whether there is evidence of a presence determining if the problem is large enough to be a part of a diagnosis. Whatever the dysfunction, it must be significant enough to interfere in the individual's life significantly. It is also important to look for dysfunction across other spectrums in their life that may exist in various places.

When a dysfunction gets to where it interferes with occupations or social life, it warrants a diagnosis. Symptoms such as:

1) elevated or low mood most of the day where it interferes with relations with others

2) decrease in pleasure in all aspects of their life

3) extreme insomnia or hypersomnia

4) marked energy loss to the point of possibly neglecting personal hygiene

5) unable to sustain concentration for any length of time

6) an increased number of sick days used for work


A third "D" is distress. An individual can experience a significant amount of dysfunction and very little distress, and vice versa. The factor of the event being related is the extent of the distress affecting the individual, and not the measure of the severity of the dysfunction.

One example of distress could be the diagnosis of hypochondria. The features of hypochondria regard an individual's preoccupation with fears they have serious medical issues. Hypochondria bases this preoccupation on the individual's misinterpretation of their own body's symptoms. The DSM diagnoses this as a somatoform disorder. It also expresses features elements of an anxiety disorder.

The preoccupation and distress caused by it persist despite many repetitious medical evaluations and reassurance by their medical providers that there is nothing medically wrong with them. Although a "clean medical bill of health" so to speak helps initially, it increases the distress of the individual in the long run. The more the patient seeks to gain reassurance via medical tests, the more distress rises in the long term. This brings the initial problem of distress to the forefront.

If thought restructuring is successful, the individual's attention will refocus away from his or her somatic symptoms to other thoughts that are not so distressing to the individual. If treatment can decrease the overall amount of distress, an overall positive outcome may be more likely.


The fourth element when diagnosing psychiatric disorders throughout abnormal psychology is danger. The danger concept comprises two themes, which include danger to self and danger to others. In every diagnosis, there is an element of danger and a degree of the severity of the danger. An acute dependence on nicotine can illustrate one mild example of danger. Diagnostic tools categorize nicotine dependence as a substance abuse disorder. Primarily, nicotine dependence can be a danger to others through the effects of second-hand smoke.

The first-hand effects of danger to self result from the usage of the substance. The diagnosis of being nicotine dependent has dangerous physical effects on health conditions related to it. More than 16 million individuals in the United States live with a disease caused by smoking. Ten percent of all smokers or former smokers have a smoking-related disease. Examples include emphysema, cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and strokes. Nearly half a million Americans die prematurely every year due to a smoking-related illness.

Tolerance and withdrawal are included. There are dangerous mental health effects evidenced by the continuous emotional impacts and behaviors that people exhibit when nicotine is unavailable, limited, or when they are trying to quit.

Certain individuals who are very addicted to nicotine may altogether avoid activities that impair their ability to use nicotine. Interestingly, 80% of smokers express an interest in quitting their nicotine habit. Even though 35% of smokers try to quit smoking every year, sadly only 5% of the 35% are successful. This shows the cognitive dissonance of many smokers.

Though the danger of nicotine dependence may be clear after looking at the statistics, it is also clear that other mental illnesses carry strong elements of danger. This is true even for those diagnosed not involving dependence on chemical substances that negatively impact one's health. Hiroeh, Mortensen, and Dunn followed over 257,000 individuals in the Danish psychiatric register and documented their causes of death.

They found that individuals with mental illnesses had a 25% higher chance of dying from any unnatural cause, including homicide, suicide, and accidents. They found that almost all psychiatric diagnoses researched elevated mortality as compared to the general population. Of the many unnatural deaths, suicide was the most prevalent. This evidence shows the necessity of assessing danger when conceptualizing a mental diagnosis.

Deviance, distress, dysfunction, and another element, duration, play a significant part in mental illness. Some believe duration can become vital since it can contribute to or detract from emotions, cognitions, or behaviors, being persistent or consistent enough to add and improve the diagnosis.

Abnormal psychology deals with various psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders, mood disorders, developmental disorders, adjustment disorders, and more specific disorders such as depression, severe phobias, and bipolar disorder.

There are three basic therapy approaches used in clinical practice:

  • Cognitive: Cognitive therapy focuses on a person's thinking patterns and beliefs and how they contribute to mental illness. The cognitive therapist helps the patient change their thinking to a healthier pattern.
  • Behavioral: A behavioral approach to abnormal psychology focuses on a person's outward behavior. Each goal focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors and diminishing the harmful ones. Clinicians often combine this approach with cognitive therapy to use thinking and behavior with each other, this is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Medical: Medical approach examines explicitly the biological cause of mental illness. This could be anything from a chemical imbalance or an infection. Clinicians typically treat patients with medication under the medical approach.

This article provided a basic framework for understanding abnormal psychology, but you may still be curious or confused about certain topics. Also, you are experiencing conditions or symptoms of conditions that were presented in this article, you may also be thinking about ways to alleviate these concerns and have a better quality of life. Online counseling can be a great option if you are concerned about personal mental health conditions, or if you want to learn more about these topics.

Have Questions About Abnormal Psychology?

Online counseling is a rapidly growing therapeutic resource in the field of mental health care. It is being used by licensed and trained mental health professionals to address many concerns across various areas of mental health, including abnormal psychology and its complications. While internet-delivered therapy may not be the first option that comes to mind, it can be beneficial. A study published in 2020 found that online and synchronous video counseling helped reduced mild to moderate symptoms of generalized and social anxiety in participants. The study author’s also noted that this method of delivery was just as effective as in-person counseling in providing solution-based therapeutic tools for individuals with mild to moderate anxiety. Additionally, a meta-analysis conducted in 2018 found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) delivered in an online format was just as effective as traditional therapy in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in participants.

There are many benefits to attending online therapy. One is that online therapy platforms such as BetterHelp are more accessible than traditional therapy options. This is because online therapy can be conducted according to your schedule and at your convenience. You can schedule a session at your own pace, and continue sessions for as long as you need to. Additionally, online counseling can be offered via phone calls, video conferences, and live messaging. If you are hesitant about seeing a counselor or therapist in person, online therapy may be a great first step.

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Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th text revision ed. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2000

Hiroeh U, Mortensen P, Dunn G. Death by homicide, suicide, and other unnatural causes in people with mental illness: a population-based study. The Lancet. 2001; 358(9299): 2110-2112.

Remick R. Diagnosis and management of depression in primary care: a clinical update and review. Journal of the Canadian Medical Association. 2002; 167(11): 1253-1260.

Salkovskis P, Warwick H, Deale A. Cognitive-behavioral treatment for severe and persistent health anxiety hypochondriasis. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention 2003; 3(3): 353-368.

Seto M. Pedophilia and sexual offenses against children. Annual Review of Sex Research 2004; 15, 321-361.

Sibbald B. Smoking's morbidity toll estimated in the US. Journal of the Canadian Medical Association 2003; 169(10): 1067.

T Davis. Conceptualizing Psychiatric Disorders Using "Four D's" of Diagnoses. The Internet Journal of Psychiatry. 2009 Volume 1 Number 1.

Wilmhurst L. Essentials of Child Psychopathology. Hoboken: NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2005.

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