Understanding Abnormal Psychology

By Rachel Lustbader

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC

In any given society, there are established normal behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. 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.

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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, fall outside the normal parameters. However, this is not 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.


The first "D" is deviance. Deviance is any behavior departing from the cultural norms. There are tests which provide norms for the general population 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 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 survey showed that between three and nine percent of males admit an interest in underage children. Disturbingly, many of these studies determined it could facilitate this interest into action under particular circumstances. Although there are up to nine percent who fall into this category, this is still a small percentage.

Considering social attitudes and legal. 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 nine 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.

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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 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 a 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 the 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. Over eight million Americans are diagnosed with over twelve million smoking-related diseases. Ten percent of all smokers or former smokers have a smoking-related disease. Examples include emphysema, cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and strokes. Nearly 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.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Certain individuals who are very addicted to nicotine may altogether avoid activities that impair their ability to use nicotine. Interestingly, eighty percent of smokers express an interest in quitting their nicotine habit. Even though thirty-five percent of smokers try to quit smoking every year, sadly only five percent of the thirty-five 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 Dunn3 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 percent 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.

As agreed upon by all clinicians deviance, distress, dysfunction, and a fifth element some belief are of 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:

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  • 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 the 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.

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Comer, RJ. Abnormal Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishing; 2010.

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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