What Is Abnormal Psychology? Definition, Examples, And Treatments

By: Jessica Anderson

Updated May 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Abnormal psychology can sound like a complicated term. If you have an abnormal psychology diagnosis, it may even seem like a scary term. However, it is simply another phrase used in psychology to categorize the challenges many people may face with their mental health. Abnormal psychology disorders are common, and they're not something to be confused by or afraid of. In this article, we'll cover what abnormal psychology is, examples of these types of disorders, and the treatments that are used today to bring people back to happy and healthy lives.

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The Definition Of Abnormal Psychology

The field of abnormal psychology includes assessing, treating, and preventing maladaptive behavior. There's no exact definition of abnormal psychology, but we do have ways of characterizing it. In the clinical world, abnormal psychology is characterized by someone who has a statistical deviation from normal behaviors or those who tend to be maladaptive to themselves or in society.

Individuals who are maladaptive to themselves find it difficult to reach their goals and adapt to the demands of life. Those who are maladaptive in society interfere or are disruptive in social group functions. Their behavior is considered non-typical, socially unacceptable, and deviating from the behavior of average people. This is not their fault, however. It is simply caused by the symptoms of an abnormal psychology disorder, and it can be improved with treatment and therapy.

Diagnosing Abnormal Psychology Disorders

Since abnormal psychology disorders can greatly affect the quality of life of those who face them daily, it is important that they are diagnosed correctly. Diagnoses often get a negative reaction, but they are actually a positive tool as they allow mental health professionals to provide individuals with the help they need. Abnormal psychology disorders are diagnosed by therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors just as other mental health challenges are. Below, we'll look into the specific way in which abnormal psychology disorders are diagnosed.

The American Psychiatric Association developed a system to diagnose abnormal behavior using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is referred to today as the DSM V (5th edition).

It's important to have a system for diagnosing abnormal behavior because it provides a framework for diagnosing various behaviors and improves the reliability of diagnoses. A standardized system helps clinicians to diagnosis disorders consistently based on research, evidence, and clinical experiences. This system of diagnosis also aids in the treatment of and in developing a better understanding of diagnoses. This means that the system is not a tool to provide labels, but a tool to provide both help and hope.

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Examples Of Abnormal Psychology Disorders

Abnormal Psychology Disorders include anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, delusional disorders, substance use disorders, dissociative disorders, and impulse control disorders. Each of these challenges is explained in greater detail below.

Anxiety Disorders

People who live with anxiety disorders experience increased anxiety from what most people see as common, everyday occurrences. There are four types of anxiety disorders, and anxiety is the main symptom of each different type. The four classes of anxiety disorders include:

  1. Generalized anxiety or panic disorders
  2. Phobias
  3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  4. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


Phobias cause people to fear a specific stimulus or situation, such as high heights or spiders. Individuals who suffer from phobias usually know that their fears are irrational, but even with this knowledge, the fear remains. There are three subclasses of phobias: simple phobia, social phobia, and agoraphobia. Each type is challenging but can be overcome.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

In OCD, obsession refers to the constant intrusion of unwelcome thoughts, images, or impulses that cause anxiety. Compulsion is an urge to carry out rituals or acts that reduce said anxiety. Much like phobia symptoms, individuals who live with OCD are aware that their behavior is irrational, but they're often not able to change them on their own.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is caused by a traumatic event or chain of events. Traumatic events such as accidents, violent personal assaults, and robbery, for example, may cause someone to develop PTSD.

PTSD can cause flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, or guilt. Triggers of the event cause individuals living with PTSD to go into a state of fight, flight, or freeze, which often decreases their ability to cope in certain situations.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are characterized by disturbances of normal mood. There are two general classifications of mood disorders, including bipolar disorders and depressive disorders.

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Bipolar disorder causes mood swings that move from depression and sadness to mania, extreme happiness, or even irritability. Depressive disorders are characterized by extended periods of sadness without reasonable explanations.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders cause rigid, and typically unhealthy, patterns of behaving and thinking that affect daily function. People with personality disorders may have difficulty perceiving and relating to situations and people. This may cause problems in relationships, social interactions, work, and school.


Schizophrenia causes people to interpret reality differently than others. It may cause symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking, as well as behaviors that impair the ability to function in daily life. Researchers are uncertain about the exact causes of schizophrenia, but they believe that a combination of genetics, brain chemistry, and environment contribute to it.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders include substance abuse and substance dependencies. Substance disorders can include both chemical dependence and substance use that interferes with daily life. It may include use that results in the inability to function at work, in family roles, and with other obligations.

Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders are characterized by a disconnection and lack of continuity between memories, thoughts, surroundings, behaviors, and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and oftentimes unsafe. These disorders may be developed to cope with trauma, such as past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Impulse Control Disorder

Impulse control disorders are characterized by uncontrollable impulsivity. Afflicted individuals aren't able to resist temptations or urges to act, speak, or think about certain things. Impulse control disorders can be caused by a disturbance in neurotransmission in the brain, traumatic childhood experiences, and frustration. People who live with impulse control disorders may display behavior such as pathological gambling, sexual complexity, kleptomania, trichotillomania, or intermittent explosive disorder.

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Treatments In Abnormal Psychology

Treatments for abnormal psychology will always correlate to the underlying disorders. A good place to start is by talking with a licensed therapist. Consider talking to a licensed therapist online at BetterHelp to get sincere and professional guidance from the comfort of your own home. They can both help you and point you toward other services that could be of further assistance in your life. You can read some reviews of BetterHelp counselors below, from people experiencing different issues related to abnormal psychology.

Counselor Reviews

"Kristin is amazing. She is so dedicated to helping get to the root cause of my anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She is the first counselor to continue to motivate and accommodate my extremely hectic schedule. She really is a life saver! She has given me strength to believe in myself and want to continue to get stronger. If you're someone who feels you have hit every roadblock possible I strongly recommend working with Kristin!"

"It's amazing how beneficial therapy is. The EMDR sessions with Keith have enabled me to reclaim my power and control over my own life. As a result of my work with Keith I went from too scared and anxious to leave the house with crippling panic, to being able to enjoy walks with my husband in the park, garden and we have even traveled by plane, and train. I've been able to leave some toxic relationships that weren't serving me, and now feel equipped to not only face life but to enjoy the richness and fullness of it. I highly recommend Keith as a counselor and the EMDR sessions."


If you are suffering from an abnormal psychology disorder, do not lose hope. Remember that there are many types of abnormal psychology disorders and despite the phrase "abnormal," these challenges are common. Keep in mind that each type can be treated, and you can receive treatment as well. No matter what you're experiencing, with the right tools, you can move forward to a fulfilling life. Take the first step today.

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