What Is Abnormal Psychology?

Irina Cunnar
3 min readDec 14, 2021


Abnormal psychology is a subset of psychology that deals with emotional and mental disorders. These include anxiety, depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and developmental disorders. It also involves incomprehensible phenomena such as hypnosis and dreams. Abnormal psychology uses psychopathology and examines abnormal behavior from a clinical context. Psychopathology is an in-depth study of mental health conditions.

Abnormal psychology studies people in a society considered ‘abnormal’ or ‘atypical.’ These terms are subject to criticism and much debate. There is no comprehensive definition of what is normal and what is not. Also, there is no consensus on who decides what is normal and vice versa. Social norms dictate normal and abnormal behavior. However, these social definitions change over time, making it difficult to settle on one standard.

Abnormalities result from various causes. For example, a child may experience trauma during their early years. Similarly, a soldier may go through traumatic experiences during years of duty. Additionally, some abnormalities result from genetic components that lead to mental health disorders. Moreover, brain chemical imbalances may result in abnormal behaviors.

Topics in abnormal psychology involve studying and understanding psychological disorders. They also entail diagnosing, treating, and preventing these mental health conditions. Psychological disorders are psychological patterns, symptoms, and behaviors that affect multiple areas of life. These disorders often result in anxiety, pain, and sorrow for those suffering from these conditions.

The APA (American psychological association) manual on mental disorders lists three criteria that describe abnormal behaviors and psychological disorders. The first is dysfunction, where an individual experiences disturbance resulting from their inability to regulate emotions and behaviors. The second is distress, where a mental health disorder causes impairment. The third is deviance, where a person exhibits behaviors contrary to social norms.

Mental health professionals use four perspectives to understand, treat, and prevent psychological disorders. While some may focus on only one approach, others choose to use a combination of two or more perspectives.

The first is the psychoanalytic approach. This perspective borrows from Sigmund Freud’s theories. Freud is well known for his works on psychoanalysis, a form of treating mental illnesses and a theory explaining human behavior. The psychoanalytic approach states that memories, unconscious thoughts, and desires cause abnormal behavior. Still, an individual is unaware of these feelings, yet they influence their conscious actions. Medical professionals who use this approach believe that examining thoughts, behaviors, memories, and even dreams can explain maladaptive behaviors.

In the behavioral approach, psychologists focus on what they can see. Behavioral therapy reinforces positive behaviors and discourages maladaptive ones. It targets the behavior and not what causes it. Therapists who practice this approach eliminate undesired behaviors and teach new ones using classical and operant conditioning strategies. These two are learning techniques. Classical conditioning pairs a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned one, such as pairing a bell ring with food’s taste. Operant conditioning rewards good behavior and punishes undesired behavior.

A cognitive perspective examines perceptions, internal thoughts, and reasoning to explain psychological disorders. Some health professionals use cognitive therapy together with behavioral methods. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for instance, helps individuals identify and change disturbing and destructive thought patterns that adversely affect their lives.

Other professionals choose the biological approach. Therapists employing this approach try to understand genetic predispositions, brain chemical imbalances, infections, and related physical illnesses. They prescribe pharmacological medications to treat these disorders. Additionally, they recommend psychotherapy in addition to medication.

Originally published at http://irinacunnar.wordpress.com on December 14, 2021.



Irina Cunnar

A human resources generalist and corporate communications expert, Irina Cunnar joined SynSel Energy in May 2021.