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8 Examples of Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal Psychology Disorders

  • Defining Abnormal PsychologyAnxiety Disorders
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Mood Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality Disorders
  • Depressive Disorders
  • Bipolar Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders

An interesting aspect of abnormal psychology is how common some of these abnormalities actually are.

By definition, abnormal means deviating from the norm. And while this is true, it’s also true that tens of millions of people exhibit abnormal behaviors each and every day. And of those people whose behavior can be classified as abnormal, many of them have an identifiable mental disorder.

So this begs the question, what are some examples of abnormal psychology?

Abnormal Psychology Defined

Before we get to the examples of abnormal psychology, it’s necessary to clearly define abnormal psychology.

This field of psychology is the study of mental and emotional disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to carry out typical daily activities. We can consider these disorders – be they mental, emotional, or behavioral in nature – to be things that negatively impact a person’s life experience. As a result, the life experience of those around them can also be significantly affected.

Psychologists study the symptoms of these disorders as well as their causes. Likewise, abnormal psychologists strive to develop treatments for mental and behavioral disorders that fall under the realm of “abnormal.” These treatments can range from medication to therapy and many points in between.

Abnormalities arise for any number of reasons. A person might have experienced trauma as a child or in war. There might be a genetic component to the development of a mental disorder. Some abnormal behaviors arise as a result of chemical imbalances in the brain as well.

Whatever the cause of the impairment, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) outlines three broad criteria for describing abnormal behavior or psychological disorders. They include:

    • Dysfunction – The individual’s behavior causes a disturbance in their ability to think, regulate emotion, or regulate behavior. This dysfunction might be psychological, biological, or developmental in nature that results in atypical behavior. For example, a person with agoraphobia might not leave their home for years. This is a breakdown in behavior. As another example, a person with schizophrenia might experience hallucinations, which is a breakdown in cognition.
  • Distress or impairment – A person can experience psychological distress, physical distress, or both as a result of a mental disorder. But simply being distressed isn’t enough to meet this criterion. A person can be distressed after a loved one dies. This doesn’t mean the person is exhibiting abnormal behavior. Impairment is the key. A person that is distressed and impaired cannot function normally in specific aspects of their life. For example, a person that is distressed over the death of their dog who has stopped bathing and eating would be considered impaired.
  • Deviance – A third factor to consider about abnormal behavior is that it is deviant, or contrary to social norms. Of course, what is and is not part of social norms is fluid. For example, the first edition of the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Today, it is far more socially accepted. It’s also important to note that “deviant” refers to a statistical measure – that the behavior deviates from the norm. In some cases, deviant behavior might actually be a positive trait. A high IQ is an example of this. Intellectual genius is not part of the norm, yet it is something that people view positively.

Many psychologists add danger to the list as well, even though it is not identified as a criterion in the DSM-V.

The danger component is important because a person with a mental disorder might pose a danger to themselves or to other people. A person that is having suicidal ideation, for example, certainly poses a danger to themselves. Someone that is experiencing a paranoid episode might feel like someone is out to get them. In that situation, they could pose a danger to public safety.

It is important to note that having a mental disorder does not make a person dangerous. Many people with a mental disorder pose no danger to themselves or anyone else. But, in rare cases, individuals can pose a threat.

Now that we understand the basic underpinnings of what makes something abnormal, we can look at some examples of abnormal psychology.

As you’ll see, abnormal psychology encompasses a wide range of behaviors. 

Depressive Disorders

A major depressive episode is often described as the common cold of mental disorders. It is extremely common and people can experience it many times over the course of their lives.

Depressed individuals experience any number of common symptoms, including feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, digestive issues, chronic pain, and feelings of hopelessness. Fatigue, loss of appetite, excessive guilt, and indecisiveness are additional symptoms.

For diagnostic purposes, a person must experience five or more of these symptoms for a period of at least two weeks. Additionally, one of those symptoms must be either a depressed mood or loss of interest in activities.

There are other types of depression as well. For example, persistent depressive disorder occurs when a person is depressed for two years or longer. This type of depression shares many of the same symptoms as major depression, but those symptoms are less severe but longer-lasting.

Other depressive disorders include premenstrual dysphoric disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

Bipolar Disorders

There are several types of bipolar disordersBipolar disorder used to be categorized as a type of depressive disorder, but in the DSM-V, it is categorized separately.

People with bipolar disorder experience periods of depression that alternate with periods of mania, or extreme euphoria. There are several types of bipolar disorders, including:

  • Bipolar I, in which a person has a manic episode.
  • Bipolar II, in which a person has manic and depressive episodes.
  • Cyclothymic disorders, in which a person has manic and depressive episodes that are far less severe than those in Bipolar II.

As you can imagine, bipolar disorders are highly challenging because of the changes in mood.

Anxiety Disorders

Like depression, anxiety disorders are also quite common in the general population. These disorders go beyond feeling anxious, though. Instead, someone with an anxiety disorder experiences extreme feelings of worry and anxiety. There are high levels of fear as well.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders:

    • Generalized Anxiety Disorder refers to a condition in which a person experiences constant fear, yet there might not be a specific, identifiable cause for their fear. An example might be a person that feels anxious, restless, and cannot concentrate, but they cannot articulate why they feel that way.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder describes a situation in which a person experiences significant anxiety about being humiliated, rejected, or embarrassed in social situations. A common example of this is the fear of public speaking.
  • Agoraphobia is a condition in which a person fears social situations because escape might be difficult or embarrassing. It can lead to extreme isolation and fear of common experiences like riding public transit or being outside alone.
  • Specific Phobias are characterized by persistent and excessive fear or a specific situation, activity, or object. These fears range from dogs to needles to flying. People with phobias understand that their fear is excessive, yet they cannot overcome their fear.
  • Panic Disorder involves recurring panic attacks. These attacks are severe and involve both psychological and physical distress. During these attacks, a person might experience heart palpitations, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, and nausea, among other symptoms. 
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder is described as being overly anxious about separation from others. These fears are excessive for the person’s age and persist for weeks or months, depending on one’s age. As a result of separation anxiety disorder, people might not sleep, or when they do, they might have nightmares about separation.
  • Selective Mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder that is characterized by the inability to speak in certain settings, like school, even though speaking in other situations, like at home, is not problematic.

Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders

Closely related to the anxiety disorders are obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. In fact, obsessive-compulsive disorder was part of the anxiety disorders until the DSM-V classified them separately.

This disorder involves a cycle of obsessive thoughts that are followed by a compulsive action. The obsessions cause great worry, and that worry is relieved through compulsive behaviors. For example, a person with OCD might obsess about the cleanliness of their hands to the point of compulsively washing them dozens of times a day. Other common examples of OCD include:

  • Counting
  • Cleaning
  • Nail-biting
  • Checking (i.e., making sure the door is locked)

These behaviors must be time-consuming or cause clinically significant distress or impairment in a person’s functioning. So, a person that double-checks the door to make sure it’s locked would not be diagnosed with OCD. However, a person that spends an hour each morning repetitively checking to make sure the door is locked might be diagnosed with OCD.

In addition to obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are related disorders that share similar features and symptoms. This includes hoarding disorder, in which a person has persistent difficulty getting rid of objects, and excoriation disorder, in which a person compulsively picks at their skin. It also includes trichotillomania, or compulsive pulling of one’s hair, and body dysmorphic disorder, in which a person believes that a specific part of their body is severely flawed.

Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders

Trauma and Stressor-Related DisordersThe most commonly known disorder in this category is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

PTSD is characterized by a wide range of symptoms that arise from experiencing a traumatic event, either firsthand or one that was witnessed. These symptoms might include:

  • Recurrent distressing dreams or memories
  • Flashbacks
  • Physiological reactions to stimuli that resemble aspects of the original trauma
  • Avoidance of external reminders as well as feelings, memories, and thoughts of the trauma
  • Persistent negative emotional state

People with PTSD are often prone to anger, aggression, and self-destructive behavior, as well as a host of other severe symptoms.

Other disorders in this category include acute stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, adjustment disorder, and disinhibited social engagement disorder.

Dissociative Disorders

To dissociate is to separate from one’s self and surroundings. It might include interruptions in one’s memory, identity, or both.

There are many different kinds of dissociative disorders:

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder involves the development of two or more distinct personalities that have unique ways of interacting with their environment.
  • Dissociative Amnesia might be diagnosed when a person has a loss of memory, but there is no physical or medical cause.
  • Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder involves the feeling of being outside of one’s own body and being disconnected from reality.

Other, less common dissociative disorders include Other Specified Dissociative Disorder and Unspecified Dissociative Disorder.

Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders

Schizophrenia is a disorder marked by frequent and severe disruptions in daily mental and physical functioning.

Some forms of schizophrenia primarily involve positive symptoms or psychosis in the form of hallucinations and delusions. Other forms of schizophrenia primarily involve negative symptoms, such as lack of emotional expression or even long periods without physical activity. Additionally, symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech depending on the type of schizophrenic episode.

To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, at least two of the symptoms listed above must be present for a period of at least six months. Furthermore, one of the symptoms must be hallucinations, delusions, or disorganized speech.

Related disorders include:

  • Schizophreniform Disorder, which is characterized by a period of psychotic symptoms that have lasted at least one month, but less than six months.
  • Schizoaffective Disorder, which involves psychotic symptoms as well as depression or bipolar disorder.

Less common schizophrenic spectrum disorders include Delusional Disorder, Brief Psychotic Disorder, Psychotic Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition, Substance/Medication-Induced Psychotic Disorder, and Unspecified Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorder.

Personality Disorders

Finally, personality disorders encompass various ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling that is a deviation from expectations of normal behavior. They are conditions that last for a long period of time and can cause significant distress and difficulty in daily functioning.

There are 10 different types of personality disorders: 

    • Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by a pattern of disregarding others. Symptoms include impulsivity, deception and lying, and violating social norms.
  • Avoidant Personality Disorder involves deep-seated feelings of shyness and inadequacy. People with this disorder are extremely sensitive to criticism and might be unwilling to form relationships unless they are certain the other person will like them. There is often a preoccupation with criticism and rejection and strong feelings of not being good enough.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder is a pattern of unstable relationships, poor self-image, and impulsivity. People with borderline personality disorder often experience intense emotions, have intense and inappropriate levels of anger, and might have long-term feelings of emptiness.
  • Dependent Personality Disorder is characterized by clingy and submissive behavior. Making independent decisions might be difficult without reassurance from others. When alone, people with this disorder might feel uncomfortable and helpless or even fear for their ability to care for themselves.
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder involves attention-seeking behaviors and excessive emotional displays that rapidly shift from one emotion to another. This disorder can also cause people to seek attention for themselves by using their physical appearance. 
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pattern of a lack of empathy for other people while also have an extreme desire for others to admire you. Typically, people with this disorder take advantage of others, show a sense of entitlement, and have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is different from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This personality disorder involves a pattern of behavior that is characterized by the need for control, orderliness, and perfection. There is a particular focus on minute details and scheduling, and there might be a lack of flexibility in personal values or morals as well.
    • Paranoid Personality Disorder might be diagnosed if a person displays a continuing pattern of suspicion towards other people. Individuals with this disorder might view others as being mean and assume that others will deceive them or harm them in some way.
  • Schizoid Personality Disorder is characterized by social detachments. People with this disorder express little emotion and typically do not seek out close relationships. They often choose to be alone and usually do not put any stock in what others have to say about them, be it positive or negative.
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder impacts a person’s ability to form close relationships. People with this disorder show a pattern of distorted thinking and eccentric behavior. They might also display strange behaviors, have unusual beliefs, or have excessive social anxiety.

It’s important to keep in mind that people under 18 are not diagnosed with personality disorders because their personality is developing. It’s also worthy of noting that a person can have more than one personality disorder.

Though personality disorders can be quite serious, they can also be less intrusive to everyday functioning than some of the other types of abnormal psychology on this list. They interfere mostly with a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships as opposed to significantly inhibiting their ability to function.

These disorders can all be scary and unpleasant for those suffering the symptoms, as well as people close to them. Fortunately, all can be manageable with a commitment to seeking treatment. Some people can recover on their own after a brief period of treatment. Others require ongoing and consistent treatment. However, it is possible for most people to live healthy and productive lives with a mental disorder.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated April 2021

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