What Is Abnormal Psychology?

What is abnormal psychology?

You may not have heard the expression “abnormal psychology” before, because clinical psychology is used more often in German-speaking countries. However, as we shall see in this article, abnormal psychology is very well known.

Clinical, or abnormal psychology, focuses on the study and treatment of mental disorders that affect a person’s ability to feel like themselves and carry out their daily tasks. These disorders can be the result of physical or emotional trauma, a genetic defect, or a chemical imbalance in the brain. People suffering from such disorders generally require pharmacological treatment, psychotherapy, or both.

Abnormal psychology thus examines people who are “abnormal” or “atypical” compared to members of a particular society. So, to understand this particular field, we need to define what we mean by “abnormal”. At first glance it seems obvious: “Abnormal” describes something extraordinary. But what is actually “normal”?

The different approaches to abnormal psychology

Abnormal psychology takes several approaches. Although some psychologists or psychiatrists focus on just one of the perspectives, many others use elements from different fields to understand and better treat mental disorders. These perspectives are the psychoanalytic approach, the behavioral approach, the medical / biological approach and the cognitive approach.

The psychoanalytic approach

The psychoanalytic perspective of abnormal or clinical psychology derives from Sigmund Freud’s theories. One of the main ideas behind this approach is Freud’s belief that abnormalities are psychological and non-physical in origin. He believed that an unresolved conflict between the ego and the superego could lead to abnormalities.

The psychoanalytic approach suggests that abnormal behaviors are based on unconscious desires, thoughts, and memories. Although these are unconscious, they influence our conscious actions.

Professionals following this particular approach believe that analyzing memories, thoughts, and even dreams can help treat their clients’ mental health problems. They believe that these can lead to maladjustments and anxiety and are therefore also the key to greater well-being.

A caricature by Sigmund Freud

The behavioral approach

The behavioral approach focuses on observable behavior. Behaviorists believe that our experiences largely influence our actions. They reject the assumption that our actions are based on existing pathologies of unconscious forces. As a result, they believe that abnormality manifests itself when an individual develops maladaptive, and therefore harmful, behavior.

This perspective places emphasis on the environment and examines how the individual acquires unusual behavior. Behaviorism argues that all behavior, including abnormal behavior, is learned from the environment. He also assumes that any behavior can be “unlearned”. Unusual behavior is treated exactly according to this idea.

In behavior therapy, the professionals focus on strengthening positive behavior. They also try to get rid of anything that aggravates the maladjusted behavior. In this sense, the behavioral approach hardly takes information processing into account and instead focuses on precedents, stimuli and reinforcement, as well as behavior-related consequences.

The medical / biological approach

The medical / biological approach assumes that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The professionals who follow this approach focus on finding the biological causes of mental illness.

This perspective emphasizes the pathophysiological understanding of the disorder. These experts argue that the origin of any disorder could be genetic or caused by a related physical condition, infection, or other imbalance.

The point is that mental disorders are related to the physical structure and function of the brain. F these disorders are treated with medication it therefore follows. However, many professionals use medication along with some form of psychotherapy.

The cognitive approach

The cognitive approach focuses on the power our thoughts have on how we feel and how we behave. This perspective examines how the brain processes information and what effects this process has on our behavior.

According to this approach:

  • Incorrect or irrational perceptions lead to mismatches.
  • The thoughts a person has about a problem are what causes mental disorders.
  • People can overcome mental disorders if they learn to use more appropriate knowledge.

The cognitive approach sees the individual as an active information processor. The way in which a person anticipates, perceives and evaluates events determines their behavior. Furthermore, it is argued here that many of our thoughts are automatic without our even noticing them.

Abnormality and atypical behavior

Abnormal psychology focuses on atypical behavior. However, it is not about making all individuals fit into a narrow definition of “normal”. Most of the time, the goal is to identify and treat problems that create anxiety or other limitation in a person’s life. When researchers and therapists find out what is “abnormal,” that is, what causes harm, they can treat their patients as well.

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