A Description of Psychological Abnormality

Table of contents

What is abnormal psychology?

The distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviour is not clear-cut.Psychologists have tried to define abnormality in several different ways.

Limitations of definitions of abnormality are:

Statistical Infrequency: Does not account

for social acceptability or type of behaviour. For example, very high intelligence is abnormal because it is rare. Also, eccentric behaviour that is rare but acceptable is also abnormal.

Deviation from Social Norms: Social norms vary from one society to another and standards change. For example, in our society, it used to be considered far more abnormal to be an unmarried mother than it is now.

Failure to Function Adequately: Apart from social dysfunction, this also includes being in a disabling state of distress. Problems include the fact that some mental disorders do not cause distress and that sometimes it is normal to be distressed. Withdrawal from society may be mental disorder, but not necessarily. Deviation from Ideal Mental Health: The standards for ideal mental health are generally difficult to measure and so demanding that most people fail to meet them anyway!

Cultural relativism: Some disorders are specific to some cultures, or found in some populations more than others. It is difficult to say whether the disorders are really less common amongst some people, possibly for genetic reasons, or whether there are differences in diagnosis.

For example: British African-Caribbean people are far more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than other members of the population, the reasons could be genetic, to do with social conditions and stress, or bias and prejudice in the medical system.

Different Models: assumptions and treatments

Biological (medical)

  • Physical causes, (genetics, biochemistry)

Somatic drugs

  • Psychodynamic


Unresolved emotional conflicts in early life, now repressed.

Talking to bring out and work through unconscious conflicts.

  • Behavioural

Abnormal behaviour is learned by association and reinforcement

Focus on learning new responses to situations

  • Cognitive

Faulty thinking distorts perception of things

Challenging the way a person sees themselves

  • Eating Disorders

Introduction some misconceptions

It is important to realise that stringent dieting plays a key role in problems of this nature but eating disorders are not simply cases of dieting that has become out of control.


disorders are not just about trying to live up to media images of attractiveness, though social pressure to be thin may be a key factor.

Eating disorders can easily arise out of a response to distress and worries about areas of life other than body image or dieting.

Food is only part of the story.Eating disorders are complex and can be life-threatening illnesses. They involve biological and psychological factors.

Clinical symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

At least 15% below normal body weight

Person sees himself or herself as overweight even when extremely thin

Person is terrified of weight gain

Food and weight are obsessions

Amenorrhea in females (menstruation stops)

Impotence in males

Compulsive behaviour around food

Medical complications associated with Anorexia Nervosa Starvation causes damage to vital organs such as the brain and heart

The body slows down to try to protect itself: periods stop, even breathing rate, pulse and blood pressure drop

Nails and hair become brittle and the skin dries, yellows and grows downy hair Bones become brittle due to loss of calcium

Excessive thirst and frequent urination

Dehydration and, consequently, constipation

Inability to cope with the cold due to lack of body fat

Clinical symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

Consumption of large amounts of food (bingeing), followed by purging or exercising obsessively

Obsession with body weight and shape

Bingeing and purging from once or twice a week to several times a day

Low self-esteem and fear of failure is typical (may not always be apparent)

Strong need for acceptance and reassurance

Medical complications associated with Bulimia Nervosa

Risk of heart failure due to loss of nutrients, especially potassium; also when drugs used to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements and urination. Risk of stomach rupture.

Acid in vomit wears tooth enamel and teeth scar backs of hands.

Gullet (oesophagus) and cheeks become inflamed and swollen.

Irregular menstruation.

Loss of interest in sex

Severe depression.

Causes of Eating Disorders

It is sometimes argued that anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are variations of the same abnormality and cannot be easily distinguished, many sufferers have experienced both types of disorder. Psychologists tend to explain anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa together.


Media images and messages about food and dieting

Different schools of thought in psychology approach psychological abnormality in different ways. Eating disorders can be explained in medical, psychoanalytic, behaviourist, and cognitive or humanistic terms.

It is most likely that there is no one single, simple answer as to what causes eating disorders – all of the possible explanations outlined above may be part of the story. Individuals may have different reasons for developing the same symptoms.

Eating disorders are characterised by very complex interactions of emotional and physical, problems. Because of this, eating disorders need to be treated by a combination of approaches.

Behavioural Elaboration of basic idea that attention and praise for weight loss reinforces dieting and process continues

Psychoanalytic Repression of sexual impulses or childhood abuse leads to anxiety as an eating disorder

Medical Malfunctions in brain chemistry linked with distrubed levels of neurotransmitters Humanistic A way of gaining control over own life rather than parental control: high incidence in middle class where a lot of pressure to suceed

Cognitive distorted body image and irrational thinking leads to fear of gaining weight

Ways to help someone with an eating disorder

Call a local help line or clinic for expert advice.

Understand possible causes of eating disorders, food alone is not the main issue.

Don’t make judgements.

Try to offer, caring support and help the person feel valued for other qualities than looks.

A person with an eating disorder may not accept that they need help, family and friends will need to offer encouragement and information.

Find out as much as you can so that you understand what thaey are going through, but don’t try to act an expert yourself.

Encourage the person to find something that they enjoy doing to channel their energy into.

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