Treating Abnormal Psychology Disorders

Updated June 17, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team
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Over the last century, the ways in which psychologists treat abnormal psychological disorders have changed drastically. The term abnormal psychology refers to a broad range of disorders that produce deviations from typical or ideal mental health such as from obsessive-compulsive disorders and personality disorders. Treatment for each disorder will vary from patient to patient; however, there are options for everyone. 

If you believe that you may be experiencing symptoms of an abnormal psychological disorder, feel “different” from others in inexplicable ways, or are simply curious to learn more about topics within the realm of abnormal psychology, continue reading for the most up-to-date information.

What are abnormal psychology disorders?

Abnormal psychologists study and treat mental disorders, which are defined as psychological disorders causing a person to act outside of the norm. Psychologists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) to diagnose abnormal psychological disorders. 

The DSM-V recognizes 20 categories of mental disorders, and several specific disorders are listed within each category. For example, under the category of substance-related and addictive disorders, you’ll find subcategories labeled “alcohol-related disorders,” “caffeine-related disorders,” and “hallucinogen-related disorders,” to name a few. Studies regarding the DSM and other issues about mental disorders can be further measured using methods in reliability psychology. Ahead, we’ll perform a deep dive into some of the major categories of abnormal psychology disorders.

Neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders are usually diagnosed during early childhood and impair how a brain develops or works with the neurological systems in the body. Some examples of neurodevelopmental disorders are:

  • Intellectual disabilities like global developmental delay
  • Communication disorders such as social (pragmatic) communication disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder


Neurodevelopmental abnormal psychology disorders are usually treated with therapy services such as speech, occupational, developmental, socio-emotional therapies, and sometimes medication. Some neurodevelopmental disorders have been linked to genetic abnormalities. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, has reported that some abnormalities can be reversed through genetic manipulation to treat these disorders in adulthood.

Bipolar and mood disorders

Getty/AnnaStills
Abnormal psychology disorders can disrupt your life and health

Bipolar and mood disorders affect a person’s mood, general activity, and energy levels. Bipolar specifically relates to an abnormal shift between feelings of mania and depression (aka “highs” and “lows”). One can read more about depression in depression psychology. These moods are usually pronounced, and when experiencing these moods, people can become easily agitated, anxious, and disruptive.

People who experience mania feel very happy or euphoric, sometimes displaying signs of hyperactivity. People experiencing mania are often described as being arrogant or overly confident. Mania also causes people to engage in impulsive behaviors that can often harm themselves or others. Patients with mania may also gamble or spend exuberant amounts of money while shopping, not necessarily considering the long-term consequences.

Depressive episodes are marked by periods of extreme sadness, irritability, and fatigue. People may experience feelings of guilt, isolation, and abandonment that are not based on reality. People with bipolar disorder, when in a depressive state, will usually cut back or totally abstain from participating in activities, may not leave bed or go to work, fail to uphold their responsibilities, and be prone to anger. Other mood disorders include major depression, dysthymia, and substance-Induced mood disorder.

Mood disorders can be treated with therapy and medication. Because a chemical imbalance generally causes mood disorders in the brain, medications can help the brain produce and control the correct hormones and chemicals in the brain.

Anxiety disorders

People with anxiety disorder often experience constant and persistent worry or fear over real or perceived threats. This fear creates an emotional response that can make it hard for people with anxiety to complete everyday tasks. Challenging situations may hinder their social health and can cause disruptions to the lives of people around them. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social anxiety
  • Phobia disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Separation anxiety disorder

Treating anxiety disorders is most often done through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Four major classes of medications are used to treat anxiety disorders: SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), SNRI (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), tricyclic antidepressants, and benzodiazepine. There are also alternative treatments for anxiety, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and deep brain stimulation.

Trauma disorders

Trauma and stress can induce disorders similar to anxiety disorders. Trauma disorders are categorized separately now, however, because the patient must have experienced a trauma or significant stressor event to be diagnosed with trauma disorders, whereas anxiety disorders need no initiating event.

While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most commonly recognized trauma disorders, other frequently observed trauma disorders include acute stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and adjustment disorders. Trauma-related disorders are treated using a combination of therapy and medications, such as antidepressants.

Dissociative disorders

Centuries ago, dissociative identity disorder (DID) was believed to be a case of possession, with the earliest known case recorded by exorcists in 1584. Research on dissociative disorders has come a long way since then, and these disorders are now recognized as the severe abnormal psychology disorders they are. Interruptions stemming from dissociative disorders can cause issues with identity, memory, and safety. Other examples include dissociative amnesia and depersonalization disorder

Treatments for dissociative disorders revolve around helping the patient recall and process the repressed memories causing the dissociation from reality so that therapy can heal the past trauma. There are no medications that are specifically slated for dissociative disorders. However, there are some medications to help relieve the symptoms produced by these disorders.

Somatic symptom disorder

Somatic symptoms disorder occurs when people have prominent physical symptoms with no biological or medically determined cause. These symptoms cause the patient to obsess over their symptoms – such as chronic pain, shortness of breath, or weakness in a particular area – resulting in potential emotional distress and disruptions to their daily life. Other related illnesses include illness anxiety disorder, conversion disorder, and factitious disorder.

The treatment plan for somatic symptom disorders focuses on improving daily functioning rather than treating the disorder. Reducing stress, counseling, and CBT are the best treatment options for people living with these disorders.

Feeding and eating disorders

Abnormal psychology disorders which involve food and eating fall into this category. The most commonly known eating disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa; however, a few other disorders involve eating or food that are categorized here as well:

  • Rumination disorder
  • Pica
  • Binge-eating disorder

Because eating disorders can cause death and severe illness, many people with severe bulimia and anorexia may require inpatient hospital treatment. Intensive treatment is provided for those who have stopped eating completely, are depressed or mentally unstable, and have developed other medical conditions such as diabetes due to the eating disorder. Residential treatment requires no intensive medical intervention; however, the patient may be impaired or unable to respond to outpatient treatment options.

For patients who do not require intensive intervention or residential services, partial hospitalization is available when they are medically stable. Still, the assessment is needed to determine the risk of medical injury. Outpatient therapy is also available, and medical marijuana is now often prescribed for those with eating disorders to stimulate the appetite.

Sleep disorders

When people have trouble sleeping, they may have a sleep disorder. To have a sleep-related disorder, sleeping troubles must disrupt your daytime functioning and lead to distress. One night of insomnia does not qualify someone for a sleep disorder. The sleep-related issues must be persistent and ongoing, and include the following conditions:

  • Narcolepsy
  • Insomnia disorder
  • Hypersomnolence
  • Breathing-related sleep disorders
  • Parasomnias
  • Restless leg syndrome

There are many different treatment options for sleep disorders. Because sleep disorders can have many causes, it is important to have a sleep study to determine where the issues lie. After a sleep study and diagnosis, treatment options may include sleeping pills, natural supplements like melatonin, medication for other health issues, breathing devices, and dental guards for bruxism (teeth grinding or jaw clenching). Iron has also been shown to help reduce the symptoms of restless leg syndrome, especially in children.

Along with medical treatment, people with sleep disorders will likely need to commit to lifestyle adjustments and sleeping schedules.

Disruptive, impulse control, and conduct disorders

Some abnormal psychology disorders can greatly impact a person’s behavior in ways that may make that person dangerous. Behavior disorders are sometimes called impulse control disorders and cause a person to not be in conscious control of their feelings, emotions, and impulses. They often cannot control their behavior, and the behaviors may often lead to violence, aggression, and destruction. Examples include:

  • Kleptomania (repeatedly struggling to resist urges to steal unnecessary items)
  • Pyromania (having trouble resisting the urge to set fires)
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (characterized by abrupt, repeated episodes of aggressive or violent behavior that is out of proportion to the stimulus or situation)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

Behavior disorders have no known cure and, many times, no known cause. Some may result from genetic connections while others may result from stress or triggers in the environment. CBT is usually prescribed for these disorders and mood stabilizers and other medications to help manage the symptoms. For patients with extreme behavior disorders that cause danger or threat of danger to themselves or others, inpatient and residential treatment facilities are available. There are also luxury facilities for patients with the means to procure treatment in a nontraditional environment.

Substance-related and addictive disorders

The DSM-V categorizes addiction as a mental health issue that can be treated. There are specific disorders for the type of addiction, from alcohol use to stimulants, tobacco, and even gambling, among others.

Substance use and addiction are treated with psychotherapy, CBT, group therapy, and family therapy. Therapy focuses on treating the underlying mental and emotional disorders that lead to addiction and substance use. Medical detox is also available for those who wish to get and stay clean.

Neurocognitive disorders

Neurocognitive disorders entail deficits in neurological functioning that are acquired, not congenital. These disorders are characterized by a decline in cognitive ability, memory, attention, language, perception, and learning ability. Such conditions can be caused by other biological, medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or vascular dementia.

Delirium is a very serious neurocognitive disorder that can cause confusion and safety risks for the patient. Delirium happens over a short period and can also cause disturbances in awareness, reality, and attention.

Treating neurocognitive disorders begins with seeing a neuropsychologist, and for seniors, a geriatric psychologist. Antidepressant medications are usually prescribed as well as medications that can help memory function. Psychotherapy and psychosocial therapy can both be used for managing these disorders, which are often degenerative.

Personality disorders

When most people think of abnormal psychology, they may reference personality disorders, which can cause major life disruptions for both the patient and those around them. These abnormal psychology disorders can make relationships difficult to maintain. The following are currently labeled underneath the category of personality disorders:

  • Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
  • Avoidant personality disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder

Treatment for personality disorders will vary depending on the diagnosis. Most treatments involve a team approach to ensure that social, physical, and mental needs are treated. Treatment for personality disorders must be ongoing to be effective and may include social workers, psychiatrists, neuropsychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses. For severe cases, residential and inpatient programs are offered.

In addition to the abnormal psychology disorders named above, there are several other categories included in the 5th edition of the DSM that we did not cover:

  • Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • Bipolar and related disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
  • Elimination disorders
  • Sexual dysfunctions
  • Gender dysphoria
  • Paraphilic disorders
  • Other mental disorders

You can learn more about these disorders and subtypes by consulting the DSM-V.

Finding help for abnormal psychology disorders

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Abnormal psychology disorders can disrupt your life and health

If you or a loved one are experiencing an abnormal psychological disorder or symptoms, know that you are not alone, and that it is important that you seek medical help. If you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, you should call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. There are compassionate, empathetic professionals on the other line who are prepared to support you in numerous ways.

In other cases, reaching out to a counselor who specializes in your area of need may be the most appropriate step. There are therapists online and in-person who can work with you to heal from childhood trauma, overcome an eating disorder, and reduce compulsions. Many people find that online counseling through platforms like MyTherapist offer more affordable and convenient support compared to in-person mental health services. That’s because you can schedule appointments at times that work for your schedule and there is no need to make the commute to a face-to-face counselor’s office.

For abnormal psychology disorders that are treatable with methods like CBT, you’ll find that studies have shown online therapy to be just as efficacious in resolving symptoms as in-person counseling. One systematic review of 17 studies found that online CBT may actually be more effective than face-to-face therapy in mitigating symptoms of depression. When it comes to addiction disorders, studies have also shown internet-guided CBT to be effective in reducing compulsions, identifying cognitive distortions, and using healthier coping mechanisms.

Takeaway

If, after reading this article, you are curious to learn more about a specific category of abnormal psychology disorders, you can always reach out to an online therapist. You don’t have to have a mental health diagnosis to reap the benefits of online therapy. Sometimes, just having information and access to resources, or an empathetic person to hear out your concerns, can make a difference. 

If you know that you or someone you love needs immediate treatment for serious systems, you can trust the professionals at MyTherapist to take your concerns seriously and start formulating a plan to keep everyone safe. You deserve to feel good, and there are people who want to support you on your journey.

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