Abnormality is a concept in psychology that refers to deviance from the typical or normal behavior, thought process, or emotional state. Abnormal behavior can be characterized by its intensity, duration, or frequency. It is typically associated with distress and impairment in functioning, which can lead to psychological, physical, and social consequences. This article will review the current understanding of the concept of abnormality, discuss the major theoretical approaches to its definition, and highlight the implications for clinical practice.

Defining Abnormality

The definition of abnormality has been a source of debate for centuries. Historically, abnormality was primarily defined in terms of a deviation from accepted norms or standards. This approach has been criticized due to its subjective nature, as what is considered “normal” or “acceptable” can vary from culture to culture. Consequently, modern definitions of abnormality have shifted to focus on the individual, taking into account the person’s personal context and experiences. In this framework, abnormal behavior is defined as behavior that causes distress or impairment in functioning.

Theoretical Approaches

There are a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding abnormality. The medical model defines abnormality as a medical condition or illness, which can be treated with medical interventions such as medication or psychotherapy. The psychodynamic approach emphasizes the role of unconscious conflicts in causing abnormal behavior, and seeks to uncover and address these conflicts. The cognitive-behavioral approach focuses on the role of thought processes and beliefs in shaping behavior, and seeks to modify these through cognitive-behavioral techniques such as cognitive restructuring and exposure therapy.

Implications for Practice

The understanding of abnormality has important implications for clinical practice. By understanding the definition and various theoretical approaches to understanding abnormality, clinicians can more effectively diagnose and treat abnormal behavior. Additionally, clinicians should be aware of the potential cultural biases that can influence the definition of abnormality and be sensitive to the individual context of each patient.


In conclusion, abnormality is a complex concept that has been the subject of debate for centuries. Contemporary definitions focus on the individual context and emphasize distress or impairment in functioning. There are a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding abnormality, and these have important implications for clinical practice.


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McLeod, S. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cbt.html

National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). What is Mental Illness? Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-illnesses/index.shtml

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