Psychological Disorders

What does having a psychological disorder actually mean? By definition, a psychological disorder is “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.”

The study of psychological disorders is called abnormal psychology. It is tricky but vital for psychologists to agree on the differences between typical and abnormal behaviors, as identifying abnormal behaviours is cornerstone to diagnosing a psychological disorder and providing treatment.

One way of differentiating and identifying abnormal behaviour is the statistical approach. It could be prove to be very useful in some situations like for example, an IQ test to see if the person’s intelligence level is way below normal to be coined as intellectually disabled. However, that one test does not measure other factors like adaptive skills, communication, safety etc. The IQ test alone is insufficient to diagnose such a disability. A purely statistical approach has a few major drawbacks.

Firstly, it implies a cultural specificity that we would like to avoid. Because most members of one culture may behave very differently from that of another culture, the purely statistical approach to abnormality might result in vastly different definitions of psychological disorder from one culture to the next.

Secondly, a statistical definition fails to capture the distress that often accompanies a psychological disorder, for both the person with the disorder and for those interacting with that person. To address these concerns, it is true that abnormal behavior deviates from some ideal manner of behaving. This approach succeeds in capturing the general distress most of us experience when observing or experiencing abnormal behavior.

Anxiety disorders are commonly discussed in society, so what exactly is it? Anxiety disorders take many forms, but all share the core characteristic of unrealistic and counterproductive levels of anxiety. Anxiety has two major components: (1) strong negative emotions and (2) physical tension due to the anticipation of danger. When we are afraid, usually something is happening in the present that is producing that feeling, whereas anxiety occurs when we are worried about the future. Anxiety disorders represent an exaggeration of what is normally a useful response. Normal levels of anxiety protect us from engaging in risky activities, but excessive anxiety can cause a person to withdraw from positive life experiences and interpersonal relationships. Unlike most other types of psychological disorders, anxiety disorders do not impair a person’s ability to think realistically. In many cases, patients can identify that their circumstance did not trigger extreme anxiety, yet they seem unable to control or suppress it.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a person has experienced excessive anxiety and worry for 6 months that is not correlated with particular objects or situations.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is having repeated panic attacks and fear of future attacks. Symptoms of a panic attack typically last about 10 minutes. Feelings of intense fear or discomfort are accompanied by both physical and cognitive symptoms. Strong arousal of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the experience of a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, and dizziness or faintness. For some individuals, panic attacks may be brought on by identifiable stimuli, such as being stuck in a crowded place. For others, the attacks seem to come out of nowhere.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the more dramatic disorders which includes symptoms like being haunted by distressing, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and/or the need to engage in repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Obsessions are distinct from everyday worries, which usually focus on real-life problems. Common obsessions include concerns about contamination, repeated doubts, ordering/arranging things, inappropriate impulses, and sexual imagery. Compulsions appear to be efforts to ward off the anxiety produced by obsessions or some other feared event. Common compulsions include repeatedly checking, counting, ordering objects, and requesting or demanding affirmation.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder refers to periods of depression alternate with periods of mania (abnormally elevated mood, accompanied by other symptoms, usually a depressing mood). The person’s behavior, characterized by little need for sleep, rapid speech, difficulty concentrating, and rapidly shifting ideas, seems to be running at an abnormally high speed. Unlike many other disorders, however, mania actually increases productive, goal-directed behavior. Classic cases of bipolar disorder combine a one-week period of mania with two weeks of depression. However, many variations occur in the timing and severity of these phases. Children and youth with bipolar disorder tend to experience more rapid cycling, with several mood swings occurring within the same day or even overlapping.


Part man/Part negative space by Keith Negley