The scientific study of people whose thoughts and behavior deviate from accepted norms to such an extent that participation in and adaptation to normal situations is compromised.

Abnormal psychology deals with behaviors that are considered negative or harmful, rather than abnormal in the sense that they simply veer from the normal. For example, a person with an unusually high IQ would not fall under the realm of abnormal psychology as would someone with an eating disorder.

As most patients seek help for mental distress and illness, psychiatrists and psychologists in clinical practice generally focus on abnormal psychiatry, rather than its counterpart positive psychology, which studies the healthy mind and personal growth.

Abnormal psychology covers a variety of psychological disorders, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders, developmental disorders and adjustment disorders. In clinical practice, psychologists and psychiatrists see patients with disorders that range from depression to bipolar disorder  to severe phobias.

There are three basic therapy approaches used in clinical practice. They are as follows:

Cognitive: Cognitive therapy focuses on a person’s thinking patterns and beliefs and how they contribute to mental illness. The cognitive therapist helps the patient change their thinking to a healthier pattern.

Behavioral: The behavioral approach to abnormal psychology focuses on a person’s outward behavior. The goal is to reinforce positive behaviors and diminish the harmful ones. This approach can be combined with cognitive therapy to deal with both thinking and behavior. This is called cognitive-behavorial therapy (CBT).

Medical: The medical approach deals with the biological cause of mental illness, such as a chemical imbalance or an infection. Patients are typically treated with medication.

Example: A college student relies heavily on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of psychological disorders when she studies for her Abnormal Psychology course.