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Chapter 6 Psychological Disorders

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Defining and Explaining Abnormal Behavior

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What makes behavior “abnormal”? The American Psychiatric Association (2001, 2006) defines abnormal behavior in medical terms: a mental illness that affects or is manifested in a person’s brain and can affect the way the individual thinks, behaves, and interacts with with others. Three criteria help distinguish normal from abnormal behavior: Abnormal behavior is deviant, maladaptive, or personally distressful over a long period of time. Let’s tale a closer look at what each of these characteristics of abnormal behavior entails.

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Abnormal behavior is deviant. Abnormal behavior is certainly atypical or statistically unusual. For example, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, and Steve Jobs are atypical in many of their behaviors - and yet we do not categorize them as as abnormal. We do often consider atypical behavior abnormal, though, when it deviates from what is acceptable in a culture. A women who washes her hands three or four times an hour and takes seven showers a day is abnormal because her behavior deviates from what we see as acceptable.

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Abnormal behavior is maladaptive. Maladaptive behavior interferes with one’s ability to function effectively in the world. A man who believes that he can endanger others through his breathing may go to great lengths to isolate himself fro people for what he believes is their own good. His belief negatively affects his everyday functioning: thus, his behavior is maladaptive. Behavior that presents a danger to the person or those around him or her is also considered maladaptive (and abnormal).

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Abnormal behavior involves personal distress over a long period of time. The person engaging in the behavior finds it troubling. A woman who secretly makes herself vomit after every meal may never be seen by others as deviant (because they do not know about it), but this pattern of behavior may cause her to fee intense shame, guilt, and despair.

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one of these criteria need be present for behavior to be labeled “abnormal”, but typically two or three may be present. When abnormal behavior persists, it may lead to the diagnosis of abnormal behavior.

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