Define Abnormality

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Ruth Stanney

One of the most difficult tasks for those working within the field of psychology is to define abnormality. However, it is possible to try and define abnormality by using a range of models to help us, the psychodynamic model being one of them.

The term “psychodynamic” refers to a group of explanations that try to account for the dynamics of behaviour, or the forces that motivate it.( http://www.depression-guide.com/psychodynamic-theory.htm)

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the best-known example, and he has probably been the most influential person in clinical psychology. His view was that mental illness did not have a physical origin. Instead he suggested that it arises out the unresolved, unconscious conflicts which form in early childhood. To understand this we need to look briefly at Freud’s theory of personality development. Freud argued that the mind is divided into three parts. First, there is the id. This consists mainly of unconscious sexual and aggressive instincts. This motivating force is called the libido, an innate drive for sexual (or physical) satisfaction. Second, there is the ego, which is the rational and conscious part of the mind. Third, there is the superego or conscience. The three parts of the mind are often in conflict with each other. Conflicts occur most often between the id and the superego, because the id wants immediate gratification, whereas the superego takes account of moral standards. The psychodynamic model put forward by Freud was based on his theory of psychosexual development. The child passes through a series of stages. Major conflicts or excessive gratification at any of these stages can mean that the child spends an unusual long time at that stage of development. If an adult experiences great personal problems, he or she will tend to show regression to the stage at which he or she had previously been fixated. Conflicts cause anxiety, and the ego defends itself against anxiety by using several defence mechanisms to prevent traumatic thoughts and feelings reaching consciousness. According to Freud, mental disorders can arise when an individual has unresolved conflicts and traumas from childhood. Defence mechanisms may be used to reduce the anxiety caused by such unresolved conflicts, but they act more as sticking plaster than as a way of sorting out an individual’s problems. The implications for treatment are that a prime goal of therapy is to enable patients to gain access to their repressed ideas and conflicts, and to encourage them to face up to whatever emerges from the unconscious. Freud used the term “insight” to refer to the processes involved. He assumed that insight would permit the repressed memories to be integrated into the ego or conscious self, after which the patient would be better able to cope with life.

The psychodynamic model proposed by Freud was the first systematic model of abnormality that focused specifically on psychological factors as cause of mental disorders and on psychological forms of treatment. Before Freud, all explanations of mental illness were in terms of physical causes or ideas such as possession are evil spirits. Psychoanalysis paved the way for later psychological models. (Psychology for You, 1999, p186) A great weakness of the psychoanalytic model was the relative lack of interest in the current problems his patients were facing. Even if childhood experiences stored in the unconscious play a part in the development of mental disorders that does not mean that adult experiences can safely be ignored. Current psychodynamic therapy has evolved out of Freud’s approach, but it has more of an emphasis on current problems as well as on childhood experiences.

Another model of abnormality is known as the medical or sometimes the biological model.  This model assumes that all behaviour is rooted in underlying physiological processes in the body, and therefore that abnormal behaviour is some sort of malfunction in the...
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