Psychological Disorders: What Are They and How Do They Manifest Themselves?

Psychological disorders are defined as behavior patterns that clearly deviate from the norm. Learn more in the following article.
Psychological Disorders: What Are They and How Do They Manifest Themselves?
Bernardo Peña

Written and verified by el psicólogo Bernardo Peña.

Last update: 16 January, 2023

Psychopathology is the area of study that focuses on abnormality or psychological disorders. Both psychiatry and psychology are nourished by it. In this way, they focus their object of study on behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns that are far from what’s considered normal.

In this article, you’ll discover what psychological disorders are, how they manifest themselves, what’s considered normality, and the principles that govern psychopathology.

What’s normality?

Defining what’s normal from a psychological point of view is complicated and controversial. However, according to the RAE, normality is that which, by its nature conforms to the rules set in advance. In this way, it serves as a general rule to be applied in a given context.

A woman jumping in the air and smiling.

Regarding psychosocial functioning, there are several criteria that must be met for a behavior to be called “normal”:

  • Normative criterion: Despite the variety in human behavior, there are regularly certain patterns that are repeated internationally. Therefore, these behavior patterns would be used to define normality
  • Statistical: A behavior must be compared quantitatively with the sociocultural group to which the individual belongs. So, if it’s average, it would be considered normal.
  • Pathological: What isn’t harmful is considered normal. Therefore, that which is harmful or dysfunctional would be considered harmful or dysfunctional.

Psychological disorders or abnormality

Abnormality or psychological disorders refer to behavior patterns that differ significantly from the aforementioned normality. In fact, there are also criteria for abnormality in psychosocial functioning:

  • Suffering or personal anguish: For example, when there’s a painful or negative emotional state that’s strong and prolonged and can cause the individual to become incapacitated. Additionally, it can be accompanied by a myriad of physical symptoms.
  • Impairment: This occurs when levels of distress are exacerbated to a point where imbalances occur in their environment on the work, social, and family levels.
  • Irrationality or incomprehensibility: We consider behavior to be abnormal because, from the outside, it’s strange or difficult to understand. For example hallucinations.
  • Unacceptable social and cultural behavior: When behavior isn’t consistent, nor is it related to the social context in which it takes place.
  • Risk and danger: When a person behaves in such a way that they can harm themself or others.
  • Violation of ideal and moral codes: If a behavior conflicts with the values of society.
Rare mental disorders.

General principles of psychopathology

Psychopathology, as we said earlier, studies abnormality or psychological disorders. In addition, it’s governed by clear principles:

  1. No single criterion, or in isolation, is enough to define a behavior, feeling, or mental activity as deviant, abnormal, or psychopathological.
  2. No behavior, emotion, feeling, or cognitive activity is itself psychopathological.
  3. Having a psychological disorder represents a serious obstacle for individual development or for a person’s closest social group.
  4. The elements that define a cognition or behavior as pathological don’t differ from those that define normality, except in terms of degree, extension, and repercussions.
  5. The presence of psychological disorders doesn’t entail a necessary absence of mental health. As we previously analyzed, this is a broader concept.
  6. Health doesn’t imply the absence of disease.

The causes of psychological disorders

Next, we’ll look at the three main causes of psychological disorders:

  • Biological: It’s important to consider that biological events may be the cause of the person’s condition, seeking to find genetic or functional explanations. For example, could the patient’s hypothyroidism be causing depression?
  • Psychological: In this regard, past personal experiences that may be the cause of current behavior are taken into account. For example, the way of interpreting experiences or the deficit in emotional regulation.
  • Social: The person’s sociocultural environment is very important because this is where the person lives out their life. Among the sociocultural causes may be problems with some social circle, work, etc.
Psychological mental disorders require psychotherapy.

Psychological disorders and cultural factors

There are some diseases that appear in all cultures (universal) and others that don’t (cultural). For example, in South America, there’s a disorder called “fright” (susto) based on anxiety symptoms (irritability, insomnia, phobias, somatic aspects, etc.). Culture will largely determine the explanation for this disease.

The condition can appear in people who are subjected to black magic and witchcraft. It’s considered to be caused by the evil eye and must be cured with magic and witchcraft. This goes to show that culture influences the form and content of the disorder. Depending on the place, the definition of it changes.

Gender roles

Gender roles often make a lot of difference in psychological disorders. In this regard, in the case of a phobia, women are more likely to scream and cry. However, men express their emotions differently; more aggressively or by consuming alcohol.

A woman with agoraphobia.

Risk and protective factors against psychological disorders

These refer to when a significant relationship is found between a behavior disorder or deviation and geographical, environmental, and social elements. By knowing the risk factors, we can avoid disorders.

  • Age: Younger and older patients are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders.
  • Marital status: Single, divorced, or separated are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders.
  • Education: The higher the educational level, the lower the probability of suffering from disorders.
  • Income: The higher the income level, the lower the possibility of suffering from psychological disorders.
  • Work conditions: People with work are less likely to suffer from psychological disorders.
  • Social support: The greater number of friends and amount of social support acts as a protective factor against disorders.
  • Marital adjustment: The higher the marital satisfaction, the lower the probability of suffering from psychological disorders.
A man talking about his psychological disorder during therapy.

Psychological disorders versus resilience

Many people go through difficult, distressing moments and extreme situations (such as natural disasters, the death of family members, threats to their lives, etc.).

These situations inoculate a strong load of stress on the subject, which can lead to psychological disorders. In these cases, resilience is defined as the ability to handle these situations and overcome the suffering they generate through positive psychological coping mechanisms.

Resilient people are therefore less likely to suffer from mental illness. It should be noted that people can be taught to be more resilient, as manifested by Positive Psychology.

The main psychological disorders

The main psychological disorders are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Both are manuals that allow you to categorize and classify abnormal behavior in order to make professional diagnoses.

A woman with an aggressive psychological disorder.

Therefore, some of the main psychological disorders are the following:

  • Personality disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Schizophrenia spectrum disorders and other psychoses
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Sexual disorders, paraphilias, and gender dysphoria
  • Eating disorders
  • Addictions
  • Trauma-related disorders and other stressors
  • Psychosomatic disorders


In conclusion, for psychologists, defining normality is difficult and complex. However, defining mental abnormality or psychological disorders is much simpler.

In this way, both internal and external factors must be addressed in order to consider a certain behavioral pattern as abnormal or disturbed.

There are universal and cultural psychological disorders, so we mustn’t overlook the importance of the historical moment and the cultural context in the creation of complex realities and, at times, deviated from the norm.

There are manuals that collect and classify the main mental disorders, such as the DSM-5 and ICD-11. However, many professionals criticize the excessive rigidity and, sometimes, the arbitrariness of these manuals.

Finally, we can say that nowadays, more importance is being given to approaches based on health, resilience, and, in general, positive psychology. It’s no longer so much about classifying weaknesses or what’s abnormal, but about knowing and implementing the strengths of the human being.

  • Álvarez, M. P. (2003). Las cuatro causas de los trastornos psicológicos. Universitas.
  • Caballo, V. E., Salazar, I. C., & Carrobles, J. A. I. (2014). Manual de psicopatología y trastornos psicológicos. Pirámide.
  • Fernández, M. A., Martínez-Arias, R., & Rodríguez-Sutil, C. (2000). Prevalencia de trastornos psicológicos en niños y adolescentes, su relación con la edad y el género. Psicothema12(4), 525-532.
  • Peña-Herrera, B. (2018) Psicopatología General. Samborondón: Universidad Espíritu Santo – Ecuador

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