Important Terms

Please click on the terms below to read the definitions. Additional information on these and other psychiatric terms are available through the APA Website.


The medical specialty concerned with the origin, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of mental disorders. Physicians specializing in this field – psychiatrists – hold a medical degree and spend four years or more in approved residency training. They must be licensed by their state in order to practice. As physicians, psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals licensed to prescribe medication.


A theory of the psychology of human behavior, a method of research and a system of psychotherapy, originally developed by Sigmund Freud. Through the analysis of free associations and the interpretation of dreams, emotions and behavior are traced to instinctive drives that are repressed and defenses against them in the unconscious. The goal of treatment is to eliminate or reduce the undesirable effects of unconscious conflicts by making the patient aware of their existence, origin and inappropriate expression.


An academic discipline, a profession and a science dealing with the study of mental processes and behavior of people and animals. A psychologist holds a degree in psychology from an accredited program. Many providers of clinical psychological services are licensed under state law, whereas those who teach or do research are usually exempt from licensure requirements. Licensed psychologists generally hold a doctoral degree in psychology and have two years of supervised work experience.


A broad range of disorders with psychological or behavioral symptoms and/or impairment in functioning due to a social, psychological, genetic, physical/chemical or biological disturbance.


Anxiety and fear are often used to describe the same thing. When the word “anxiety” is used to discuss a group of mental illnesses (anxiety disorders), it refers to an unpleasant and overriding inner emotional tension that has no apparent identifiable cause. Fear, on the other hand, causes emotional tension due to a specific, external reason. Anxiety disorders include phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic-stress disorder. These disorders are severe enough to interfere with social or occupational functioning.


A major affective, or mood, disorder in which there are episodes of both mania and severe, disabling depression.


When used to describe a mood, depression refers to what may be normal feelings of sadness, despair and discouragement. More serious depression may be a symptom of a variety of physical and mental disorders, a syndrome of associated symptoms secondary to an underlying disorder, or it may itself be a specific mental disorder. The disorder known as major depression is characterized by slow thinking, decreased purposeful physical activity, sleep and appetite disturbances, low self-esteem, loss of sex drive and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.


A mood disorder characterized by excessive elation or irritability, hyperactivity, poor concentration and accelerated thinking and speaking, and resulting in impaired judgement. Mania is seen in major disorders involving disturbance of mood and in organic mental disorders.


A rare type of dissociative state in which a person adopts two or more personalities. Dissociative disorders involve a sudden, temporary change in normally integrated functions of consciousness, identity or motor behavior, so that some part of one or more of these functions is lost.


A type of anxiety disorder marked by the persistent intrusion of unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts. Commonly, patients who suffer from obsessions also suffer from compulsions – repeated, senseless rituals victims go through in an attempt to reduce their anxiety. While compulsive behavior is almost always preceded by obsessive thoughts, some people have obsessive thoughts but do not ritualize.


A temporary or permanent impairment of the brain, caused by physiological disturbance of brain tissue at any level of organization – structural, hormonal, biochemical, electrical, etc. Causes are associated with aging, toxic substances or a variety of physical disorders.


A type of anxiety disorder in which a person suffers intense, overwhelming terror suddenly and for no apparent reason. The fear is accompanied by such physical symptoms as shortness of breath; heart palpitations; chest discomfort; choking or smothering sensations; unsteadiness; feelings of unreality; tingling; hot or cold flashes; sweating; faintness; trembling; and fear of losing control, dying or going crazy.


A deeply ingrained, inflexible, maladaptive pattern of relating, perceiving and thinking serious enough to cause distress or impaired functioning. Personality disorders are usually recognizable by adolescence or earlier, continue throughout adulthood and become less obvious in middle or old age. Examples of formally identified personality disorders are antisocial, borderline, compulsive, histrionic, dependent, narcissistic, paranoid, passive-aggressive, schizoid and schizotypal.


An obsessive, persistent, unrealistic fear of an object or situation. Some common phobias are: acrophobia – fear of heights; agoraphobia – fear of leaving the familiar setting of the home; claustrophobia – fear of closed places; xenophobia – fear of strangers.


A disorder that develops after a person experiences a psychologically distressing event outside the range of usual human experience – a natural disaster such as an earthquake, an accidental disaster such as a plane crash, or a manmade disaster such as war or rape. Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by reexperiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of stimuli associated with it, or a numbing of general responsiveness that was not present before the trauma.


A large group of severe disorders of unknown cause and usually of psychotic proportion, typically characterized by disturbances of language and communication; thought disturbances that may involve distortion of reality, misperceptions and sometimes delusions and hallucinations; mood changes and withdrawn, regressive or bizarre behavior. These symptoms must last longer than six months to fall into the category of schizophrenia.

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