In general, it is easier to define abnormal behavior, than to define “normal” behavior. Normal behavior is more elusive and complicated, in part because normalcy is influenced by psychological and cultural factors that vary depending on the person, population and environment. Another reason is that most people do their best to behave in “normal” ways most of time in order to blend in. Simply, put, we don’t pay enough attention to normal behavior, only abnormal behavior.
One way of defining normal behavior is to say that we behave normally when we apply our values and principles to our daily conduct. Values and principles that we have inherited from our culture from one generation to another.
Then the question, what makes a normal person a valuable person?
Simple answer, THEIR VALUES. Their ability to give, love, manifest respect, provide, be thankful, amicable, compassionate, honest, creative, motivated, efficient, loyal, and may other values specific to each or our different cultures.
Abnormal behavior is somewhat easier to identify. It can manifest itself in biological, psychological and social ways. There are plenty of opportunities to behave abnormally. In fact, most of us at some time or another will demonstrate abnormal behaviors, even behaviors associated with mental illness.
Some of us are be born with genetic problems that lead to abnormal behaviors. Some of us will experience psychological growth problems or psychological traumas that impact our ability to manage stressful situations. Others may be confronted with cultural and social stress that are so intense that our ability to cope is overwhelmed that we manifest abnormal behaviors. Most of the time, abnormal behaviors are likely to be the result of a combination of these factors.
In general, abnormal behaviors can be identified if they are: intense, frequent and affects our ability to function and live our life in a balanced way. For example, it keeps us from working, or take care of our basic needs, like hygiene and feed ourselves, or affects our ability to enjoy and maintain our social relationships and may impact our health.
Let’s use anxiety as an example:
Anxiety is a normal response to stress and, to a high degree, is genetically predetermined. In other words, we are born with that ability to experience anxiety. It is a part of an evolved survival mechanism that tells is to be wary, and to anticipate, certain dangers in our environment. Basically, it is an alarm system warns us of potential risks to our well-being. Anxiety is our response to stress or danger that warns us of external threats and is necessary for our survival.
If, for example, you are out hiking and hear the roar of some close but unknown animal, the anxiety mechanism will kick in and you will become more wary. Your heart will increase to pump more blood to your legs and prepare you to run; breathing will increase to provide more oxygen to your blood; eye pupils will enlarge so you can stay focused on your escape; your saliva production will stop and you will get dry mouth to keep you from choking on your own saliva; you will not be able to urinate or defecate (not convenient when you are running). These responses kick in automatically, when there is a perceived threat. A trait that most mammals share.
Now, imagine having that this system is triggered by non-life-threatening stimuli such as a deadline at work, spilling coffee on your desk or crossing the street. This beneficial system is now triggering a reaction that may cause unneeded stress. Imagine also that this system interprets these less-than-lethal events as life threatening and therefore pushes the responses to a very high level. That is what we commonly refer to as a panic attack.
Normal anxiety is when we have a reason to for concern or worry, but in which the response does not negatively affect our daily life. Furthermore, a little anxiety is adaptive and allows us to problem solve more efficiently. Pathological anxiety is the opposite, when we worry for no reason, is intense, frequent and affects or daily life.
As our own worst critics, and constant witness to our own lives, we need to learn to recognize our normalcy as well as our abnormal behaviors, so we can learn to cope with abnormalcy in a more adaptive way and positive way. This way we can take a more active role in our mental health and manage the daily stresses of life in a fashion that allows us to live productive and value driven lives.