Studying Health Psychology and Illness

Health Psychology
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Health psychology is a specialty area that focuses on how biology, psychology, behavior, and social factors influence health and illness. Other terms including medical psychology and behavioral medicine are sometimes used interchangeably with the term health psychology.

Health and illness are influenced by a wide variety of factors. While contagious and hereditary illness are common, there are many behavioral and psychological factors that can impact overall physical well-being and various medical conditions.

A Quick Overview of Health Psychology

  • The field of health psychology is focused on promoting health as well as the prevention and treatment of disease and illness.
  • Health psychologists also focus on understanding how people react, cope and recover from illness.
  • Some health psychologists work to improve the health care system and the government's approach to health care policy.

Division 38 of the American Psychological Association is devoted to health psychology. According to the division, their focus is on a better understanding of health and illness, studying the psychological factors that impact health and contributing to the health care system and health policy.

The field of health psychology is still quite young, emerging during the 1970s to address the rapidly changing field of healthcare. Life expectancy was much lower just 100 years ago, and health concerns then often centered on such things as basic sanitation and avoidance of infectious diseases. Today, life expectancy in the U.S. is around 80 years, and the leading causes of mortality are chronic diseases that are often linked to lifestyles such as heart disease and stroke. Health psychology has emerged to help address these changes in health.

By looking at the patterns of behavior that underlie disease and death, health psychologists hope to help people live better, and healthier, lives.

How Does Health Psychology Differ From Other Areas of Psychology?

Because health psychology emphasizes how behavior influences health, it is uniquely positioned to help people change the behaviors that contribute to health and well-being. For example, psychologists who work in this field might conduct applied research on how to prevent unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and look for new ways to encourage healthy actions such as exercising.

For example, while most people realize that eating a diet high in sugar is not good for their health, many people continue to engage in such behaviors regardless of the possible short-term and long-term consequences. Healthy psychologists look at the psychological factors that influence these health choices and explore ways to motivate people to make better health choices.

Illnesses Related to Psychological and Behavioral Factors

  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Birth defects and infant mortality
  • Infectious diseases

According to one study, nearly half of all deaths in the United States can be linked to behaviors or other risk factors that are mostly preventable. Health psychologists work with individuals, groups, and communities to decrease these risk factors, improve overall health, and reduce illness.

Current Issues in Health Psychology

Health psychologists engage in a wide variety of activities. These are just a few of the current issues in health psychology:

  • Stress reduction
  • Weight management
  • Smoking cessation
  • Improving daily nutrition
  • Reducing risky sexual behaviors
  • Hospice care and grief counseling for terminal patients
  • Preventing illness
  • Understanding the effects of illness
  • Improving recovery
  • Teaching coping skills

Understanding the Biosocial Model in Health Psychology

Today, the main approach used in health psychology is known as the biosocial model. According to this view, illness and health are the results of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.

  • Biological factors include inherited personality traits and genetic conditions.
  • Psychological factors involve lifestyle, personality characteristics, and stress levels.
  • Social factors include such things as social support systems, family relationships, and cultural beliefs.

How Can Health Psychology Help You?

Health psychology is a rapidly growing field. As increasing numbers of people seek to take control of their own health, more and more people are seeking health-related information and resources. Health psychologists are focused on educating people about their own health and well-being, so they are perfectly suited to fill this rising demand.

Many health psychologists work specifically in the areas of prevention and focus on helping people prevent health problems before they start.

This may include helping people maintain a healthy weight, avoid risky or unhealthy behaviors and maintain a positive outlook that can combat stress, depression, and anxiety.

Another way that health psychologists can help is by educating and training other health professionals. By incorporating things that have been discovered in the field of health psychology, physicians, nurses, nutritionists, and other health practitioners can better incorporate psychological approaches into how they treat patients.

A Word From Verywell

If you are struggling to make healthy changes in your life, dealing with this onset of illness, or facing some other type of health problem, seeing a health psychologist is one way to help start you off on the right foot. By consulting with one of these professionals, you can gain access to support and resources designed to help you cope with your illness and achieve your health goals.

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Article Sources

  • Baum, A, Revenson, TA, & Singer, JE. Handbook of Health Psychology. New York: Psychology Press; 2012.
  • Brannon, L, Updegraff, JA, & Feist, J. Health Psychology: An Introduction to Behavior and Health. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2014.