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, many behavioral and psychological factors can impact overall physical well-being and various medical conditions.

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 to, cope with, 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 emerged in the 1970s to address the rapidly changing field of healthcare. Today, life expectancy in the U.S. is around 80 years, and the leading causes of mortality are chronic diseases often linked to lifestyle. Health psychology helps 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 Is Health Psychology Unique?

Because health psychology emphasizes how behavior influences health, it is well 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. Health psychologists look at the psychological factors that influence these health choices and explore ways to motivate people to make better health choices.

The US Centers for Disease Control National Center for Health Statistics compiles data regarding death in the nation and its causes. Congruent with data trends throughout this century, nearly half of all deaths in the United States can be linked to behaviors or other risk factors that are mostly preventable.

Specifically, in the most recent CDC report (2012), the rate of death has declined for all leading causes except suicide; life expectancy is at an all-time high (78.8 years); and yet every hour about 83 Americans die from heart disease and stroke. More than a quarter of those deaths are preventable.

Cancer remained second; followed chronic lower respiratory diseases, primarily chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis; followed by drug poisonings including overdoses and then fatal falls among an increasingly elder population.)

Current Issues in Health Psychology

Health psychologists work with individuals, groups, and communities to decrease risk factors, improve overall health, and reduce illness. They conduct research and provide services in areas including:

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

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.

Health Psychology in Practice

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 area of prevention, focusing on helping people stop 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 knowledge from 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 the 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.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Society for Health Psychology.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality in the United States, 2017.

  3. DeStasio KL, Clithero JA, Berkman ET. Neuroeconomics, health psychology, and the interdisciplinary study of preventative health behaviorSoc Personal Psychol Compass. 2019;13(10):e12500. doi:10.1111/spc3.12500

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC National Health Report Highlights.

  5. Mason PH, Roy A, Spillane J, Singh P. Social, historical and cultural dimensions of tuberculosisJ Biosoc Sci. 2016;48(2):206–232. doi:10.1017/S0021932015000115

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.