Health psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on health improvement and the prevention of health-related problems.
If you are interested in this aspect of psychology and would like to understand it at length, this beginner’s guide to health psychology is all you will need to take your initial steps towards it.
We will be looking at what health psychology is, its history, how it works, its benefits, its applications, and frequently asked questions about it.
What is Health Psychology
Health psychology, which is also referred to as behavioral medicine or medical psychology, is a branch of psychology that deals with health.
It looks at how behavioral, social, psychological, and biological factors affect health conditions and health in general (1).
Some experts say that health psychology is the study of behavioral and psychological processes in healthcare, illnesses, and health in general (2).
It provides ways to understand various aspects of our health status and promotes credible approaches to preventing and treating health issues.
You will find health psychologists immersed in working with health authorities and health care systems in providing direction to proper health care services and health policies.
Other health psychologists seek to understand how human beings respond to, handle and bounce back from their illnesses and diseases.
They also examine the psychological foundation of various health problems and how our bodies and minds contribute to the problems as well as recovery.
Moreover, they empower patients and the general public to take charge of their health through recommended practices and habits so that they can live healthier, happier lives.
History of Health Psychology
The development of health psychology was given priority in varying periods in unique ways across different countries in the world. The United States is among the first few countries to take on health psychology and make it a branch of psychology by itself.
Health psychology in the U.S. can trace its beginnings back to the 70s. William Schofield, a psychologist and head of the clinical psychology program is perhaps the first person to promote the branch of health psychology.
He drafted a report known as “The Role of Psychology in the Delivery of Health Services.” The gist of the report was acknowledging and expressing the recommendation that physical health and mental health should stop being perceived and treated as two different entities.
The American Psychological Association, later on, took up the mantle of training psychologists on how to deal with mental health as well as physical health issues.
Another notable figure is Joseph Matarazzo, who participated in World War II. After the war, he grew curious about a certain aspect of the now health psychology, specifically in decision-making and health.
He wondered why some people went on to make poor decisions that they very well knew would have a negative impact on their health. In 1982, his curiosity led him to write a paper known as “Behavioral Health’s Challenge to Academic, Scientific, and Professional Psychology.”
He strongly insisted on the prevention of a disease, as opposed to its treatment after it has already occurred. He noted that prevention saves money and time compared to treatment.
He mentioned that billions of dollars directed towards healthcare in the United States were being used on health issues brought about by people’s actions and choices.
Health psychology has grown and diversified over the years. At the moment, it has expanded its focus to 3 areas:
* Health behavior and prevention, which is aimed at understanding the factors such as diet, smoking, and workouts, that determine the behaviors that have an influence on health conditions. Also, it focuses on how efficient the available interventions are in managing the factors.
* The psychosocial effect and management of sickness, which concentrates on the social and emotional effects of illness and psychological techniques used to manage the effects and also to improve upon traditional medical care.
* Stress and illness, which seeks to understand the direct relationship between illness development and psychological processes.
How Health Psychology Works
In the grand scheme of things, health psychology deals with how our behaviors influence our health. It also goes a step further to explain ways in which we can change and improve our behaviors so that we can better our health and overall well-being.
The research carried out in this field of psychology dwells on health-related aspects such as better behaviors that can help prevent controllable negative behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking that often lead to life-threatening health problems.
As a replacement for the negative behaviors, psychologists research and recommend better behaviors such as engaging in physical fitness activities.
Also, health psychology works to encourage people to drop the habits they know have negative future consequences such as unhealthy eating. Millions of people continue eating unhealthy foods despite knowing their long-term impact.
Health psychology seeks proper ways and implements them to get people excited about healthy eating.
Social aspects such as family conditions and context, cultural influences, poverty conditions, and other related factors and how they affect health are also studied in health psychology.
Biological factors, including psychological stress effects on how our immune system functions, fall under the same branch of health psychology.
Health psychologists research the mentioned areas and come up with findings that can help prevent and treat health conditions, and also encourage better healthcare policies. They achieve those objectives through educating patients and the general public as well as getting involved in talks with health authorities and different health organizations.
Benefits of Health Psychology
Health psychology is useful in improving areas such as:
1. Illness prevention
2. Weight management
3. Recovery improvement
4. Education on coping skills
5. Stress reduction and management
6. Smoking cessation
7. Comprehension of illnesses’ effects
8. Daily nutrition improvement
9. Reduction of dangerous sexual behaviors
10. Hospice care, and guidance and counsel on grief
11. Healthy diet
12. Improvement of quality of life
13. Improvement and maintenance of a positive life outlook
Application of Health Psychology
The main work of health psychologists involves studying and understanding a patient’s symptoms based on the health conditions they’ve been diagnosed with. They also look at the factors which play a role in influencing the patient’s treatment.
Health psychologists can be classified as clinical health psychologists, public health psychologists, critical health psychologists, and community health psychologists, among others.
Each type of health psychologist has a specific focus when it comes to applying health psychology. You will find health psychologists in government agencies, primary care programs and organizations, hospitals, private practices, and universities.
You can also find them in specialty practices like rehabilitation and smoking cessation, oncology, and pain management.
A typical scenario where a health psychologist may be useful is when a patient struggling with insomnia may require recommendations for better behavior that encourage restful sleep.
Health psychologists can work with physicians, patients of all ages, nurses and healthcare teams, local organizations, and lobbyists. They have the opportunity to work directly with patients, people who take care of patients in varying ways, and in organizations that deal with health care policies.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS) About Health Psychology
Here are some commonly asked questions on health psychology along with their answers:
Question: What is the Biopsychosocial model in health psychology?
Answer: This is a model of approach to general health and illness. It is believed that health problems are brought about by biological, psychological, and social (bio-psycho-social) factors.
Biological factors that contribute include genetic conditions and inherited personality traits. The psychological factors include stress levels, lifestyle, and personality traits while the social factors are family, cultural aspects like beliefs and social support systems.
Question: What are some limitations and concerns about health psychology?
Answer: Some critics of health psychology say that this field neglects the emotional aspects that contribute to the decision-making process when it comes to health-based behaviors.
Question: What specific responsibilities do health psychologists have?
Answer: As earlier mentioned, different categories of health psychologists have unique work descriptions. Here is a list of the things health psychologists do as part of their work, in general:
– They conduct interviews and assess patients’ behaviors in clinics
– They walk patients with chronic health conditions through the process of grief and bereavement
– They aim to understand why patients don’t work with medical advice as instructed in order to inspire more patients to follow medical guidance
– They help deliver various recovery techniques such as addiction recovery
– They explore the nature of communication between patients and health care providers and their effects. They also determine ways to improve this communication
– They guide and motivate patients to make better health choices even when under stress and pressure
– They determine and point out the behaviors that can compromise a patient’s health and the techniques for preventing and changing the behaviors
Question: What are the requirements, training, and certification needed to become a health psychologist?
Answer: To become a practicing health psychologist, there are 2 ways you can do it. First, you can get a doctorate in psychology and then specialize in health psychology afterward. Second, you get a graduate program that offers a specialty in health psychology via an internship or other recommended ways depending on several factors. You may also need to get a license to practice health psychology. Obtaining a license will require you to do several examinations and go through supervised training.
Question: Are health psychologists classified as doctors?
Answer: Yes, they are doctors. Clinical health psychologists can be classified as doctors. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that medical doctors and health psychologists get different training. For health psychologists, their training is limited to clinical practice or research within the field covered by psychology.
Question: How do I find a health psychologist?
Answer: When looking for a health psychologist, make sure you go for one who has been licensed and certified by the authoritative board of health psychology in your country. Also, look for someone who has specialized in chronic illness, behavioral change, sexual dysfunction, and stress management as these are what health psychologists mainly specialize in.
Question: Does health psychology help in business setups and the workplace?
Answer: Yes, it does. Health psychology can help encourage employees to look after their health and wellness depending on their behaviors and health choices. It can also help influence the policies and decision-making processes on health in a company and ensure the company performs at its best.
Question: When should I see a health psychologist?
Answer: If you are looking for someone to combine efforts with your physician, or looking for treatment for a very specific symptom such as migraine, or maybe you feel you have an illness behind your anxiety or depression or other health issues you’re dealing with, you should probably see a health psychologist.
Question: What should I keep in mind when working with a health psychologist?
Answer: Remember to be patient, persevering, and determined. The approaches used by health psychologists may at times work fast or take some time before you can see results. Trust in the process and wait as you follow what you are told by your health psychologist. In good time, you will see the results and you will be glad you did it.