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What Is Health Psychology?

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Health Psychology

Health psychology focuses on how psychological, biological and social factors influence health and illness.

Image courtesy Jessica Leung

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. 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.

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 better understanding health and illness, studying the psychological factors that impact health and contributing to the health care system and health policy.

So what makes health psychology unique? In what way does it contribute to our understanding of health and wellness? "Given its emphasis on behavior and behavioral change, psychology has a unique contribution to make," suggests Division 38 of the APA. "For example, Health Psychologists are currently conducting applied research on the development of healthy habits as well as the prevention or reduction of unhealthy behaviors. The impact of behavior on health and the influence of health and disease states on psychological factors are being explored."

Illnesses Related Psychological and Behavioral Factors:

Some illnesses that are related to psychological or behavioral factors include:

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

According to one study (Mokdad et al., 2004) 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:

While health psychologists engage in a wide variety of activities, the following 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

Understanding the Biosocial Model in Health Psychology:

Today, the main approach used within health psychology is known as the biosocial model. According to this view, illness and health are the result 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.

References

Mokdad, A. H. Marks, J. S. Stroup, D. F. Gerberding, J. L. (2000). Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(10), 1238-1245.

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