Health psychology, also called medical psychology or behavioral medicine, is a branch of psychology focusing on how biological, social, and psychological factors impact health and well-being. Health psychologists strive to promote overall health and prevent illness.
Health has played a significant role throughout the history of psychology. In fact, many pioneers in the field of psychology were originally trained in medicine. In the case of psychology, though, emphasis is placed largely on mental rather than physical health.
Since the 1950s, interest in the role psychological health plays in overall well-being has grown. The development of the Health Belief Model (HBM) by a team of psychologists, including Irwin Rosenstock, was a seminal event in the field of health psychology during the 1960s. The HBM, which sought to explain why some people were not getting vaccinated against tuberculosis, proposes that a person’s likelihood of engaging in a health-promoting behavior is affected by their beliefs about the severity of an illness and their susceptibility to it, the costs and benefits of engaging in the behavior, and the presence of cues to action.
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As more psychologists were employed by medical facilities, primary care clinics, and medical schools, greater focus was placed on understanding how psychological and physical health intertwine. Health psychology is now its own branch of psychology. Today, health psychologists focus on preventing and treating illness, promoting overall health, and working to improve the health care system. Some health psychologists are also interested in understanding how people handle and recover from physical illness.
Even therapists who do not identify specifically as health psychologists can incorporate principles of health psychology into their work. It is not uncommon for people to discuss concerns or fears about their health in therapy, and therapists may provide education about how psychological factors influence physical health. For example, it is widely known that chronic stress can cause physical issues, including headaches, pain, and heart problems. When a therapist educates the people they are working with about the consequences of physical health problems or how psychological factors can influence health, they are using aspects of health psychology.
The mind-body connection, another important aspect of health psychology often used in therapy, involves exploring the link between an individual’s emotions and their behavior. Discussion of this connection may commonly occur in therapy. People who deal with overeating, for instance, might explore what emotions trigger an episode of binge eating with a therapist. Techniques such as biofeedback also have a basis in health psychology.
Common issues treated by health psychologists include stress, weight, or pain management, smoking cessation, and reducing risky sexual or health-related behaviors. Health psychologists can help people change problematic behaviors to improve their overall health and well-being. Individuals who recently learned they have a chronic medical condition may also find health psychology useful, as it can help them work on accepting the diagnosis and altering their lifestyle to manage the condition effectively. Moreover, health psychologists can help people with a terminal condition come to terms with it if they are struggling.
Health psychology uses a biopsychosocial model of treatment, which means that biological, psychological, and social factors of well-being are considered. The biopsychosocial model is especially relevant in the present day, as major causes of illness and death have changed over time. In earlier centuries, many people died of infections or illnesses that were difficult to control, such as influenza or plagues. Now, the most common causes of death are chronic diseases that are at times related to lifestyle choices or behaviors that can have a negative impact on health. The biopsychosocial model used in health psychology could help people take control of their own behaviors to promote heath and prevent illness or disease.
To become a health psychologist, it is necessary to obtain a doctoral degree in the field of psychology or become a medical doctor. Some graduate programs offer specialized training in health psychology, though it is also possible to get a general psychology degree and then complete specialized training in health psychology through an internship or other means. Health psychologists must also be licensed to practice psychology in their state. Obtaining licensure typically involves passing one or more examinations and completing a specific amount of supervised training.
Health psychology is a broad field, and different theories within the discipline have various benefits and limitations. The HBM has been criticized for ignoring emotional factors that can play into decision-making about health-related behaviors. Additionally, it is important to consider that no single type of therapy is right for everyone, and health psychology can be somewhat limited in its scope. For instance, people who are not dealing with any health issues may not find health psychology particularly relevant or helpful.
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