What is Health Psychology?
Health psychology focuses upon how biological, psychological, and social factors affect health and illness. It is a fairly new field because society has become more conscious of being healthy -- whether it pertains to the food we eat, the way our bodies look, or how we feel. Because of this, psychologists developed health psychology. Many health psychologists perform on the best ways to promote healthy living and prevent disease and/or how people react psychologically when they are diagnosed with an illness. Health psychologists are also interested in patients' personality or attitude to see if it has a positive or negative effect on their health.
Health Psychology has become so involved in physical health and illness that many medical centers now employ psychologists and primary care physicians are increasingly referring their patients to psychologists as part of a more comprehensive approach to primary health care.
Health psychologists study patients' coping strategies, adjustment to their illness, and how they view their quality of life. The main focus today is why people do certain things knowing that it can harm them in the end (e.g., why teenagers or adults smoke when they know it causes cancer or even death).
Health psychologists have found that not only behavior has an impact on disease, but also attitudes and social factors. These factors combined to form the biopsychosocial model which guides the work of many health psychologists today.
There are five major aspects to health psychology, in which each contribute to the overall existence of health psychology. Health psychology contributes to our understanding of health and illness through patients' adjustment to serious illnesses, their health beliefs, which influences their behavior, their mind and body connection, and finally the psychosocial factors that can reinforce healthy behaviors and prevent negative ones.
Mind and Body Connection
Physical disorders can affect psychological states. Pain associated with physical disorders may cause sleep disturbances and alter one's usual routines and ways of coping, producing distortions in thinking and appraisal of problems. It can also reduce one's confidence in managing problems. Each of these factors can result in depression or anxiety. Psychological states such as depression and anxiety can alter autonomic nervous system and immune function and other biological processes that can result in decreased neurovisceral integration and autonomic inflexibility. Any of these factors can create a physical disorder.
Health psychologists stress the importance of identifying and treating psychological distress in patients with physical diseases, therefore paying more attention to the connection between the mind and body. By health psychologists' recognizing and treating anxiety or depression, patients can connect better with their illness and acquire a more positive and healing attitude.
Health psychologists want to know how peoples' lives change following the diagnosis of terminal illness or injury. They have found that illnesses and other negative life events often make people feel badly about themselves. One third of hospitalized medical patients with chronic medical conditions also suffer from psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety. Many psychological components of medical illnesses are still understudied, and often overlooked.
Psychological states, such as anxiety and depression, can alter the adjustment to illnesses, thereby causing poor health practices and interfering with social functioning. Health psychologists stress the importance of identifying and treating psychological disorders in patients with chronic diseases. Good adjustment to chronic illness or life stressors is linked to increased attempts to gain control over one's health. Health psychologists believe it is important to educate people about variability in responses to negative life events because it allows friends and family to respond in more constructive ways.
In his book, "The Biology of Belief", Dr. Bruce Lipton says, "Our positive and negative beliefs not only impact our health, but also every aspect of our life." And he goes on to say, "Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts to those beliefs."
Health psychologists promote health and they hope that it will prevent disease. Many chronic disorders, such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and complications from substance abuse, have continued to rise in the second half of the twentieth century, even with all the new technology. These illnesses are the leading causes of death in the United States.
Health psychologists have found that many of these chronic illnesses could have been prevented through modifications in behavior. For example, approximately 25% of all cancer deaths and 350,000 heart attack deaths could be avoided annually through the cessation of smoking alone. There is also poor diet and lack of exercise that contribute to the onset of many disorders. Health psychologists want to find out why people still smoke when they know it causes cancer.
Health psychologists have found that an optimistic attitude and behavior are linked to better reports of physical health and faster recovery from illnesses. Studies show that usually people with an optimistic attitude return to normal recreational, social, and sexual activities within six months after diagnosis and treatment of a serious illness. Health psychologists have found new evidence showing that optimism assists people in remembering information about their own health risk behaviors; this in turn helps them over time to avoid behaviors that threaten their health.
Health psychologists have extensively studied the association between social support and mental and physical health and found that it is extremely beneficial in highly stressful situations. There are different forms of social support. One type is practical support, which includes rides to the doctor's office or help around the house. The next type is emotional support, which consists of reassurance, trust, and dependence. The final form of social support is appraisal support, such as help in figuring out what is happening and how to cope with it. Health psychologists have found that family relationships play an important role for the patients' adaptation to the serious illness. The family seems to be the vital source in the overall adjustment. If support is nonexistent for the patient then they may respond negatively to their illness and keep their problems hidden, which causes more stress for themselves. If a patient does not have a family, then there are many different support programs that patients can get involved in. These programs focus on various activities like education, emotional support, and social activism.
The Connection Between the Mind and Body
With every passing day, many more people are learning more about the connection between good mental health and good physical health. The following are just a few statistics that prove when it comes to your body, your mind really matters.
Psychological studies show that your mind and your body are strongly linked. As your mental health declines, your physical health can wear down, and if your physical health declines, it can make you feel mentally "down." A positive outlook can help keep you healthy.
Did you know: Behavior and Health
80 percent of Americans say that during the past few years they have become more aware of how their mental health and emotions can affect their physical health (APA 2005)
Two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms (American Academy of Family Physicians)
43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress ("The Stress Solution: An Action Plan to Manage the Stress in Your Life", Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.)
93 percent of Americans say that perceptions, thoughts, and choices affect physical health (APA 2005)
58 percent of Americans believe that one can't have good physical health without good mental health (APA 2005)
High levels of hostility have been found to predict heart disease more often than high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, or obesity (Health Psychology, November 2002)
Men high in optimism were less than half as likely to develop heart disease than were the more pessimistic men (Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study)
64 percent of Americans said they are taking steps to reduce the level of stress in their lives(APA 2005)
More than 1/3 of Americans say they have had an illness that was primarily caused by stress (APA 2005)
86 percent of respondents to a 2005 APA survey on the mind/body connection said that a comprehensive physical exam should include
some discussion of their emotional state and well-being.
Employees receiving mental health counseling lowered the usage of medical insurance by 31 percent(Group Health Association)
Did you know: Behavior and Longevity
Research supports the idea that having a positive outlook can extend one's life ("Emotional Longevity: What Really Determines How Long You Live," Norman B. Anderson and Elizabeth P. Anderson, 2003)
Work-related stress can double one’s risk of dying from heart disease (British Medical Journal, 2002)
Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. ("The Stress Solution: An Active Plan to Manage the Stress in Your Life," Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D. and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.)
People with high levels of anxiety can have between two to seven times the risk of heart disease. ("Emotional Longevity: What Really Determines How Long You Live," Norman B. Anderson and Elizabeth P. Anderson, 2003)
Did you know: Behavior and Productivity
Workplace stress causes approximately one million U.S. employees to miss work each day (American Institute of Stress)
Stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually in lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity and workers compensation benefits (The American Institute of Stress)
More than one in four workers have taken a "mental health day" off from work to cope with stress (APA 2005)
More than a third of workers (36 percent) say physical illness and ailments are a cause of stress at work (APA 2005)
Nearly one third of workers say that personal life interfering at work is a significant source of stress (APA 2005)
In 1999, anxiety-related disorders cost the U.S. $42 billion a year in work-related medical losses (National Institute of Mental Health)
Did you know: Physical Health and Psychologists
Consumers report that talk therapy was reportedly more effective than drug therapy for depression and anxiety (Consumer Reports, October 2004)
78 percent of Americans said they would go to a psychologist if he/she could help manage stress (APA 2005)
54 percent of Americans said they would see a psychologist to prevent the day-to-day stress that can build up from becoming a problem (APA 2005)
68 percent of Americans said they would visit a psychologist to deal with physical symptoms that are emotional in nature (APA 2005)
Reprinted with permission. American Psychological Association 2008.