What is Health Psychology? Short Review

Health psychology draws together various aspects of psychology and uses this knowledge to help explain health and illness from a non-medical perspective. Health psychologists are not anti-medicine, but they do recognise the limitations of a system that predominantly emphasises the biological aspects of health and illness.

This ‘biomedical’ model, as it is known, views health and illness as separate entities. If we are ill it’s because viruses or bacteria have invaded our body, or maybe some other internal factors, such as our genes or hormones are at fault. Our emotions may be affected by illness, but the way our mind works is not seen as having any particular influence on our physical state. Typically we tend to externalise illness by ‘catching’ colds or ‘contracting’ illnesses. This fits very nicely with the perceived need to externalise our treatment (pills, ointments etc) to make things better. My own medicine collection is testament to the occasional need to ingest soothing concoctions. I have half-empty bottles of cough linctus, headache pills and so on.

What’s wrong with this? Well, perhaps nothing. Everything has its place and I view medicine as a tremendously beneficial and useful resource. But – it doesn’t answer all the questions, nor does it provide all the solutions to our understanding of health and illness or provide alternatives to non-medical interventions that may be equally or more effective.

Health psychology reflects a more holistic approach but largely through a rigorous and scientific methodology. It therefore embraces the biological aspects of health and illness yet overlaps and integrates with psychological and social phenomena. This biopsychosocial model (Engel, 1977, 1980) is really the foundation of health psychology.

It may seem odd that conventional medicine has always tended to view the mind and the body as unrelated. Yet, this is precisely the basis of the medical model. Once we accept the principle that the mind and body are not separate entities but in fact influence each other greatly, it empowers individuals to realise the extent to which they can influence their own wellbeing. There is now compelling evidence, for example, that stress can and does directly affect the immune system leaving people prone to illness.

Those of you still hankering for a definition may find this widely accepted definition by Matarazzo (1980) helpful, although it may take a few re-reads before it really sinks in:

Health Psychology is the aggregate of the specific educational, scientific and professional contributions to the discipline of psychology to the promotion and maintenance of health, the prevention and treatment of illness, the identification of aetiolic and diagnostic correlates of health, illness and related dysfunction, and the analysis and improvement of the health care system and health policy formation.”

What are Health Psychologists Interested in?

Apart from the definition previously given, the basic approach health psychologists take tends to fall into two broad categories. The first of these relates to attempts in trying to understand and explain the reasons that underpin health protective or health-risk behaviours. So, for example, psychologists are interested in how beliefs about health and illness can actually predict behaviour. This leads into the second category about how an understanding of such a relationship can be used to turn theory into practice (e.g. health promotion campaigns, self-help, various intervention strategies). To this end a host of issues have been targeted by health psychologists as being prime candidates in linking the mind to the body, within the context of the biopsychosocial model. These include:

- Cancer
- Eating
- Coping
- Emotion, health and illness
- Patient-doctor relationships
- Exercise
- Contraception & Abortion
- High blood pressure
- Screening
- Diabetes
- Health promotion
- Personality
- Heart conditions
- Pain
- Stress
- Health policy
- and more……

Psychology helps to illuminate the nature of the human condition in terms of two of our most valued commodities – health and happiness. We will review different approaches to research as well as the benefits and limitations of these approaches. We hope this short article has wet your appetite and that you will visit again soon.

February 2nd, 2010 - Posted in Health Care | | Comments Off

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