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.
Health and illness are influenced by a wide variety of factors. While contagious and hereditary illness are common, many behavioral and psychological factors can impact overall physical well-being and various medical conditions.
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 to, cope with, 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 a better understanding of health and illness, studying the psychological factors that impact health, and contributing to the health care system and health policy.1
The field of health psychology emerged in the 1970s to address the rapidly changing field of healthcare. Today, life expectancy in the U.S. is around 80 years, and the leading causes of mortality are chronic diseases often linked to lifestyle.2 Health psychology helps address these changes in health.
By looking at the patterns of behavior that underlie disease and death, health psychologists hope to help people live better, and healthier, lives.
“Psychology and medicine often work together,” says Susan Bradley, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Applied Psychology Department in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University. “[Health psychology] examines the psychological underpinnings of illnesses to understand how the mind and body are connected in terms of healing or illness.”
What do health psychologists and counselors do?
Health psychologists and health counselors are often employed in healthcare settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and other healthcare clinics. They leverage a variety of psychological frameworks and expertise to promote wellness in their patients.
“Often, those in the field of psychology will work with doctors in healthcare settings to meet with people who may present with illnesses that are often associated with psychological issues,” Bradley says. “For example, anxiety may come across in people who are having a lot of headaches or stomach issues, and they really would benefit from psychological intervention. And so the doctor will coordinate care with the health psychologist or someone from the health psychology field.”
In addition to the example outlined by Bradley above, other health psychologist’s responsibilities include:
- Conducting clinical interviews and behavioral assessments of patients
- Seeking to understand why certain patients do not follow medical advice and using that understanding to reduce levels of non-adherence
- Guiding patients with serious or terminal conditions through the grief and bereavement process
- Educating patients on making healthful choices, such as around diet and exercise, even in the face of psychological stress (i.e., avoiding stress eating, using exercise to reduce stress)
- Participating in various interventions as necessary, such as around addiction or sedentary lifestyle
Outside of a clinical or healthcare setting, health psychologists who work in research-focused roles can significantly impact healthcare policy, public health, and health education issues.
How Is Health Psychology Unique?
Because health psychology emphasizes how behavior influences health, it is well positioned to help people change the behaviors that contribute to health and well-being. For example, psychologists who work in this field might conduct applied research on how to prevent unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and look for new ways to encourage healthy actions such as exercising.
For example, while most people realize that eating a diet high in sugar is not good for their health, many people continue to engage in such behaviors regardless of the possible short-term and long-term consequences. Health psychologists look at the psychological factors that influence these health choices and explore ways to motivate people to make better health choices.3
The US Centers for Disease Control National Center for Health Statistics compiles data regarding death in the nation and its causes. Congruent with data trends throughout this century, nearly half of all deaths in the United States can be linked to behaviors or other risk factors that are mostly preventable.
Specifically, in the most recent CDC report (2012), the rate of death has declined for all leading causes except suicide; life expectancy is at an all-time high (78.8 years); and yet every hour about 83 Americans die from heart disease and stroke. More than a quarter of those deaths are preventable.
Cancer remained second; followed chronic lower respiratory diseases, primarily chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis; followed by drug poisonings including overdoses and then fatal falls among an increasingly elder population.)4
The Biosocial Model in Health Psychology
Today, the main approach used in health psychology is known as the biosocial model. According to this view, illness and health are the results of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.5
- 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.
Health Psychology in Practice
Health psychology is a rapidly growing field. As increasing numbers of people seek to take control of their own health, more and more people are seeking health-related information and resources. Health psychologists are focused on educating people about their own health and well-being, so they are perfectly suited to fill this rising demand.
Many health psychologists work specifically in the area of prevention, focusing on helping people stop health problems before they start.
This may include helping people maintain a healthy weight, avoid risky or unhealthy behaviors, and maintain a positive outlook that can combat stress, depression, and anxiety.
Another way that health psychologists can help is by educating and training other health professionals. By incorporating knowledge from health psychology, physicians, nurses, nutritionists, and other health practitioners can better incorporate psychological approaches into how they treat patients.
American Psychological Association. Society for Health Psychology.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality in the United States, 2017. Updated November 29, 2018.
DeStasio KL, Clithero JA, Berkman ET. Neuroeconomics, health psychology, and the interdisciplinary study of preventative health behavior. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2019;13(10):e12500. doi:10.1111/spc3.12500
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC National Health Report Highlights.
Mason PH, Roy A, Spillane J, Singh P. Social, historical and cultural dimensions of tuberculosis. J Biosoc Sci. 2016;48(2):206–232. doi:10.1017/S0021932015000115
Baum A, Revenson TA, Singer JE. Handbook of Health Psychology. Second Edition. Psychology Press; 2012.
Brannon L, Updegraff JA, Feist J. Health Psychology: An Introduction to Behavior and Health. Cengage Learning; 2014.