Introduction to Health Psychology

Introducing Health Psychology

Health psychology is the application of psychological theory and research to health, illness, and healthcare.

Learning Objectives

Define the focus and goals of the field of health psychology

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Health psychology is concerned with the psychology of a range of health-related behaviors, including healthy eating, the doctor-patient relationship, a patient’s understanding of health information, and beliefs about illness.
  • The biopsychosocial model views health and illness as the product of biological characteristics (genes), behavioral factors (lifestyle, stress, health beliefs), and social conditions (cultural influences, family relationships, social support).
  • Clinical health psychology (CIHP) refers to the application of scientific knowledge, derived from the field of health psychology, to clinical questions that may arise across the spectrum of healthcare.
  • Public health psychology (PHP) is population oriented, investigating potential causal links between psychosocial factors and health at the population level.
  • Community health psychology (CoHP) investigates community factors that contribute to the health and well-being of individuals in their communities.
  • Critical health psychology (CrHP) is concerned with the distribution of power and the impact of power differentials on health experience and behavior, healthcare systems, and health policy.

Key Terms

  • public health: The science and practice of community hygiene; includes preventive medicine, health education, sanitation and environmental safety.
  • health psychology: a discipline concerned with understanding how biological, psychological, environmental, and cultural factors are involved in physical health and the prevention of illness.
  • biopsychosocial: Having biological, psychological and social characteristics

Health psychology, often referred to as behavioral medicine or medical psychology, is the application of psychological theory to health-related practices. The field of health psychology includes two sub-fields. Behavioral health focuses on prevention of health problems and illnesses, while behavioral medicine focuses on treatment. Health psychology is concerned with the psychology of a range of health-related behaviors, including nutrition, exercise, healthcare utilization, and medical decision-making.

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“Healthy eating tips” by the U.S. National Cancer Institute: Nutrition is often researched by health psychologists.

The Biopsychosocial Model

The biopsychosocial model views health and illness behaviors as products of biological characteristics (such as genes), behavioral factors (such as lifestyle, stress, and health beliefs), and social conditions (such as cultural influences, family relationships, and social support). Health psychologists work with healthcare professionals and patients to help people deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness. This can include developing treatment protocols to increase adherence to medical treatments, weight loss programs, smoking cessation, etc. Their research often focuses on prevention and intervention programs designed to promote healthier lifestyles (e.g., exercise and nutrition programs).

Goals of Health Psychology

There are eight major goals of health psychology:

  1. understanding behavioral and contextual factors for health and illness
  2. preventing illness
  3. investigating the effects of disease
  4. providing critical analyses of health policies
  5. conducting research on prevention of and intervention in health problems
  6. improving doctor-patient communication
  7. improving adherence to medical advice
  8. finding treatments to manage pain.

Focuses of Health Psychology

Health psychology addresses individual and population-level issues across four domains: clinical, public, community, and critical (social justice).

Clinical Health Psychology

Clinical health psychology refers to the application of scientific knowledge to clinical questions that arise across the spectrum of healthcare. Because it focuses on the prevention and treatment of health problems, clinical health psychology is a specialty practice area for clinical psychologists. Clinical practice includes education on mechanisms of behavior change and psychotherapy.

Public Health Psychology

Public health psychology investigates potential causal links between psychosocial factors and health at the population level. Public health psychologists present research results on epidemiological findings related to health behaviors to educators, policy makers, and health care providers in order to promote public health initiatives for at-risk groups.

Community Health Psychology

Community health psychology investigates community factors that contribute to the health and well-being. Community health psychology also develops community-level interventions that are designed to combat disease and promote physical and mental health. Examples of community health initiatives might be efforts to eliminate soft drinks from schools, diabetes awareness events, etc.

Critical Health Psychology

Critical health psychology is concerned with the distribution of power and the impact of power differentials on health behaviors, healthcare systems, and health policy. Critical health psychology prioritizes social justice and the universal right to good health for people of all races, genders, ages, and socioeconomic positions. A major concern is health inequality, and the critical health psychologist acts as an agent of change working to create equal access to healthcare.

The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Illness

The biopsychosocial model states that health and illness are determined by a dynamic interaction between biological, psychological, and social factors.

Learning Objectives

Explain the biopsychosocial model of health and illness

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • According to the biopsychosocial model, it is the deep interrelation of all three factors (biological, psychological, social) that leads to a given outcome—each component on its own is insufficient to lead definitively to health or illness.
  • The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model seeks to find a psychological foundation for a particular symptom or array of symptoms (e.g., impulsivity, irritability, overwhelming sadness, etc.).
  • Social and cultural factors are conceptualized as a particular set of stressful events (being laid off, for example) that may differently impact the mental health of people from different social environments and histories.
  • Despite its usefulness, there are issues with the biopsychosocial model, including the degree of influence that each factor has, the degree of interaction between factors, and variation across individuals and life spans.

Key Terms

  • biopsychosocial: Referring to the idea that the mind and the body are inseparable entities.
  • monozygotic: Developed from a single fertilized ovum.

The biopsychosocial model of health and illness is a framework developed by George L. Engel that states that interactions between biological, psychological, and social factors determine the cause, manifestation, and outcome of wellness and disease. Historically, popular theories like the nature versus nurture debate posited that any one of these factors was sufficient to change the course of development. The biopsychosocial model argues that any one factor is not sufficient; it is the interplay between people’s genetic makeup (biology), mental health and behavior (psychology), and social and cultural context that determine the course of their health-related outcomes.

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Biopsychosocial model of health and illness: This diagram shows how biological, psychological, and sociological factors overlap to determine overall health.

Biological Influences on Health

Biological influences on health include an individual’s genetic makeup and history of physical trauma or infection. Many disorders have an inherited genetic vulnerability. The greatest single risk factor for developing schizophrenia, for example is having a first-degree relative with the disease (risk is 6.5%); more than 40% of monozygotic twins of those with schizophrenia are also affected. If one parent is affected the risk is about 13%; if both are affected the risk is nearly 50%.

It is clear that genetics have an important role in the development of schizophrenia, but equally clear is that there must be other factors at play. Certain non-biological (i.e., environmental) factors influence the expression of the disorder in those with a pre-existing genetic risk.

Psychological Influences on Health

The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model seeks to find a psychological foundation for a particular symptom or array of symptoms (e.g., impulsivity, irritability, overwhelming sadness, etc.). Individuals with a genetic vulnerability may be more likely to display negative thinking that puts them at risk for depression; alternatively, psychological factors may exacerbate a biological predisposition by putting a genetically vulnerable person at risk for other risk behaviors. For example, depression on its own may not cause liver problems, but a person with depression may be more likely to abuse alcohol, and, therefore, develop liver damage. Increased risk-taking leads to an increased likelihood of disease.

Social Influences on Health

Social factors include socioeconomic status, culture, technology, and religion. For instance, losing one’s job or ending a romantic relationship may place one at risk of stress and illness. Such life events may predispose an individual to developing depression, which may, in turn, contribute to physical health problems. The impact of social factors is widely recognized in mental disorders like anorexia nervosa (a disorder characterized by excessive and purposeful weight loss despite evidence of low body weight). The fashion industry and the media promote an unhealthy standard of beauty that emphasizes thinness over health. This exerts social pressure to attain this “ideal” body image despite the obvious health risks.

Cultural Factors

Also included in the social domain are cultural factors. For instance, differences in the circumstances, expectations, and belief systems of different cultural groups contribute to different prevalence rates and symptom expression of disorders. For example, anorexia is less common in non-western cultures because they put less emphasis on thinness in women.

Culture can vary across a small geographic range, such as from lower-income to higher-income areas, and rates of disease and illness differ across these communities accordingly. Culture can even change biology, as research on epigenetics is beginning to show. Specifically, research on epigenetics suggests that the environment can actually alter an individual’s genetic makeup. For instance, research shows that individuals exposed to over-crowding and poverty are more at risk for developing depression with actual genetic mutations forming over only a single generation.

Application of the Biopsychosocial Model

The biopsychosocial model states that the workings of the body, mind, and environment all affect each other. According to this model, none of these factors in isolation is sufficient to lead definitively to health or illness—it is the deep interrelation of all three components that leads to a given outcome.

Health promotion must address all three factors, as a growing body of empirical literature suggests that it is the combination of health status, perceptions of health, and sociocultural barriers to accessing health care that influence the likelihood of a patient engaging in health-promoting behaviors, like taking medication, proper diet or nutrition, and engaging in physical activity.