Defining Health Psychology And Its Uses

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated July 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It isn't always easy to maintain good health. Sometimes, you may need help preventing, managing, or recovering from illness. When you do, a health psychologist is a good resource to call on. However, many people aren't familiar with the concept of a health psychologist. In this article, we explain what the field of health psychology is, and how getting therapy may improve your health.

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Physical and mental health are intertwined

Health psychology is a subfield of psychology that focuses specifically on how physical, social, cultural, mental, and emotional factors impact a person's health and their health-related behaviors. Health psychologists work to promote health and prevent illness and disease. They study how people react to, cope with, and recover from illness. By observing behavioral patterns that may lead to improved or worsened health, health psychologists strive to help people live healthier, longer lives.

Although psychology has been concerned with health for a very long time, health psychology as a distinct field is relatively young. This field emerged during the 1970s, and at the time, primarily focused on the avoidance of infectious diseases. With the average life expectancy in the United States hovering around 80 years old, some leading causes of death now include chronic diseases rather than infectious diseases. Many of these chronic diseases can be linked to lifestyle. As a result, health psychology has shifted to focus on measures to prevent the development of chronic diseases and to address lifestyle behaviors.

While not everyone who exhibits certain behavioral or psychological risk factors will develop chronic illness, the presence of these does increase the possibility of them developing. Examples of illnesses that have been linked to behavioral or psychological risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • HIV/AIDS

Determining risk factors related to health psychology

The concept of health psychology is based on an approach called the biopsychosocial model. According to this model, health and illness result from the combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Together, each of these factors contributes to a person's well-being.

Social factors

Many people do not realize the impact that social factors can have on an individual's health. For example, if a person has peers who believe in pseudoscientific alternatives to scientifically proven treatments, they may decline medical care that could have been beneficial, which could be detrimental to their health and psychology.

On the other hand, having a strong support system could provide the emotional strength that one needs to make tough decisions about health care and psychology. Additionally, simple pleasures, such as an outing with friends or family, for example, may lead to a positive outlook and offer a way to relax when feeling stressed.

Biological factors

Anything related to a person’s physiological or genetic makeup is considered a biological factor. Some individuals are genetically predisposed to certain illnesses or diseases. However, a genetic predisposition doesn't mean a person will necessarily develop illness. Genetics and environment interact to determine health outcomes.

Environmental factors

The external physical environment a person finds themselves in can have a positive or negative impact on their health and wellness. For example, people who live in areas where there is a lot of pollution may be exposed to toxins that contribute to illness, which is a public health concern. Those who live in areas with little pollution and fresh, clean air may be exposed to fewer toxins. Additionally, those individuals may choose to participate in more outdoor activities, which can also improve overall health.

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Some environmental factors are within a person's control. For example, what you allow in your home and personal space can impact your health. Keeping your environment clean and dust-free are simple ways to promote wellness. In addition to impacting physical health, your environment can also influence your psychological well-being.

Psychological and behavioral factors

Thoughts and behavior choices can have an impact on overall health. Having a positive attitude, for example, may help individuals feel more motivated to live a healthy lifestyle and to avoid destructive or risky behaviors. Individuals who ruminate on negative thoughts are more likely to participate in behaviors that could cause harm or illness, such as smoking, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, or using recreational drugs, for instance. 

Can health psychology help you?

As society becomes more health-conscious, people are seeking out more psychology/health-related information. Health psychology can help educate people about their own health and possible risk factors.

The role of a health psychologist

Health psychologists provide care in the areas of preventative medicine, with the aim of helping prevent illness before it starts whenever possible. Preventative measures may include educating people about healthy diet and exercise regimens, what behaviors are considered unhealthy or risky, and how to maintain a positive outlook to help combat stress, anxiety, or depression. 

Health psychologists can work in a variety of different types of settings.

In medical clinics, health psychologists may educate patients on how to make healthy lifestyle changes, adapt to medical changes, and learn effective coping mechanisms that promote mental wellness. In these psychology clinics, a health psychologist works with a primary care provider to determine appropriate treatment based on an individual's physical, behavioral, and social traits, as well as available resources.

Health psychologists may be found in mental health psychology clinics as well. Here, they may contribute to patient care for those who first present with a mental health challenge. In this instance, a health psychologist may educate patients on ways to effectively manage mental and emotional concerns that, if not treated, could contribute to physical illness.

Your attitude about your health

Learning to address your health issues with a positive state of mind can make a difference in your overall well-being. Even when an illness is present, your emotional response to it can help the experience seem less traumatic. If you have reached a place in your physical and mental health where you think you need additional help, you may want to consider therapy.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you're dealing with health issues, you could find it challenging to fit yet another in-person appointment into your already-packed schedule. Online therapy provides a convenient alternative. With internet-based counseling, you can meet with a qualified mental health professional from the comfort of your home. This allows you increased discretion and saves time by letting you skip the commute to a therapist’s office. 

Online counseling has been repeatedly shown to deliver the same outcomes as in-person treatment. An analysis of 25 research studies found that remote mental health care is capable of helping people with a variety of mental health concerns, and can be particularly helpful for people living in isolated areas.

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Physical and mental health are intertwined

At BetterHelp, our team of experienced and accredited psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and board-licensed professional counselors are available for you to meet with from the comfort and convenience of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection. Here are two reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have received their help:

Counselor reviews

“I met Dr. Harrell through BetterHelp in the toughest phase of my life, with no hope or beacon of light in my dark tunnel. She turned that around 180 degrees by giving me more to think about and live for. She keeps instilling strength in me and helps me reaffirm positivity. I am recovering better mentally and physically. I know it’s a tough road ahead, but with Dr. Harrell beside me, I can drive through with confidence and help. Thank you Lord for BetterHelp and Dr. Harrell.”

“Dr. Hopson has been a great help. He understands what I say and gives me a really good analysis of my situation. I have had great pleasure getting therapy from him and I will continue with him as well. The schedules are a little tight sometimes, but he makes sure he helps and puts extra effort into providing me counseling. Thank you so much. I hope I am able to recover completely with his help, it will be an accomplishment for both me and Dr. Hopson.” 

Takeaway

Wellness is affected by social, biological, and environmental factors. Health psychology can help you understand what factors contribute to your overall health and wellness, as well as how to address risk factors. When risk factors are identified, reaching out for help via online therapy can be a critical move in the prevention of long-term negative effects. No matter what you're experiencing, a fulfilling life is possible. All you need are the right tools. Take the first step with BetterHelp today.
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