All About Health Psychology
The Mind-Body (Biopsychosocial) Perspective
The field of Health Psychology, although in its infancy, has grown significantly in understanding factors that contribute to our overall health. What Health Psychologists realize now is that health is not determined by one factor alone - such as physical fitness - but that there are at least three factors that combine and interact to create a healthy person:
- Our biology
- Our psychology
- Our social support system
So, modern Health Psychologists operate from the mind-body perspective and assert that our health is best explained in terms of all three contexts.
The Biological Context
Genetics: Health psychologists focus on the parts of our body that influence health and disease:
- Our genes
- Our nervous system
- Our immune system
- Our endocrine system
Our DNA is a guideline that predisposes us to certain healthy or unhealthy behaviors. But, biology and behavior constantly interact making us more or less prone to stress-related illness.
Life Course Perspective
Within the biological context, health psychologists also consider age-related aspects of health and illness. For instance, chronic illnesses are the leading causes of death in middle-age and older adults. Whereas, young people are much more likely to die from an accident.
Example: Factors that Come Together to Determine Alcohol Abuse
Environmental and Cultural Influences
The Psychological Context
Health psychologists are often focused on how our health is influenced by how we appraise or interpret events (see: Benefits of Optimism for Stress Management) and how our body chemistry reacts to our interpretation.
Health psychologists try to teach patients how to prevent illness by managing their daily stressors (see: Coping with Stress at Work and How to Cope with Stressful Situations) and try to help patients develop a more positive attitude toward treatments, thereby increasing the treatment's chances for success.
For example, among those who experience severe, chronic or critical pain, along with the physical treatments, a doctor may prescribe visits to a therapist who can teach the patient Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps the person reappraise their pain and directs their thinking away from the pain to more positive thoughts. CBT eventually creates different pathways among the neurons in our brains so that positive thinking is more instinctual than negative thinking or a sole focus on our pain. It becomes easier to think about a time when the pain will ease and allows us to distract away from negative thoughts in the meantime.
The Social Context
Health psychologists also factor into our health, the way we think about and relate to others. In addition, social factors such as gender, family, community, nation, socioeconomic status, race, culture, and ethnic identity create a social context that is unique to each of us and affects how we view certain experiences, our beliefs, and our behaviors, including those related to health.
Health Psychology and the Biopsychosocial System
By definition, a system at any given level is affected by and affects systems at other levels. So, a person who has not effectively dealt with their stress develops a weakened immune system that affects body organs, which affect his biological health, which then might affect his relationships with friends and family. Using this system approach, health psychology helps us understand the whole person and all factors that contribute to or reduce our overall health.