In the case of a diabetic, Withrow explained that it is important to consider a patient’s resources. Is walking around their neighborhood something they can comfortably and safely do? Are they able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables? If you can understand, for example, what resources are available for that person, you can work with them where they are and with what they have. A full assessment of a person’s situation can better serve the needs of the individual.

How Health Psychologists Empower Patients

Health psychologists provide tools and teach their patients new skills so that they can learn to help themselves. “The nice thing about learning these tools is it puts people in the driver’s seat of their pain and they’re not reliant on their doctors for prescriptions and the pharmacy for filling it or, you know, the insurance company for authorizing it.”

A health psychologist’s role is to provide information so that patients can ultimately make their own informed and conscious decision. “Things we do, what we eat, how we behave, what we think and the medications we take have consequences…I talk about this a lot with pain patients, in that narcotics, opiate medications can be really useful for controlling pain, but they have a lot of side effects and they have a lot of long-term consequences. And being able to consciously make a decision of how much they are going to use, what their limits are, whether they want to use it or not is far better when they can weigh the costs and benefits and consequences and make that conscious decision rather than just taking a passive role and say, ‘Okay, I’m just going to take this for the rest of my life.’”

What You Might Not Know About Health Psychology

According to Lyon, health psychologists work on multidisciplinary teams in integrated care settings including working with physicians, nutritionists, dieticians, and physical therapists. Withrow also adds that they work side by side with physicians so they can discuss and share relevant information to best serve their patient.

In addition to helping doctors with patient compliance and personality conflict between physicians and their patients, they also help doctors and nurses and other health care staff deal with burnout. “Health psychologists working alongside with these providers on a regular basis in these settings have a unique opportunity and potential to really help the providers as much as they do the patients,” said Withrow.

Should You See a Health Psychologist?

Health psychologists see people with a wide range of issues, including cancer, sexual dysfunction, obesity, chronic pain, depression and anxiety. In deciding on whether you should see a health psychologist, Withrow said to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is there a physical illness or chronic illness that’s underlying my depression or anxiety or other issues that I’m seeking help with?
  2. Am I looking to treat a specific symptom (e.g. insomnia, migraines)?
  3. Do I want somebody who will work closely with my physician?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you might want to consider consulting a health psychologist. Although she receives the majority of her patients through doctor referrals, it’s perfectly fine to seek a health psychologist on your own.

How To Find a Health Psychologist

When looking for a health psychologist, Lyon advises interested individuals to find someone who has been certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Most health psychologists are board certified and to find one you can ask your doctor for a referral or go to the APA website. When searching in their database under “psychological locator” look for things like behavioral change, stress management, chronic illness and sexual dysfunction since these are key areas of expertise for a health psychologist.

What You Should Know if You’re Working with a Health Psychologist

Withrow reminds patients that the path toward health and healing takes time. Patients need both determination and patience to be successful. “Sometimes they’ll get a lot of symptom relief or make improvements in a couple of sessions, but sometimes they may not really see the true, full benefit for awhile and it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to actually get to that point.” But she says it’s worth it. “I’ve had patients who have felt really empowered and have had really amazing, life-changing experiences from doing the work.”