According to the American Psychological Association, health psychologists “help patients manage chronic disease and avoid preventable diseases” by “incorporating psychological theory and research to develop methods to assist patients in maintaining healthy lifestyles.”
If you haven’t yet heard of health psychology, you will soon. Clinical health psychologist Amanda Withrow, Ph.D., who has spent over a decade working with patients with chronic illnesses, says health psychology has seen significant growth in the last 30 years.
This could reflect the shift that’s occurring in the way we perceive our health. According to Withrow, 50 to 60 years ago, “physicians had the final word [and] everybody respected that. You did what the doctor said. You didn’t argue. And you didn’t do your own research. Today, patients advocate for their own health. They do their own research. They challenge doctors. They make choices about what they want their quality of life to be.” And although we are still trying to understand the body, “there are certain things that are within our control.”
In a sentence, that is what health psychologists strive to do — educate and inform patients so that they can take control of their health. But what exactly is health psychology? Can a health psychologist potentially help you? Read on to get a detailed look at this burgeoning field from two health psychologists.
What Is Health Psychology? How Can It Help You?
“Health psychology really comes from where medicine and psychology can work symbiotically,” Withrow said. It is taking our knowledge of mind and body and using it to understand and help individuals cope better, manage their pain and essentially learn to empower themselves.
Health psychology encompasses a wide range of issues — from chronic pain to terminal illness — with the goals of helping people improve their quality of life and addressing specific health issues. Maureen Lyon, Ph.D., clinical health psychologist and associate research professor in pediatrics at George Washington University, said, “Health psychologists do a lot of prevention work around a range of issues from preventing obesity, maintaining a positive outlook in life, preventing anxiety and depression and trying to enhance the quality of life of individuals.”
Health psychologists also play a big role in the military, helping soldiers and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), life adjustment and suicide prevention.
They also promote healthy behaviors and deal with underlying psychological issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. Unlike other clinical psychologists, Withrow explained that health psychologists are trained to know about the “disease processes and physiology and how the mind and body can work together on what’s going on with a specific illness in order to help that person deal with whatever issues they are being presented with.”
A person who has insomnia, for example, may work with a health psychologist on creating a regular bedtime routine, limiting their caffeine intake and participating in relaxation activities before bed. Someone who is suffering from chronic pain could also benefit from seeing a health psychologist. While health psychologists do not solely advocate patients to stop taking their medication, Withrow said, “there are a lot of things we can do behaviorally, things we can do using your mind and behavior to better manage pain without needing to rely on medication or on the same dosage of medication.” For example, stress management tools and relaxation techniques can help chronic pain patients cope more effectively with stress. This is important, she said, since stress often exacerbates pain.
Understanding the Thoughts Behind Behavior
One of the ways health psychologists help patients is through education. They inform patients on a basic level about their body and their illness. If patients can understand why their body is acting or reacting a certain way, then they will be able to understand how things like stress management, for example, can help.
Another part of patient education is learning about the relationship between thought and behavior. Withrow gives an example of a person with chronic pain. On a good day, this person may overcompensate by doing too much. As a result, stress and fatigue may cause an increase in pain. A health psychologist would then work with this patient on trying to find ways to “keep a consistent level of activity.”
She also uses cognitive tools to help patients. “If you’re really, really worried about something, if you really think there’s going to be a flareup, you may think yourself into a flareup instead of being able to step back and taking a more objective look.” Using cognitive-behavioral techniques can help patients reduce their pain and anxiety and could potentially reduce their dependency on medication.
Health Psychology’s Holistic Approach
Health psychology provides a holistic perspective to health. It takes into account not only a person’s physical illness and symptoms but also their life experience. According to Withrow, this means that patients should be seen in context, “not just what’s going on physically and emotionally, but what their relationships are like, how much support they have, their community and how all that fits together to present the person we’re seeing in front of us.” The information they collect about a patient includes biological characteristics (e.g., genetic predisposition to illness), behavior (stress, negative thoughts, values) and social factors (social support, relationships).