What Is Health Psychology?

Health Psychology
Health psychology focuses on how psychological, biological and social factors influence health and illness. Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Health psychology is a specialty area that focuses on how biology, psychology, behavior, and social factors influence health and illness. Other terms including medical psychology and behavioral medicine are sometimes used interchangeably with the term health psychology.

Health and illness are influenced by a wide variety of factors. While contagious and hereditary illness are common, there are many behavioral and psychological factors that can impact overall physical well-being and various medical conditions.

A Quick Overview of Health Psychology

  • The field of health psychology is focused on promoting health as well as the prevention and treatment of disease and illness.
  • Health psychologists also focus on understanding how people react, cope and recover from illness.
  • Some health psychologists work to improve the health care system and the government's approach to health care policy.

Division 38 of the American Psychological Association is devoted to health psychology. According to the division, their focus is on better understanding health and illness, studying the psychological factors that impact health and contributing to the health care system and health policy.

How Does Health Psychology Differ From Other Areas of Psychology?

So what makes health psychology unique? In what way does it contribute to our understanding of health and wellness?

"Given its emphasis on behavior and behavioral change, psychology has a unique contribution to make," suggests Division 38 of the APA.

"For example, Health Psychologists are currently conducting applied research on the development of healthy habits as well as the prevention or reduction of unhealthy behaviors. The impact of behavior on health and the influence of health and disease states on psychological factors are being explored."

Illnesses Related Psychological and Behavioral Factors

Some illnesses that are related to psychological or behavioral factors include:

  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Birth defects and infant mortality
  • Infectious diseases

According to one study (Mokdad et al., 2004) nearly half of all deaths in the United States can be linked to behaviors or other risk factors that are mostly preventable. Health psychologists work with individuals, groups and communities to decrease these risk factors, improve overall health and reduce illness.

Current Issues in Health Psychology

While health psychologists engage in a wide variety of activities, the following are just a few of the current issues in health psychology:

  • Stress reduction
  • Weight management
  • Smoking cessation
  • Improving daily nutrition
  • Reducing risky sexual behaviors
  • Hospice care and grief counseling for terminal patients

Understanding the Biosocial Model in Health Psychology

Today, the main approach used within health psychology is known as the biosocial model. According to this view, illness and health are the result of a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.

  • Psychological factors involve lifestyle, personality characteristics and stress levels.
  • Social factors include such things as social support systems, family relationships and cultural beliefs.

How Can Health Psychology Help You?

Health psychology is a rapidly growing field. As increasing numbers of people seek to take control of their own health, more and more people are seeking health-related information and resources. Health psychologists are focused on educating people about their own health and well-being, so they are perfectly suited to fill this rising demand.

Healthy psychology can benefit individuals in a number of different ways.

Many professionals in this field work specifically in the areas of prevention and focus on helping people prevent health problems before they start. This may include helping people maintain a healthy weight, avoid risky or unhealthy behaviors and maintain a positive outlook that can combat stress, depression, and anxiety.

If you are struggling to make healthy changes in your life, dealing with this onset of illness, or facing some other type of health problem, seeing a health psychologist is one way to help start you off on the right foot. By consulting with one of these professionals, you can gain access to support and resources designed to help you cope with your illness and achieve your health goals.


Mokdad, A. H. Marks, J. S. Stroup, D. F. Gerberding, J. L.  Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000; 291(10): 1238-1245.

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