In the field of physical health and psychological well-being, health psychology specializes in exploring biological, psychological, cultural, societal, and environmental factors of life, and how each of these affects physical health. There are some who embrace the spiritual or religious aspects to this model; however, traditionally the model includes biological, psychological, and social components. While it may be common knowledge among certain populations about the negative effects that a person’s emotional mindset can have on their health, there continues to be a surprising amount of denial about the interactivity of these aspects in a person’s life. Physical Health can be directly affected by the environment in which we live.
What is Health Psychology?
Physical Health can be affected by the things that people do, by the way they process information, career choice, family dynamics, life troubles and the environment in which we live. For example, someone living in a damp, mildew infested home will probably over time develop respiratory or sinus problems and at times may develop allergies.
When assisting people develop a healthier lifestyle, a person’s career choice is another area that health psychology explores. There is a direct relationship between choices of work and physical and emotional health. The more frustrating the project the more risk people are placing themselves in to developing an emotional and or psychological illness. Stress level is one of the key factors related to psychological factors affecting physical health. When a person is under pressure, their body produces chemicals and hormones that the body does not require, and some may be harmful. These difficult conditions and the release of the chemicals results in a weakening of the immune system. This weakened immune system means that people are more susceptible to physical and mental ailments.
Sometimes when people feel sick, tired, or overrun, or when they develop certain diseases, it is not in response to a virus or bacteria infiltrating the immune system, but rather a response to what is happening within the body, brain and subconscious mind. Catching a cold is only one example. Take heart, I am obviously not leaving out the biological component, meaning the virus that attacked the weakened immune system. Heart related conditions, breathing conditions, muscle and joint pain conditions and various physical ailments are common among people coping with the emotional and psychological stresses of modern day life. The release of the “stress” chemicals in the body weakens the body’s defenses in fighting a physical illness. The more people understand the power of the mind, the more they will realize that physical well-being directly relates to thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Physical Health and Genetics
People born from alcoholic parents tend to have more addictive personalities than those whose parents were not alcoholic. Some emotional and mental ailments directly relate to the abuse endured in childhood, others tend to be more genetic in nature. However, psychological, social and environmental factors all play key prominent roles in managing addictions, along with this genetic tendency.
For example, one way to describe the basics of health psychology is by exploring the smoking addiction. Part of the smoking habit is the physical component of addiction to nicotine as withdrawal symptoms set in once the process of quitting begins. A typical physician will prescribe medicines to suppress the physical addiction symptoms of withdrawal, treating the smoking addiction as any problem. However, studies show that there is a remarkably strong probability that the individual will just start smoking again. A chain smoker that uses a nicotine patch may have difficulty quitting if they continue to believe that smoking is not harmful, or that smoking helps to relax. In these cases, even with the patch, the smoker may easily return to smoking. The average counselor or physician is only treating the physical withdrawal aspects of smoking. There is a psychological component to the addiction as the smoker stands to gain rewards, no matter how temporary from each cigarette. Smoking may suppress the appetite, offer an opportunity to relax and unwind, or provide a momentary distraction to current stresses. There is also a behavioral aspect to smoking, such as always lighting up when getting in the car, having a cigarette right after dinner, or using a cigarette as a stress reliever.
How Society and Cultural Factors play Key Roles in Physical Health
Expectations and gender roles can put a large amount of pressure on someone to behave and act in a distinct fashion. Racism and religious factors often are stressors in people’s lives and over time these stressors have an impact on overall health. For example, white, middle-class people tend to have better overall health than inner-city minorities. Health psychology explores the underlying factors that have a direct and indirect impact on people’s quality of life.
Every year scientists are discovering new insights into how the brain, body and mind inter-relate. How do they relate to each other in harmony? The human brain is one of the most intricate, mysterious, and powerful organs in the entire universe. Science has been able to conjure up ideas and concepts in mathematics that had never been considered, and some imagine worlds that do not exist. For example, telekinesis is in the infancy stages in terms of being a proven ability. However, this idea stems from people wanting to explore the unknown aspects of the brain and its’ seemingly limitless potential.
There is a distinctive respect for what the brain is capable of achieving in relation to medicine and psychology. We understand much more today than we did even twenty years ago regarding the interaction of emotions and pain, of the thought processes involving healing and the remarkable healing powers of the human body.
Research has discovered that people whose parents suffer from certain diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension, or even addictions, are predisposed to getting these conditions. This is a genetic predisposition. Biology certainly does play a central role in the health and well-being of everyone. However, psychological, environmental and cultural factors also play key roles in any illness and effects biology.
For example, if mothers were to be diagnosed with breast cancer when they were in their late-thirties or early-forties then most medical professionals would encourage daughters to obtain a screening regularly once they have reached a certain age. It would not matter whether they stayed indoors away from the damaging rays of the sun or that they did not smoke. They are a cancer risk because of the genetic predisposition for the disease that runs in the family history. However, there is no guarantee that daughters of mothers that had breast cancer will suffer the same. It simply means that the DNA (the genetic material that people share with their family) may include a marker that leaves people more susceptible to the disease more than someone else who does not have this marker.
The Bio-Psycho-Social Model as it Applies to Health Psychology
When health psychologists talk about the bio-psycho-social model, behaviors are key ingredients contributing to physical health. Do people smoke? Do they drink alcohol regularly? Do they eat junk food? Have a stressful job? Are finances tough? Do people exercise regularly? How is the family? How is the social life? These are just a few questions that a health psychologist may explore. There are behavioral and social conditions that directly or indirectly affect the state of overall physical health.
Millions of people around the country and the world are under tremendous amounts of stress as the economy is suffering and unemployment remains high. People who are employed are working more hours and are taking on more responsibilities, for less pay. Those that have lost their jobs worry about paying their bills, feeding their families and holding onto what they have worked so hard to achieve in the past.
Stress derives from the instinctual nature of the desire to survive and the psychological community labels this concept the ‘fight or flight’ response. When the brain perceives a threat to the body, whether that threat is real or a product of the imagination the brain responds as if in danger. The brain calls for adrenaline to be pumped throughout the body, which allows it to run faster (away from the problem) or fight with a bit more strength than it naturally possesses (face the problem). This fight or flight response and the adrenaline that is produced are only meant to be sustained for brief periods of time, for survival. The physical body is under constant tension adapting to the “fight or flight response” especially when people are facing chronic stress at home or work.
As a result, people tend to feel run down and tired more often, they may experience aching joints, muscle aches, lower back pain, headaches and increases in blood pressure. All of which are the common side effects of repeated stress and increases in adrenaline. The key is how people recognize and respond to stress and how this relates to behavior. While some do not tend to think about stress as being abnormal, it does indeed take a heavy toll on a person, both physically and emotionally. Health Psychologists work in clinical settings promoting behavioral change, which relates to everyday stressors of life. They inform the public, conduct research, teach at universities, and work in the field of sports medicine.
For centuries, an opinion persists among the general public, medical community and especially among those who subscribe to the ‘tough love’ theory that emotional makeup should not, and does not have any effect on physical health. It is common for these people to say, “Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move on”, when faced with financial, work, relationship or personal problems. Physicians, stymied by patients’ symptoms still too frequently say “it’s all in your mind” or, much worse simply write a prescription. These health providers are attempting to help, however, they are also unknowingly creating more complications related to improving and treating their patients’ on the quality of life principle. Most health providers today will accept the principles of health psychology, yet, they do not seem to use them enough in practice. This applied science has not yet been solidified in the physicians mind to applying the theory in their practice, which in turn directly affects any patients’ quality of life.
Health psychology’s roots are in the belief that everyone deserves proper medical and psychological care even when daily habits, career, or family life problems contribute to a decrease in physical health and/or psychological well-being. The bio-psycho-social model views health, wellness and illness as being a result of several different inter-related factors affecting a person’s life from biological characteristics, to behavioral and social conditions.
Imagine by changing the way people think and cope with aspects of life can move them in a direction towards pain-free living, assist in decreasing blood pressure by learning a few techniques. Applying and believing in this concept will increase people’s quality of life. While healing with “health psychology” is certainly much more complicated than simply changing a thought or behavior, most people did not believe in this concept and until recently has been ignored by those in the medical community.
My ailments are real, patients will say, “They are not in my head.”
Some patients and physicians view health psychology concepts as being a personal affront to gaining knowledge and do not believe that pain relates to overall emotional well-being. Others fear that people working in the health psychology fields will judge them or their pain as being “abnormal.” Some medical professionals, attempt to discredit patient complaints of pain and intimidate people into making them believe that the problem simply does not exist and that it is all a figment of the imagination. This is not true; there is a relationship between the physical brain and pain or disease process that people experience. The problem may simply not be medically proven, or the location of pain cannot be found in the body at the time.
Do not be tricked into believing that an illness is a figment of imagination as this belief may cause psychological problems and increase physical symptoms. The above thoughts are sincere and generalized examples of what I mean when I say that healing comes, in part, from the underlying psychological aspects of the mind (thoughts and feelings), behaviors and the brain. Clinical Health Psychologists labeled this way of thinking as being a bio-psycho-social model. The model encourages a positive shift in the way people think about health, illness, and healing. Health Psychology is a relatively new sub-category of psychology and is not well known to many people.
Clinical Health Psychology attempts to provide answers to the following questions:
- What is the relationship between emotional health, wellness and physical illness?
- What is the connection between the body, mind and environment?
- What role does psychology play in health and disease?
- How should a particular illness be treated?
The world of health psychology is changing lives one day at a time and with some expert guidance and support people can experience the healthy, vibrant life that they desire and all it takes is unlocking the secrets of the brain, body, and emotions. A simple fact of life is that human beings are extraordinarily complex, and an illness can be the result of a myriad of factors. These factors emerge from biological, psychological and environmental facets of everyday life. Most often medications alone will not provide the positive results necessary for people to achieve maximum health. Just because, medicines do not fully aid in recovery or reduce the pain, does not mean that all options for improvement have been exhausted. Health psychology principles clearly have not been utilized or recognized by conventional western medicine.
In conclusion, Health Psychologists take a more effective approach by exploring the physical, psychological, and behavioral aspects, and consider the problem in a holistic fashion. The practice of using health psychology principles significantly improves the likelihood of successfully quitting any addiction. Health psychology can help people become more physically fit, assist with decreasing chronic pain, improve the quality of life with those diagnosed with a terminal illness, prevent further complications of any serious physical ailment and assist in learning new ways to cope with the tensions that govern everyday life. The Clinical Health Psychologists goal is to encourage people to achieve their full potential and discover new ways to manage a medical condition. We also work with people who want to improve their current physical health by learning motivational techniques that can help them run that marathon, or play a better game of golf or basketball or any sport.
Dr. Cheryl MacDonald, RN., Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego