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What is Health Psychology?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Health psychology, also called behavioral medicine or medical psychology, is a branch of study that examines the interrelationship between biology, social factors and behavior. While the physician treats a disease, a practicing health psychologist would want to know more about the person with the disease. They might want to understand their educational or socioeconomic background, the behaviors that might influence the disease like compliance with taking medication, and the biological reasons for the disease. By analyzing disease in the context of what are called biopsychosocial factors, health psychology aims at helping to improve overall heatlh.

A health psychologist is first and foremost, a psychologist, usually with a Ph.D in psychology. There are now numerous schools that offer specialization in health psychology and even undergraduate programs may offer a class or two on the subject. What health psychology posits is that treating disease or preventing it must look at the big picture of the person’s behaviors, thoughts, and social standing.

Health psychology might best be explained with the concept of smoking addiction. A person addicted to nicotine is physically addicted and will go through withdrawal symptoms if he stops smoking. This is just one aspect of addiction to smoking.

The smoker is also psychologically addicted to smoking. The smoker gains rewards, however temporary, from each cigarette. It may offer a time to relax, give the person a chance to cool down, or help suppress the appetite. The smoker can also be behaviorally addicted to smoking, especially if he or she has smoked for a long time, meaning he or she has amassed certain routines surrounding smoking, like having a smoke after dinner, or smoking in the car. Lastly, the way the person culturally relates to smoking matters. Studies in sociology, for instance show a greater acceptance of smoking among people with less education and lower socioeconomic status.

To the health psychologist, all these factors must be addressed if you want to get a person to stop smoking. You have to address physical addiction, psychological addiction, longtime behaviors and the person’s viewpoint on smoking. Trying to get the person to quit smoking by addressing only one of these things is likely to be unsuccessful. A smoker can use a nicotine patch to help address physical addiction, but if his overall feeling about smoking is that it’s not a bad thing to do, his success rate will be minimal. Also, if behaviors centered on smoking are not changed or alternate rewards for ceasing smoking aren't in place, quitting is not likely to be successful.

In this way, health psychology addresses the whole person, rather than a health condition. The health condition is always symptomatic of the whole person, rather than an isolated event. Health has as much to do with the social and emotional being as it does with disease.

Health psychology has numerous applications. Health psychologists might work in a research context, figuring out ways to better address the social and psychological factors of disease. You might notice pamphlets on quitting smoking which emphasize not only stopping smoking but also giving tips for ways to be successful that include behavioral modifications.

Health psychology in research can also examine the way in which doctors and patients interact, and how likely it is that a patient will follow a doctor’s advice or even understand what the doctor had to say. They may also study ways in which healthy behavior models can be taught to different groups of people. For example, the way you address teens on the issue of sexual education is likely to have an effect on their understanding of sex, birth control, abstinence and disease prevention, and their sexual behavior.

Health psychology has broad applications in clinical practice. Health psychologists work alongside other members of the medical and mental health field in inpatient facilities, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, and in medical centers dedicated to the treatment of certain diseases like cancer. It's common to hear the term “mind/body” approach. This is the province of the health psychologist, who realizes that the mind definitely affects the body.

In research, clinical practice, teaching, and also in developing public policy, health psychologists are assets. With the mind body approach, health psychology focuses on the overall health of each individual. The hope, as with health ecology, is that greater understanding of the whole of the person leads to better health and encourages healthy mind/body behavior.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By GigaGold — On Dec 26, 2010


I think that this instance could be compared to disorders such as anorexia, where people overreact to a perceived fear. The fear is often legitimate: being overweight and/or unhealthy is a bad thing; nevertheless these reactions can be even more unhealthy than the things they are reacting to.

It is important to educate hypochondriacs in how and why a measured response is sufficient, and to calm fears they might have about the world. Sometimes, these disorders are a result of a chemical imbalance of dopamine, which is closely tied to reward-seeking behaviors, and may require immediate psychiatric attention.

By Proxy414 — On Dec 24, 2010

My sister is a hypochondriac and health freak. She is constantly washing her hands and trying to ward off germs. How might Health Psychology enable her to take it easy?

By Renegade — On Dec 22, 2010


I found this to be true in rehab and money training: when I recognize the utter importance of saving money or of quitting an alcohol addiction, I do things about it. We are motivated by both fear and reward, and when the fear is shown to be great and reward are shown to be attainable, we work toward positive action.

By TrogJoe19 — On Dec 20, 2010

It is helpful to fully recognize the reasons behind why smoking is bad in order to be motivated to drop the habit. People constantly reason with themselves that what they do is "OK," and have been numbed to do all sorts of things on a regular basis without any qualms whatsoever. Alerting them to just how serious the things they do are takes time, and in the end, if successful, it will cause them to look back on their old habits with disgust, never wanting to return to them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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