Health Psychology

Have you ever flipped through a psychology textbook and thought, “man, humans are really messed up!” Sometimes psychology seems like all negatives: mental disorders, aggression, stress, and statistics. (Especially that last one!) Is there a positive side to psychology?

Health Psychology Health Psychology

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Table of contents
    • What is health psychology?
    • What are the types of careers in health psychology?
    • How does health psychology study mental health?
    • How does health psychology study behavior?
    • What is the biosocial model in health psychology?

    Definition of Health Psychology

    Not everything in psychology is negative; when life is going well, most of the topics are really positive! Human life is great when things like memory, biology, development, and learning go well. How do we know when they are working well? How do we help them work well and improve? Health psychologists answer these kinds of questions!

    Health psychology is about how to reduce or cope with stress, prevent dysfunction, and encourage growth and mental health.

    Take everything you study in psychology and think about it from an optimistic viewpoint. That is health psychology! Health psychologists want to know what biological, psychological, and social factors make people healthy. They also want to know how to change parts of life that contribute to sickness or dysfunction.

    A lot of current health psychology research is about COVID-19’s effects. What are some consequences of being stuck at home for months? How are different age groups dealing with the stress of a global pandemic? How can health psychologists help people bounce back from all the changes during the pandemic?

    Types of Health Psychology Careers

    Life is complex. So many things can go wrong, but they can also go right! As you can imagine, health psychology is a broad field, and you can find health psychologists just about everywhere.

    Health psychologists work in hospitals, medical care centers, schools, colleges, businesses, government, and rehabilitation facilities. Sometimes they even start private practices!

    Even though health psychologists can work in many settings, there are two basic kinds of health psychology careers: Health Counselor and Health Psychologist.

    Health counselors are sometimes called wellness or health coaches. They generally have a graduate degree in counseling or psychology and work with groups or individuals.

    Health psychologists get a doctoral degree in psychology or counseling. They are more likely to have a private practice or work in a university than a health counselor.

    Dr. Sandra is a health counselor who works in a big corporation with hundreds of employees. She meets with individual employees to talk about areas of struggle in their lives and help them come up with healthy solutions to problems. It could be a physical problem like tension headaches, a mental issue like difficulty concentrating, or a social problem like coworker conflict. It could even be something like a mental disorder. Dr. Sandra also holds group sessions and classes. She wants every employee to be as healthy as possible!

    You can find health psychologists in just about every area of medicine. Cancer centers, biobehavioral health centers, occupational or physical therapy centers, and pain management centers all employ health psychologists. They also work in prisons, sports complexes, pharmaceutical companies, and non-profit organizations.

    Health psychology, a word art graphic with words pertaining to health coaching, StudySmarterHealth psychology, pixabay.com

    Health Psychology and Mental Health

    There is usually a whole section in psychology textbooks on mental disorders or clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists investigate what goes wrong in mental functioning and how to treat those problems. Health psychologists want to know what goes right in mental functioning and how to keep your mind healthy.

    A few topics play a significant role in keeping your mind healthy: locus of control, self-control, humor, and outlook on life.

    Healthy Mentality

    People with an internal locus of control are usually healthier physically, mentally, and socially than those with an external locus of control. People who believe they can control what happens in their lives feel more confident when facing struggles. They focus on making changes wherever they can and keeping themselves healthy. They also tend to be optimistic instead of pessimistic.

    Pessimists assume that life will go wrong and they won’t be able to fix problems. Optimists believe that they will be able to cope with whatever comes up.

    You are getting ready to graduate from high school. You got into two colleges with many different programs to choose from. Both colleges are far away from your family and friends. The pessimistic version of yourself assumes that you will choose the wrong school, struggle with loneliness, pick a boring program, and end up unhappy. The optimistic version of yourself sees all the possibilities and knows that even if a decision turns out badly, you can always make a new decision.

    Most people with an internal locus of control also tend to believe that humans possess some degree of free will. They think that their choices matter. On the other hand, determinists believe that everything a human does is predetermined by biology and the environment.

    Humor and Health

    Optimists see the funny side of life much more easily and laugh more often than pessimists, leading to significant health benefits! Have you ever laughed at something and instantly felt lighter inside? Humor is a powerful coping mechanism. If you can laugh during times of high stress, it can help you make it through hard times.

    Health psychology, two young adults standing in a field with tall grass laughing and taking pictures, StudySmarterLaughter, pixabay.com

    Health Psychology and Behavioral Health

    You might be wondering how studying behavioral health as a health psychologist is any different from regular behavior research. Well, health psychologists focus on positive behaviors, like taking care of yourself, exercising, and eating healthy. They also emphasize the concept of self-control.

    Self-control is the human ability to make decisions, curb impulses, and delay gratification.

    Self-control is the idea that you can make an intentional decision against an instinct or impulse.

    You get home from school and see your neighbors outside next-door playing water games. You love water games and want to join them. At school today, your teacher reminded the class about a big test tomorrow, and you need to study for it. If you join your neighbors, you will be too tired to study later. What do you do? Your instinct or impulse is to run outside, but you exercise self-control and walk upstairs to your desk.

    Self-control is about more than just today. Sometimes exercising self-control helps you avoid problems at the moment, but usually, it looks ahead to prevent future issues or gain future rewards. Delaying gratification means choosing something less desirable now so you can enjoy something more desirable in the future.

    During the first year of college, you always chose social events and fun over studying. As a result, your grades suffered. During your second year, you decide to be more intentional about studying so that you can get better grades and eventually graduate. This will sometimes mean you want to do something else besides study, but you choose to study anyways. You know that all the fun you give up now will lead to an even better reward: the satisfaction, recognition, and excitement of graduating from college!

    Biosocial Model in Health Psychology

    Many biological factors that health psychologists investigate can change depending on social factors. The reverse is also true: many social factors vary depending on biological ones. Social dynamics like economic status, healthcare access, workplace demands, environmental control, and social support can all influence human health. Work stress can cause high blood pressure and lowered immune functioning. Getting sick can then lead to even more stress at work.

    Health psychology, a photograph of a white surface with a pill box, various pills, and a blood pressure monitor, StudySmarterMonitoring health, pixabay.com

    Your environment impacts your health, but there is something even more critical: your sense of control in your environment. Even if your job is stressful or your school gets crowded, do you feel a sense of control over certain factors? Can you decide who you talk to, where you sit, what you eat, and when to leave? Do you feel completely stuck and helpless? Our perceived or actual degree of control over our environment often determines how we respond to stress.

    Biopsychosocial Model in Health Psychology

    Here is an interesting example of how biological, psychological, and social factors all play a role in health psychology: the faith factor.

    People who actively engage in religion tend to be healthier and live longer than those without a religion. This is called the faith factor in psychology.

    How does religious participation impact biology to the point of extending your life? There is no definite answer, but research gives us some possible explanations.

    The Faith Factor
    Social Identifies as a member or follower of a specific religion or belief system. Attends religious social events. Spends time with others of the same religion. Benefits from the social support of others in the same faith.
    PsychologicalIncrease in self-control and healthy behaviors. Feelings of hope, acceptance, and peace or relaxation. Existential benefits of holding to a particular belief system.
    BiologicalHealth benefits, including longer life.

    Health Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Health psychology is about how to reduce or cope with stress, prevent dysfunction, and encourage growth and mental health.
    • Health psychologists work in hospitals, medical care centers, schools, colleges, businesses, government, and rehabilitation facilities. Sometimes they even start private practices!
    • Self-control is the human ability to make decisions, curb impulses, and delay gratification.
    • Delaying gratification means choosing something less desirable now so you can enjoy something more desirable in the future.
    • Social dynamics like economic status, healthcare access, workplace demands, environmental control, and social support can all influence human health.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Health Psychology

    What is health psychology?

    Health psychology is about how to reduce or cope with stress, prevent dysfunction, and encourage growth and mental health.

    Which factors are most relevant to overall psychological health?

    The factors most relevant to overall psychological health are locus of control, self-control, humor, and outlook on life

    How does stress affect psychological health?

    Stress affects psychological health by increasing anxiety and causing difficulties in other areas of life.

    How to improve your psychological health?

    You can improve your psychological health by changing your mindset, changing the way you cope with stressors, laughing more often, accessing social support, and practicing self-control.

    Is mental health and psychological health the same?

    Mental health and psychological health are the same.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    _______________ refers to the personal strength that helps us cope with and recover from stress or trauma.

    ___________ resilience refers to our ability to adapt to life changes and challenges.

    _____________ resilience refers to our ability to handle and process our emotions during challenging or stressful times.

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