Health psychology can be defined as the study of how biological, environmental, psychological and sociocultural factors influence health, healthcare and illness. To fully understand the nature of health psychology, though, one must first understand what is meant by the term ‘health.’ The most widely cited definition of health is that which was proposed by the World Health Organization (1946, cited in Pitts, 2001): “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (p. 4). In keeping with this definition, the goal of health psychologists is twofold. On one hand, they aim to prevent and manage illness and disease but they are also interested in promoting and maintaining overall health and well-being – physical, mental and social. According to Matarazzo (1980, cited in Pitts, 2001), health psychologists are also interested in “the identification of etiologic and diagnostic correlates of health, illness and related dysfunction, and the analysis and improvement of the health care system and health policy formation” (p. 4).
Health psychologists apply psychological theories and methods in order to understand those factors which help people to remain healthy, cope with their illnesses or recover from them. Instead of adopting a strictly biological view of illness, health psychologists recognize that many forms of illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases, HIV/AIDS, and cancer, are triggered and/or exacerbated by psychological and social factors. They therefore embrace a biopsychosocial view of illness – biological factors include inherited conditions, personality characteristics and physiological make-up; psychological factors involve one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours; and social factors may include one’s level of social support as well as family and cultural values.
Health psychologists engage in a wide range of activities related to their overall aim. They may assist in reducing stress and risky sexual behaviour, developing and implementing weight management programmes, improving one’s diet, managing pain, preventing injuries, overcoming drug addictions and improving adherence to medical advice. Health psychologists may practice in healthcare settings, serve as lecturers in psychology programs or work as researchers in universities or government agencies.
Pitts, M. (2001). An introduction to health psychology. In M. Pitts & K. Phillips (Eds.), The psychology of health: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
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