Health Psychology

This essay aims to explore how psychology extends beyond the lecture theatre to have a vital impact on our everyday lives. I will aim to illustrate how the application of psychology can be of benefit in many everyday settings by looking at one of the fastest growing sub-disciplines of psychology; Health Psychology. This essay emphasises the wide range of links that have been made between psychology to the study of health and healthcare. Health Psychology emphasises the role of psychological factors in the cause, progression and consequences of health and illness.

Health Psychology as it stands has shown to be extremely useful in the real world, particularly in areas of addiction, abuse, eating disorders and stress. Health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being… and not merely the absence of disease and illness,”(World Health Organisation, cited in Banyard, 1996, p. 3. ). “Health Psychology is concerned with the study and application of psychological approaches to physical health and illness” (BPS Health Psychology Section, 1990), this also includes work on; psychological factors in the aetiology of illness such as stress, psychological aspects of physical illness (e. . coping), treatment processes and recovery.

Health Psychologists are represented in hospitals, academic research units, health authorities and university departments. Psychological principles are used in these types of settings to promote changes in people’s attitudes, behaviour and thinking about health. Therefore health is made up of many components, physical health, mental health and social health; in addition to this the general health perceptions that people have.

Areas of concern for Health Psychology are; (1) the psychological processes and behaviours which influence people’s health and well-being, (2) the psychosocial factors that contribute to the onset and development of illness and (3) what happens to people within the health care setting, (Coolican, 1996). The emergence of health psychology reflects the changing patterns of disease in the world and the recognition of psychological and social factors as important aspects in health and illness generally.

Dissatisfaction with the biomedical model to adequately explain all health and illness brought about an alternative approach; The Biopsychosocial Model of Health, a combination of biological, psychological and social factors as an explanatory model of health and illness. The Biopsychosocial model incorporates many different views on the causation of ill health; it is this model that has pushed the emphasis towards psychology along with recognition of the influence of lifestyle factors on health.

In addition to this an increase in the search for alternatives to the traditional health care system, and the rise of a more holistic approach to health but also the increasing recognition that illness is strongly influenced by both body and mind. The psychological processes and behaviours, which influence people’s health and well-being concerns people’s concepts of health and what they consider to be important health protecting behaviours.

Psychological research into the importance of health behaviours indicates a valuable contribution into the understanding of people’s concepts of health. There is increased knowledge of health enhancing behaviours amongst people today, for example partaking in exercise; sensible eating habits and getting sufficient sleep. Health risk behaviours are widely known as smoking, problem drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected sex. However it is the job of health psychologist’s to engage in health promotion.

Many people knowingly engage in health compromising behaviours; psychology intervenes in health promotion by investigating why people make the choices they do and what is the best form of communication to encourage people to change their behaviour to improve their health and quality of life, but ultimately to prevent illness. Psychology has made a valuable contribution to the way in which we see health as a whole; furthermore health psychologists develop interventions to help improve the health of the population through mass media campaigns informing people of certain health issues.

In 2005 coloured wristbands are being sold in trendy clothes stores to raise awareness for breast and testicular cancer thus raising money for charity but also as a strategy for health promotion; and to encourage screening and the need for individuals to check their bodies for any abnormal changes. There are many factors that are considered to be determinants of illness and disease in individuals; genetic predisposition, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise but also environmental factors.

Personality is unique to each individual but it is the way in which a person behaves that makeup for all our individual characteristics. According to Friedman and Rosenman (1974) the Type A behaviour pattern characterised by individuals who are hard driving, high achievers, impatient and competitive, and have low tolerance levels were found to have high levels of blood cholesterol and twice as likely to develop heart disease compared to the Type B behaviour pattern. Type B is characterised by the absence of drive and ambition, this type of individual is laid back and flexible.

Although very interesting research at its time, the idea of behaviour patterns as sole indicators of ill health is somewhat simplistic. However this research has encouraged people to take account of the influence that lifestyle factors have on our health. Areas of concern for Health Psychologists are the psychosocial aspects of stress and health; Stress is described as “a process, in which environmental events or forces, called stressors, threaten an organism’s existence and well being,” (Baum, Singer & Baum, 1981(p. . )). Psychosocial risk factors for illness and disease are identified as stressful life events and the loss of intimate relationships, genetic cell defects that are triggered by biological environmental factors plus lifestyle behaviours, which are associated as ‘dangers’ to the immune system such as smoking, eating disorders and abuse. Stressful life experiences can contribute to ill health in people because of the physiological responses brought about due to the stress inflicted.

When confronted with an extremely stressful situation, our bodies prepare for action in the fight or flight response to the stressor we are experiencing; heart rates increase and breathing becomes faster, and muscles tense up. Brown & Harris (1978) identified a number of important vulnerability factors, which coupled with provoking agents known as life events bring about the development of illness.

The Camberwell Study illustrates that women who had experienced a severe recent life event and experienced at least one vulnerability factor such as the loss of a close intimate relationship were much more vulnerable to the effects of the event triggering their depression. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale developed by Holmes & Rahe (1967) measures different life events and the influence it has on levels of stress.

Significant life events are major changes in our lives that an individual finds very hard to deal with, for instance the death of a spouse or partner is ranked as the highest in the table with a score of 100. To measure an individual’s personal stress score using this scale requires participants to tick off the events that they have experienced in the space of 1-2 years. As said by Holmes & Rahe, the greater the score the more likely it is that you will develop an illness.

Holmes & Rahe treats the effect of life events the same for every individual and assumes that re-adjustment to stress is the same for everyone also; our ability to cope with stressful events is particular to an individual. Fitzpatrick (1998) reviewed studies of bereavement events in elderly men and concluded that health is particularly affected through loss of a spouse. In contrast Theorell’s (1998) evidence suggests that ‘eventlessness’ known, as the absence of significant life events can also be indicative of illness.

This may be due to the nature of stress, which builds up, which may in turn have a significant effect on health. Health Psychologists have much to offer at many different levels, the application of psychology to health has made a valuable contribution to our understanding. However there needs to be a greater awareness and recognition for the usefulness of psychology in the real world. Psychology is not simply confined to lectures and textbooks; it is a practising subject with theories, models and methodologies that are helping in the development of improving health and health care.