An Overview of Health Psychology
This post has been authored by Robyn Pashby, Ph.D., Kelly Donahue, Ph.D., NTC, and Kris Morris, Ph.D. as part of our guest post series. Learn more about our three authors at the bottom of this post.
What is Health Psychology?
The American Psychological Association writes that “health psychologists study how patients handle illness, why some people don’t follow medical advice and the most effective ways to control pain or change poor health habits.” Health psychology is a unique branch of psychology that focuses on the study and application of psychosocial, psychobiological, and behavioral factors in the etiology, prevention, and treatment of illness, as well as the pursuit and maintenance of wellness. While in training, we typically study traditional psychopathology and developmental psychology as well as appetitive behaviors, neuroscience, psychopharmacology, psychophysiology, neuropsychology, epidemiology and more.
In short, health psychologists focus on the relationship between physical and mental health. For example, we might help patients with cancer manage pain, or work with patients with obesity to work through the emotional and behavioral components of eating and exercise behavior. We could assist families with incorporating stress management strategies as they manage their child’s terminal illness. We even help train physicians and other health care providers on how to deliver compassionate holistic care.
There are several specializations possible within our field. We may work in private or group clinical practices, hospitals or other medical offices, research institutions or in health policy firms or organizations. No matter the direction, health psychologists serve diverse individuals ranging from children to the elderly who have a disease or condition that could be prevented, treated or rehabilitated through the use of psychological and behavioral techniques. Given recent statistics which suggest that 1 out of every 2 Americans has chronic disease and chronic disease causes 7 out of every 10 deaths in America (Kresser, C, 2018), the need for health psychologists is only likely to rise for the foreseeable future.
What do Health Psychologist Do?
As practicing clinical health psychologists, our clients often come with one (and usually more) diagnoses of chronic disease (e.g., obesity, diabetes, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome) in addition to the depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns they face. Like all psychologists and mental health clinicians, our work is challenging because of how society has stigmatized mental health and emotions for decades. We have all seen clients who were raised on phrases and beliefs like, “Boys don’t cry,” “Don’t worry so much,” and “Keep your chin up.” Over time, the stigma associated with emotional expression can be deeply internalized, such that normalizing emotions is often the first order of business in therapy.
As health psychologists, our work is uniquely challenging because this internalized stigma often translates to the belief that physical illness is acceptable and treatable, but emotional contributions to our health or illness are not. Many of our clients have spent the early course of their illness focusing exclusively on medical resolution and have often ignored or even rejected emotional health elements. For many, internalized stigma and faulty beliefs programmed from an early age tell them that considering the emotional health elements means they are “weak” or “crazy,” and they are loathe to hear the words “this is all in your head.” Here is where the art of clinical psychology practice overlaps with the science of health. In our office, we help clients identify and process emotions in the framework of illness and disease. We provide psychoeducation on emotions and our emotional and stress response systems which are so often contributing factors to the development or exacerbation of disease. Helping clients recognize the bidirectional relationship between emotional and physical health happens early and often throughout treatment.
The holistic framework we provide for clients to heal both physically and emotionally is a model they can use beyond the prevention or treatment of their illness or condition into their everyday lives. The recognition that the mind and body work together, synergistically, can be healing and can also act as a bridge between psychology and care obtained from medical providers. Humans are integrated beings, and we heal and thrive when care for the mind and body from both psychology and medicine is integrated too.
Becoming a Health Psychologist
The journey to become a health psychologist is long but rewarding. Most people start in undergraduate classes, but doctoral level graduate training is required to become a practicing health psychologist. Many kinds of graduate programs in health psychology exist. Some focus solely on health psychology while others blend a specialization in health psychology with clinical, community, experimental, or social psychology programs. Most graduate students of health psychology are involved in both research and clinical experience in community and/or medical settings and will ultimately pursue licensure as a psychologist after completing a clinical internship. Further specialization in health psychology is available in post-doctoral programs with a focus on research and/or clinical practice and it is ultimately possible to become board certified in health psychology after several years of independent practice.
Robyn Pashby, Ph.D. is a clinical health psychologist and founder of DC Health Psychology. She received her PhD in Medical and Clinical Psychology from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and completed her internship at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. She has worked in multidisciplinary treatment settings for over 10 years focused on health behavior change related to chronic health conditions, including obesity and cancer. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Pashby has authored or co-authored numerous publications including peer-reviewed scientific articles, book chapters, and blog posts and you can learn more about her at www.dchealthpsychology.com.
Kelly Donahue, Ph.D., NTC is a clinical health psychologist in practice for over 10 years. She obtained her PhD in clinical psychology and behavioral medicine from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, completed her clinical internship at the Palo Alto VA, and did her post-doctoral work in community health at Uniformed Services University. She has worked for the military stateside and abroad. Dr. Donahue can be reached at www.everydaytherapist.com.
Kris Morris, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice for 15 years. She received her PhD in Medical and Clinical Psychology from the Uniformed Services University, completed her psychology internship at Dartmouth and at the National Center for PTSD, and did her postdoctoral fellowship focused on PTSD in the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She has worked domestically and internationally focusing on post traumatic reactions. Dr. Morris can be reached at letstalk@onedistricttherapy.