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What is Health Psychology? (2023 Guide)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

Illustration of body and mind connection to represent 'what is health psychology'

A ground-breaking field impacting both psychology and clinical care, health psychology aims to bridge the gap in our understanding of the connection between mental and physical health. 

With a better understanding of this mind-body connection, health psychology can help prevent and treat a range of non-communicable health problems, from diabetes to chronic pain, through psychological interventions such as behavioural therapy.  

The BPS-accredited Health Psychology Masters at Ulster University provides Stage 1 training for students pursuing careers as Registered Health Psychologists. 

In this blog post we ask, what is health psychology, what is the history of the field and what varied careers can health psychologists pursue?  

What is health psychology 

Adopted as a scientific practice as recently as the 1970s, health psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology exploring the impact psychology can have on physical health and vice versa. 

The field examines the psychological, behavioural, emotional and cultural factors that impact health and illness and is in the process of revolutionising clinical practice through new and effective therapeutic interventions. 

These new methods put psychology at the forefront of a patient’s healthcare journey in an effort to prevent and treat illness more efficiently and affordably than ever. 

Health psychology is also sometimes known as behavioural medicine of medical psychology and the field is commonly broken up into four specialisms, which are: 

  • Clinical health psychology (CIHP) 
  • Public health psychology (PHP) 
  • Community health psychology (CoHP) 
  • Critical health psychology (CrHP) 

The history of health psychology 

The connection between mind and body is not a modern idea. Ancient thinkers discussed mind-body interactions and 19th century scientific writers in both Europe and North America claimed that psychological factors influenced health.  

By the 20th century, these ideas drew upon the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis to become a ‘multidisciplinary, international movement known as psychosomatic medicine’ (BPS). This existed as a precursor to health psychology in the US, followed by UK developments in behavioural medicine and medical psychology. 

According to an article published by the British Journal of Health Psychology, influenced by developments in Europe and the USA, institutions in the UK began teaching and researching health psychology in the 1970s. Of these influences, one of the most notable was the publication of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force report 

Over the next decade, the practice of health psychology grew rapidly, continuing to intrigue and interest researchers, clinical psychologists and social psychologists around the world. 

By the 1980s, health psychology was cemented as a scientific practice and gained its own publication section on the British Psychological Society (BPS) website.  

Health psychology hasn’t always received a positive welcome from academics in traditional psychology. Nevertheless, the field has cemented itself as critical to both medicine and psychology, making healthcare more personal, streamlined and cost-effective. 

What are some examples of health psychology? 

The applications of health psychology are wide-ranging. Those looking for examples of health psychology will find diverse studies into chronic illness, addiction and even nutritional health. 

Examples of health psychology in action include: 

  • Pain management – health psychology can help patients to manage their pain, whether it is related to illness or injury or has an unknown cause. Stress can be both a symptom of chronic pain and a causational factor. Reducing patient stress levels at all stages of their healthcare journey is also the job of a health psychologist. 
  • Weight management – using psychological interventions for weight loss and maintenance is a highly effective way to lower a patient’s risk of obesity and related health implications.  Other nutritional problems, such as disordered eating, can also be addressed through cognitive interventions. In this way, health psychologists can influence health, address negative health beliefs and promote healthier attitudes to food and dieting to deliver lifelong improvements. 
  • Addiction therapy – addiction is a psychological phenomenon that can often have an adverse effect on health. Health psychology acknowledges the mental element of quitting drugs and other addictive substances and provides a safe space to discuss psychological blockages and plan rehabilitation and recovery efforts going forward. 

Current issues in Health Psychology 

Rising rates of obesity, diabetes and addiction are among the most significant health challenges of the next decade. As well as being detrimental to public health, these health issues put an increasing strain on the NHS (with obesity costing the UK £6 billion each year) and, combined, have considerable economic consequences. 

Health psychology is well placed to tackle these public health crises by acknowledging the importance of psychology when it comes to eating well and combating addiction to drugs, alcohol and other substances.  

Other health challenges that can be addressed with health psychology include: 

  • Smoking 
  • Alcohol dependency 
  • Drug abuse 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Stress 

Models of Health Psychology 

The main approach to health psychology is called the ‘Biosocial Model’, which considers health and illness in relation to biological, psychological and social factors. 

  • Biological factors can include inherited personality traits and genetic conditions. 
  • Psychological factors involve lifestyle, personality characteristics and stress levels. 
  • Social factors cover such things as wealth, social support, family relationships and cultural beliefs. 
Health psychologist comforts an elderly patient

Health psychology careers   

Health psychologists can be found in a wide range of healthcare settings, such as hospitals, healthcare clinics and rehabilitation centres. Outside of clinical care, health psychologists can work in research and public health; for example, pushing new research developments and publishing health awareness campaigns. 

Some of the top health psychology careers for graduates include: 

  • Registered Health Psychologist (after completing additional stage 2 training) 
  • Applied/Chartered Psychologist (after additional training and experience) 
  • Health Psychology Researcher 
  • Public Health Advisor 
  • Psychological Therapist 

For more information on the top health psychology jobs open to graduates of the MSc in Health Psychology, see our guide to the top 6 Health Psychology Careers. 

What is the difference between clinical and health psychology?

While there are many similarities between health psychology and clinical psychology, the two are not the same. 

Both are applied fields that engage in the study of people, the mind and behaviour and attempt to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behaviour. Both aim to improve behavioural outcomes and mental wellbeing. 

Where health psychology and clinical psychology differ, however, is in their approach and specialisations.  

Clinical psychology aims to diagnose and treat mental illnesses and neurological disorders such as depression, schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, working in a clinical setting. 

In contrast, health psychology is concerned specifically with the overlap between mental and physical health. In this way, health psychologists are best placed to advise on health problems and illnesses such as: 

  • Chronic pain 
  • Anxiety 
  • Stress 
  • Weight gain/obesity 
  • Addiction (including cigarettes, drugs and alcohol) 

For a more comprehensive look at the difference between the two practices, see our guide to Health Psychology vs Clinical Psychology. 

What is a health psychologist? 

Now you know what health psychology is, you’ll easier understand the role of a health psychologist. Nevertheless, this role can vary depending on the setting. 

As active health professionals, health psychologists can be found in clinical settings such as hospitals or rehabilitation centres. However, they can just as easily find work in non-clinical workplaces with individuals, organisations and community groups. 

The job of a health psychologist is to build public awareness of good health and wellbeing, with an emphasis on forming healthy habits and ditching unhealthy ones.  

When working with patients in a clinical setting, a health psychologist will find ways to encourage good health in their patients and promote healthier lifestyles, such as through cognitive therapies and coaching. 

When working with individuals, a health psychologist will actively communicate with their patients to establish trust and gain insight into their patients’ health history and current health problems.  

Why study health psychology MSc with Ulster University?  

Ulster University’s has an excellent international reputation for its research impact and was named among the top 10% of UK universities in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF, 2021). Within the same framework, 100% of Ulster’s psychology case studies were judged as outstanding or very considerable in terms of reach and significance. 

Our BPS-accredited Health Psychology Masters course is taught 100% online and offers part-time flexibility for working professionals. You will learn from active researchers and registered health psychologists to gain a critical understanding of health and illness management, applying theories and concepts to practical research projects. 

Graduates of the MSc Health Psychology are one step closer to becoming Registered Health Psychologists and commonly gain employment in research, public health, healthcare consultancy, community healthcare or non-profit organisations. 

Read our article Why study Health Psychology at Ulster? for more information on the benefits of studying health psychology online with Ulster University. 

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