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A health psychologist is concerned with the way that psychology can affect a person's health. Some of the things that a health psychologist will look at include biological, social, psychological and cultural aspects of a person's life. The work done in this area has shown that the body can affect and be affected by a person's psychological well-being.

A health psychologist will be concerned with lifestyle choices and how they can affect a person's health as well as how people deal with illness and disease. Health psychologists also help with the implementation of treatment and advise how treatment issues are best approached with a patient. A health psychologist will also help the patient deal with the effects of the treatment.

In addition to helping individuals, health psychologists can also be involved with health from a much broader perspective. A health psychologist may be involved with implementing health prevention initiatives at a community level as well as help develop governmental health policy.

People have recognized the connection between the mind and health since ancient times although health psychology did not develop into an independent discipline until the early 1970s. References to the mind's effect on health can be seen in the practice of going to healing temples for a health cure by the Ancient Greeks.


These healing temples usually included a variety of places and methods to relax the body and the mind such as gardens, fountains and baths. In fact, references to the connection between the body and the mind can be found in the Bible and even in some of Shakespeare's plays.

One of the main works looking at the mind's effect on health was published by Freud in 1895. Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer published a book called Studies in Hysteria. In this book, the authors pointed out that psychological problems could be manifested as physical symptoms. For example, stomach disorders, migraines and even back pain can all be related to a person's psychological health.

It wasn't until 1911, that people began to take a more serious look at health psychology when the American Psychological Association began to look at the relationship between psychology and medical education but the focus continued to remain on the medical aspects of health instead of the psychological aspects.

In the 1930's, Walter Cannon began looking at the effects strong emotions can have on the body. He looked at emotions such as anger or fear and found that the body responded in a variety of ways to these emotions. Blood sugar levels will increase, a person's respiration rate, pulse rate and blood pressure will increase and more blood is sent to skeletal muscles. Cannon used the term "fight-or-flight" to describe this response.

Helen Flanders Dunbar continued to build on this work and found that a person's personality type could have an effect on disease. Dunbar gathered information about a patient's social and economic history as well as family history in order to see if a correlation between these and specific diseases exited. Through this study, Dunbar hypothesized that certain personality profiles could be connected to specific diseases.

Franz Alexander's work is also important in the history of health psychology. In the 1950's, Alexander began to identify connections between emotional conflicts and disease. Alexander found that these emotional conflicts could be viewed as a possible sign for the eventual development of disease.

health psychologist job - image with permission from UIC

The work of Dunbar and Alexander, as well as others, led to a number of diseases being viewed as psychosomatic or caused by the mind. Some of these diseases include asthma, peptic ulcers and hypertension. Although the concept of psychosomatic illnesses helped people to understand the effects of the mind on the body, it also led to a number of people coming to the conclusion that psychosomatic diseases were somehow not real and only in a person's mind.

The concept of both health psychology and behavioural medicine developed out of these ideas from psychosomatic medicine. In 1973, the American Psychological Association formed a task force to investigate the role of psychology in health research. The report found that only a few psychologists were involved in health research and that most of their findings were not reported in scholarly journals.

In 1978, the APA established Division 8, a health psychology division, with the goal of developing an organization for psychologists who were interested in studying and working in areas connected to health and psychology.

What Does A Health Psychologist Do?

A health psychologist can work in a number of different areas all related to health. These areas can include helping a person to deal with illness as well as looking at helping a person develop more healthy behaviours to avoid illness.

A health psychologist will typically focus on one of five basic areas of work. A health psychologist can become a clinical health psychologist, a public health psychologist, a community health psychologist, a critical health psychologist or an occupational health psychologist. Each focus will deal with different aspects of a person's health and how it relates to psychological processes.

Clinical Health Psychologist

A Clinical health psychologist will work directly with people who are suffering the effects of a disease or illness. The focus will be on helping a person deal with both the illness itself as well as dealing with how the disease or illness has affected a person's life.

A clinical health psychologist can work with people suffering from either an acute illness or a more chronic illness or disability. Some issues that a clinical health psychologist may be called upon to deal with include issues which interfere with treatment such as needle phobias, severe anxiety over medical procedures and even claustrophobia. A clinical health psychologist may also be needed to discuss various treatment procedures, such as amputations, plastic surgery or mastectomies, with a patient in order to help the patient come to terms with the upcoming surgery and the results of the surgery.

In addition to these more acute issues, a clinical health psychologist may also need to help a person learn ways to deal with more chronic issues, such as chronic pain or incontinence. There may also be a need to deal with any psychological issues, such as depression, that may arise as a result of a person's chronic illness.

A clinical health psychologist may also become involved in prevention as the psychologist works with an individual to develop healthier life style practices and helps to look at ways in which people can lessen the impact of a disease on their life.

Public Health Psychologist

A public health psychologist will work with a large population rather than with individuals. Public health psychologists will be interested in working on governmental public policy. Often they will target specific population groups instead of the whole population with the goal of improving a population group's overall health.

For example, a public health psychologist may develop a program or intervention that will focus on pregnant single women who have dropped out of school. The focus of the program may be on prenatal care or developing ways to help the target group raise a healthy child.

Other issues that a public health psychologist might address include looking at diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer or strokes. The public health psychologist will look at how a person's behavior and emotions can affect these diseases and attempt to develop public programs which will educate the public about these connections as well as developing strategies to change the problem behaviors.

A public health psychologist will also conduct research into the efficacy of a number of health initiatives as well as ways in which existing initiatives can be improved.

Community Health Psychologist

A community health psychologist can be viewed as a more narrowly focused public health psychologist. A community health psychologist will look at things within a community which may have an affect on the health of a person living in that community.

A community health psychologist will look at the characteristics that are unique to a specific community and how this is impacting the health of the community's residents. To do this, the community health psychologist will look at what illnesses or diseases are prevalent in the community and look for reasons why this is happening. Then ways to help decrease the incidence of this disease through a variety of initiatives and education will be developed.

The community health psychologist will often attempt to get the community involved in health initiatives and promote healthy behaviours within the community or specific groups within the community.

Occupational Health Psychologist

An occupational health psychologist is mainly concerned with the workplace and how the workplace itself and things that happen there can affect a person's health.

Some of the things within a workplace environment that could affect a person's physical and mental health include noise levels, temperature, job insecurity, interpersonal relations between co-workers, and high physical demands. An occupational health psychologist will look at ways to minimize the impact of these factors on worker' physical and psychological health.

An occupational health psychologist will also attempt to identify other factors that can have a detrimental effect of a person's health. For example, a number of jobs, such as air traffic controllers, pilots, bus drivers and even preschool teachers have characteristics that lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. These characteristics include being responsible for others and having to operate machinery. An occupational health psychologist will recognize these factors and attempt to find ways to minimize this risk.

An occupational health psychologist will also be worried about job burnout or depression as well as other issues affecting workplace morale. The occupational health psychologist may need to conduct studies on job satisfaction and look at ways of improving morale within the workforce.

Critical Health Psychologist

A critical health psychologist is concerned with health inequalities and hopes to develop a more fair or just system of delivering health care. A critical health psychologist will attempt to identify these power imbalances and then promote a change in public policy to address these issues.

The main area of focus for a critical health psychologist is to enact changes to the existing health structure so that all people can have universal access to health care and that any injustices that have been identified are rectified.

How Do You Become A Health Psychologist?

In order to become a health psychologist, a person will typically need to obtain a doctorate degree in psychology as well as the appropriate state licenses to practice psychology. A number of universities now provide graduate programs which focus on health psychology. These school programs can provide training with a focus on research or on direct clinical service.

Once a person has obtained a doctorate, further training focusing on health psychology either through an internship or postdoctoral training may be necessary. The APA has a list of possible postdoctoral opportunities on their website.

There are a number of courses at an undergraduate level that would be important for a health psychologist to take. Courses in psychopharmacology, public health and community psychology as well as the regular undergraduate psychology courses will all help a person prepare to become a health psychologist. Courses in anatomy and physiology may also be helpful.

Where Does A Health Psychologist Work?

There are a number of different places a health psychologist can find work depending on which areas of health psychology the health psychologist decides to focus on. Work can be found within the government developing policy as well as within health care institutions, such as health care clinics and hospitals, delivering service. These services could include working with chronic health issues, patient doctor relations or helping to develop and implement a treatment plan. A health psychologist can even choose to work within a specific treatment group such as pain management or women's health.

Large businesses may also employ health psychologists in an effort to deal with workplace issues and improve worker morale to increase retention and production rates.

A health psychologist could also find work in a university research setting conducting research into a variety of issues related to health. Examples of possible areas of research include identifying psychological factors which affect health, identifying problems within a doctor/patient relationship or even develop better methods to provide community education.

Demand for health psychologists is expected to continue to grow as it becomes a more recognized field. The need for health psychologists in a hospital setting has continued to grow as has the need for health psychologists in mental health and private industry settings. A health psychologist can expect to make between $40,000 to $85.000 a year depending on experience.

Health psychology is a relatively new field although its roots can be found in antiquity. As people recognize the connection between health and psychological factors, the demand for health psychologists will continue to grow and research will continue to be developed. Health psychology will provide the opportunity to work in a variety of different areas and organizations as well as explore new ways to help keep individuals and the population as a whole healthy.