Have you ever wondered why people continue to smoke even though the risks for smoking are known by all? Why some of us insist that they’re fat or unattractive when it’s clear they are otherwise? What about how stress contributes to poor appetite or chronic back pain?
These are some of the questions that drive the field of Health Psychology. The contribution of one’s psychology on their health is a significant one, and Health Psychology hopes to help us live to our fullest potential.
What is Health Psychology?
Health psychology is an exciting and relatively new field of psychology in Malaysia, devoted to understanding the influence of psychology on one’s health. For example, psychological factors play a big role in how people stay healthy.
It has significant contributions towards illness, as well as how people respond when they get ill. Health psychology believes that daily habits, career, family or life problems can greatly influence one’s physical health and psychological well-being. Ultimately, Health Psychology aims to help you find balance in your life.
Myth about Health and Illness
“I am not sick = I am healthy”
Out of sight, out of mind! That’s usually what we all do when plain sailing is ahead. But remember that the smallest of waves can topple the greatest of boats. The majority of people start worrying about their health only when the body’s warning signs are on. Health psychologists recognize health as an achievement of wellness, involving balance between physical, mental and social aspects, not just the absence of illness. This core concept is in line with the definition of health from World Health Organization (WHO):
“A complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1948).
What Does a Health Psychologist Do?
“Can you read my mind?”
Certainly not! Contrary to popular belief, we can’t read minds. Health psychologists help people find a balance by restructuring the perspectives of health and illness. We apply the biopsychosocial model in practice, where health, wellness and illness are the result of the interplay between one’s biology, psychology and social functioning.
For example, obesity could be due to hormonal imbalances (biological factors), depression (psychological factors) and societal pressures (social factors). By understanding and exploring these factors, health psychologists hope to affect changes to one’s social and psychological functioning to help reduce the risk of illness or diseases, or to help expedite treatment of diseases.
Health Psychology is concerned with all aspects of health and illness across the lifespan including:
- Education and promotion of health concepts
- Prevention of illness and maintenance of health
- Understanding and coping of illness from the psychological perspectives
- Develop and improve health care system and policy
- Develop health related programs and activities for community
- Implement behaviour change interventions, i.e. smoking cessation, exercise, healthy eating, reduce risky behaviour, stress management and etc.
- Understanding the impacts of physical health to psychological health and social well-being
- Increase medical effectiveness by improving patients’ medical adherence, as well as the communication between patients and healthcare professionals.
- Improving quality of life by improving individuals’ overall well-being
How Do Health Psychologists Work With People?
Opening up your mind
Simply put, we help to broaden your perspectives on health! We help our clients to explore, understand and restructure their mind by eliminating unhelpful thoughts, resolving ambiguities and learning new perspectives. These can be achieved through approaches such as exploring the client’s beliefs and motivations. Your mind is powerful and it influences your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Therefore, it is vital to learn how to take control of your mind rather than being manipulated.
As a health psychologist, I work with clients displaying a variety of health-related issues through the following phases:
Exploring and understanding your mind
Exploring is vital in order to understand what is going on in your mind. The first few sessions with clients are used to explore their health beliefs, as well as looking into how the bio-psycho-social factors which contribute to their health.
I also help clients understand how health or illness impacts their psychological and social well-being. For example, a cancer patient might be depressed and refuse to engage in social activities due to physical changes they may undergo as a result of chemotherapy.
In situations like this, I will try to assist my client in understanding their fears and concerns about the changes that have happened, and helping them come to terms with the illness that they’re experiencing.
Achievable goals keep clients motivated to succeed.
We use the SMART model, where goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. A psychologist plays a significant role in supporting and encouraging clients to achieve their goals.
If a client gets stuck in trying to achieve their goals, then there might be a need to further explore and develop alternative means of reaching their goals. Remember that it is not about setting an ambitious goal and expecting to achieve it immediately. Instead, goal setting is about having breaking down a big goal into bite-sized chunks, and working towards the goal, one step at a time.
This is the stage where most of the hard work is involved. I believe that a person’s thoughts have a powerful impact on their emotions and behaviours. Therefore, different techniques to help clients identify and eliminate unhelpful thoughts are applied, as well as to resolve clients’ ambiguities and keep them motivated to make positive changes.
Re-evaluating old thoughts, considering their pros and cons as well as learning new perspectives can be very challenging in the short term. Struggles are expected, as well as uncertainties and dilemma. Health Psychology plays a role by helping clients overcome these challenges and explore new perspectives.
Relapse can often happen after the goals of therapy have been met and therapy has been terminated. Maintaining healthy behaviour or positive perspectives is never an easy task. To ensure clients are coping well, I usually engage clients in a post-therapy follow up through phone calls or emails to check in with my clients. This allows us to gauge if in fact there are substantial difficulties being faced, and for us to assess if further booster sessions are required to help clients cope.
At the end of the day, health psychologists help develop new perspectives on health and illness as well as build healthy behaviours. This process not only involves physical change, but also the mind and perceptions which are keys of behavioural outcome. Take the time and opportunity to learn more about yourself. Most importantly, start working on your healthy habits today.
“A habit is something you do without thinking about it.”