What comes to mind when you hear the word “psychologist”? My guess is that it involves some idea of someone (maybe with glasses, in a cardigan*) working with people who are struggling with their mental health.
*I admit I fully embody this stereotype and own more cardigans than any other piece of clothing.
While that may generally be an accurate definition of a psychologist, there are a variety of specialty areas that psychologists work in. Health psychologists are psychologists that specialize in working with the different aspects of navigating a health condition. Health psychologists
apply scientific knowledge of the inter-relationships among behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social, and biological components in health and disease to the promotion and maintenance of health; the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of illness and disability; and the improvement of the health care system.1
In other words, health psychologists think of illness as being made up of much more than just what is happening biologically. They aim to use evidence-based methods to help in the prevention of illness, treatment of illness, and management of the side effects of medical treatments and to assist in coping with the changes brought by a serious or chronic illness.
To illustrate this, I’ll highlight a common problem: insomnia. Insomnia is often viewed as a physiological problem—and that may often be a component. However, researchers now know that what maintains insomnia is primarily cognitive (how we think about our sleep) and behavioral (what habits we have around sleep). What are psychologists experts in? Helping people think and behave in healthier ways.
Health psychologists can help with the physiological components of insomnia as well. Often, we can become anxious when we can’t sleep, which can manifest in feeling physically wound up. Over time, that can become conditioned or learned and become a piece of the puzzle that keeps insomnia going.
Psychologists have excellent evidence-based interventions to address conditioned arousals, such as progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing. These interventions can go a long way in breaking the cycle of insomnia. In fact, we know that the “gold standard” treatment for insomnia is actually cognitive behavioral therapy,2 which is as effective as sleep medication without the side effects and risk of dependence and tolerance.
Six in 10 Americans live with at least one chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, and four in 10 have two or more.3 That is a lot of people who are dealing with the consequences of illness. However, many of these diseases have some aspects of them that could be managed by changing behavior. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol use, increasing physical activity, and adherence to medications—all of these behaviors have a significant impact on the development or progression of many chronic illnesses. Health psychologists have the potential to help those with chronic illnesses manage their health more effectively.
If you’re struggling with a medical issue or would like to improve your health, check out Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist feature to find a professional near you.