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What is health psychology?


What is health psychology?

What is health psychology?

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.

While that may generally be accurate, 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.” (American Board of Clinical Health Psychology). In other words, health psychologists understand illness as being made up of much more than just what is happening biologically. We 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, we know now 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! We can even help with the physiological components of insomnia. 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 arousal, 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, 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. That is a lot of people who are dealing with the consequences of illness. However, many of these diseases have some aspect of them that could be managed by changing behavior. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol use, increasing physical activity, 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 a chronic illness manage their health more effectively.

Are you interested in improving your health? Feel free to contact me to ask about setting up a consultation to identify your best next steps forward. If you’re a mental health provider, check out my continuing education courses so you can learn more about helping those with chronic or serious illness.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Chronic Diseases in America. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm

Rossman J. (2019). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia: An Effective and Underutilized Treatment for Insomnia. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(6), 544–547. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827619867677

*I admit I fully embody this stereotype and own more cardigans than any other piece of clothing.

What our learners say

This was an engaging, comprehensive presentation and discussion of cancer treatment and the role of psychological concepts and interventions in managing the side-effects of that treatment. Dr. Kilkus is clearly very experienced and knowledgeable in the area.

I found a great deal of value in the material and the discussions and I would happily recommend this course to anyone wanting to become more knowledgeable and confident in working in a field which most would regard as extremely challenging.

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