Courses in health psychology are interdisciplinary in content and audience. Although the students in these courses are mainly psychology majors, substantial numbers of enrollees come from other disciplines, such as nursing, sociology, physical education, and allied health fields.
In general, health psychology courses examine how biological, psychological, and social factors interact with and affect:
- The efforts people make in promoting good health and preventing illness;
- The treatment people receive for medical problems;
- How effectively people cope with and reduce stress and pain, and;
- The recovery, rehabilitation, and psychosocial adjustment of patients with serious health problems.
Courses also focus on the role of stress in illness; certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking or weight control; and specific chronic illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.
TYPICAL COURSE CONTENT
Three broad topics receive particularly strong emphasis in health psychology courses. These topics are:
- Factors underlying health habits and lifestyles;
- Methods to enhance health behavior and prevent illness, and;
- Stress and stress management.
Other main topics include body systems and psychophysiology, pain and pain management, people’s use of and experience with health services and hospitals, and the psychosocial impact that living with disabling or life-threatening illnesses has on patients and their families.
Within these relatively broad content areas, some of the most common subtopics covered in health psychology courses are:
- Theories of and methods for controlling pain,
- Stress and illness,
- Compliance/adherence with medical regimens,
- Cardiovascular disease and cancer,
- Tobacco use,
- Nutrition and weight control,
- Illness behavior,
- Biofeedback and relaxation training,
- The Type A behavior pattern,
- Exercise, and
- Medical settings and the relationships between patients and practitioners.
The great majority of instructors incorporate a variety of theoretical perspectives in their health psychology courses (Sarafino, 1988). Instructors tend to give the greatest emphasis to the behavioral perspective, followed by (in rank order): biological/physiological, cognitive, social, developmental, and psychodynamic perspectives.
The list presented below represents some of the educational objectives for courses in health psychology. Students completing a comprehensive course in health psychology are expected to achieve most or all of the following objectives:
- Develop an understanding and appreciation of the complex interplay between one’s physical well-being and a variety of biological, psychological, and social factors.
- Learn how psychological research methods, theories, and principles can be applied to enhance biomedical approaches for promoting health and treating illness.
- Learn the nature of the stress response and its impact in the etiology and course of many health problems.
- Discover how behavioral and cognitive methods can help individuals cope with stress.
- Develop skills for designing programs to improve one’s own and others’ personal health habits and lifestyles.
- Acquire an understanding of the difficulty patients experience in deciding whether or when to seek treatment for disturbing symptoms.
- Become aware of the experiences of patients in the hospital setting, factors that affect adherence to medical regimens, and sources of problems in patient/practitioner relationships.
- Determine how psychological and medical methods for relieving pain differ and are often combined to enhance treatment effectiveness.
- Become aware of the impact that disabling or life-threatening illnesses have on patients and their families.
- Discover how psychological methods and principles can be applied to help patients manage and cope with chronic illness.
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