Health Psychology: The Mind-Body Connection

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At the turn of the 20th century, the leading causes of death after cardiovascular diseases were infectious germs (e.g., influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, gastritis, colitis, diphtheria, typhoid). Now in the 21st century, the most reliably fatal conditions are strongly affected by lifestyle. Cardiovascular diseases (like heart disease or stroke) still top the list. These are followed closely by: malignant neoplasms (tumors that can be triggered by environmental exposures and accelerated by neglect of emotional responses), accidents, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (often resulting from smoking), influenza and pneumonia, diabetes mellitus (for those afflicted, the self-management of behavior strongly affects the course of the disease), suicide, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis (often following drug and alcohol abuse).

Risk factors that most of us encounter in everyday life include: crowding, pollution, noise, sleep deprivation, and various environmental exposures. Additional risks for many segments of our population involve: social isolation, limited education, inadequate or unbalanced diet, hazardous occupations, financial stressors, substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, lack of exercise, obesity, and poor health care. In recognition of the strong behavioral components affecting major diseases, a growing knowledge about behavior change, and the possibilities offered by biofeedback behavioral medicine was established at a 1977 conference.

The more recent evolution of psychophysiological and behavioral medicine is called health psychology. This specialty within psychology identifies the correlates of health, diagnoses and treats certain chronic diseases, prevents illness, and modifies behavioral factors involved in physiological and psychological rehabilitation (e.g., lowering hypertension, controlling serum cholesterol levels, managing stress, alleviating pain, reduction of cigarette smoking and alcohol use, diet, and exercise). There is also a growing body of interdisciplinary research called psychoneuroimmunology (wherein psychological variables are known to directly change nerves and the body’s immune system response to physical threats).

Strictly biomedical explanations ignore the context of neurophysiological events. These physically measurable phenomena are adaptively linked to environmental changes and demands. Computer malfunctions don’t only follow breakdowns in the machinery (i.e., hardware). A more common complaint is that flaws (“bugs”) in the instructions (i.e., software) derail required operations. Psychology takes human “software” into account. Causal pathways (which “hardware” components the “software” controls) established in mind/body medicine include: the nervous system, the endocrine system, the immune system, the musculo-skeletal system, health-related behaviors, and the effects of social support.

Aristotle once wrote: “Soul and body, I suggest, react sympathetically upon each other.” Now, millennia later, we know how and why.

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