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What has psychology got to do with physical health?

Most people associate illness with bacterial and viral infections invading the body, or damage and dysfunction occurring within the body, You will probably think of treatment decisions being made by a health professional, while you, the 'patient' are the passive recipient of medication, or surgery. Furthermore, you are likely to believe that the body and mind are two separate systems, dependent on their own processes and working independently from each other with no interaction. So, the idea that your thoughts and feelings interact with your physical body  and that they can both cause physical health conditions and be influenced by physical health conditions. may seem strange to you.  However, a multitude of scientific research across many decades, has demonstrated that the our thoughts and feelings are changed by health conditions, for instance, people who have been diagnosed with a long term condition often experience low mood and depression. A diagnosis of cardiovascular disease often elicits strong feelings of anxiety and panic. Chronic pain often causes depression and elicits negative thoughts about all aspects of life. The mind-body relationship is reciprocal. This has been demonstrated by a plethora of scientific studies from psychosomatic medicine, behavioural medicine, health psychology, and other associated disciplines.

Think of a time when you have experienced a heightened stress level. This worry disrupts everything you do, your sleep is disrupted, your appetite is affected, you are unable to concentrate and negative thoughts and images invade your mind. These symptoms are like the tip of the iceberg, you can see them, but there are more physiological changes, caused by feeling stressed, taking place beneath the surface. These include, for instance, changes in your brain chemistry. Your brain relies on chemicals called neurotransmitters which need to be within an optimum range. If the levels dip, your mental and physical health will be affected. Stress also impacts your brain structure, the size and shape of specific brain regions will change. This can happen as the brain has a property called 'plasticity'', which means it is malleable. Changes in the brain structure can also impact physical and mental health. for instance a brain region called the hippocampus is changed by taking regular aerobic exercise, and results in improved cardiovascular health, elevated mood and enhanced cognitive function, e.g. making your ability to learn and your memory better.  


Stress impacts your nervous system and alters your perception of pain, causing you to feel pain more intensely. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol, and this, over time, weakens the immune system and increases the risk of developing several serious long term health conditions including heart disease, stroke and many types of cancer. At the very least, stress causes muscle tension, which increases muscle and joint pain and causes tension headaches. Not only  is the mind-body interaction a reciprocal relationship, but it leads to a negative cycle.


For instance, increased stress, and the physical and psychological symptoms it produces develops a negative cycle. If you are worried and suffering from the symptoms of stress, you are fatigued due to lack of sleep, oversleeping or disrupted sleep. You are feeling unwell and lethargic  as you are likely to be over-eating unhealthy foods, or you may have little appetite and be missing meals, and maybe self-medicating with alcohol or other substances, Your posture will be affected by muscle tension and you will be suffering from headaches.  You are likely at this point to begin to have negative health-related thoughts, and develop the belief that you must be suffering from a serious illness. Your stress increases further and this usually leads to avoidance of health behaviours such as exercising or cause you to smoke, drink alcohol or participate in another unhealthy behaviour. You will reduce the number and frequency of your social interactions. Being around other people will be exhausting as you exert a huge effort to mask your psychological and physical symptoms.  Your social circle and your world will become smaller, as you won't feel like socialising or being around other people.


When you avoid other people, your negative thoughts are not challenged by their alternative perspectives, so these thoughts multiply and they become magnified.  They take over other areas of your life, they may have started with a specific focus but they eventually generalise. You begin to think negative, harmful, maladaptive thoughts about everything. Your perceptions of the world become distorted.  Your entire view of the world, the future, yourself and others becomes dark and entrenched.

Frequently Asked Questions

You may still have questions. Hopefully the most frequently asked questions below will provide the answers. If not, book a free 15 minute phone call.

What if I don't believe that the mind can influence the body and impact my health?

  • Try this imagery exercise:

  • Take a deep breath and close your eyes. I would like you to imagine that you are standing in your kitchen in front of is a chopping board. Next to the cutting board is a sharp knife.Take a few moments to imagine the kitchen in detail. See the colour of the counter surfaces. Notice the appliances and the cupboards. Look around, notice if there are windows, are their window blinds? Also notice any kitchen smells or sounds - the running of a dishwasher or tumble drier, or the hum of a refrigerator. Do you notice the sound of a clock ticking? Notice everything, using your senses, what you see, hear, smell, and how you feel at this time, being there in your kitchen. Now imagine that on the chopping board sits a fresh, juicy, yellow lemon. Imagine you pick the lemon up and you hold the lemon in one hand, feeling its weight and textures. Then place it back on the board and carefully cut it in half with the knife. Feel the resistance to the knife and how it gives way as the lemon is cut in half.  Notice the yellow of the flesh, the whiteness of the inner peel, and see whether you have cut through a seed or two. Carefully cut one of the halves in two. Notice where a drop or two of juice has pearled on the surface of one of the quarters. Now imagine lifting this lemon wedge to your mouth, smelling the sharp fresh scent. Now bite into the sour, juicy flesh.

What health conditions can be treated?

  • All physical health conditions have a psychological impact and the thoughts and feelings we experience influence our physiological structures, systems and processes, and lead to changes in our health behaviours.  

What can Health Psychology do to help?

       Health Psychology can:

  • support you to adjust to life with an illness.

  • promote health-enhancing behaviours (diet, exercise, smoking cessation. etc)

  • reduce health-impairing behaviours (alcohol, addictions, poor diet, stress, etc)

  • improve your quality of life

  • empower you to live better with chronic pain

  • reduce physical symptoms

  • empower you to regain a sense of control over your life

  • reduce the risk of developing certain long term, chronic conditions

  • improve your prognosis with certain long term physical conditions

  • reduce psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety

  • improve your understanding and management of medically unexplained symptoms

  • develop healthy and effective coping skills

What are the most common clinical presentations in Health Psychology?

  • general anxiety disorder

  • panic disorder

  • depression

  • PTSD

  • C-PTSD

  • specific anxiety (driving, travel, etc)

  • OCD

  • healthy anxiety

  • social anxiety disorder

  • death anxiety

  • phobias

  • adjustment to illness

  • adherence to treatment regime

  • health-behaviour change

  • obesity

  • long term chronic medical conditions

  • cardiovascular disease

  • stroke

  • diabetes

  • chronic fatigue syndrome

  • fibromyalgia

  • medically unexplained symptoms

  • menopause

  • pregnancy

  • birth

  • postnatal problems

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