Therapy isn’t associated with nearly as much stigma as it used to be. And yet it’s also still seen as a relatively fringe activity. Something that is only for people who are suffering from some kind of disorder.
This isn’t the case. Everyone struggles with their mental health from time to time, and these instances can have broader consequences for the rest of their body. Effective healthcare systems treat the mind and body with equal importance. Read on to learn more about how psychology can play a role in overall wellness.
What Role Does Psychology Play in Overall Healthcare?
Well, before we get too far into this, I should tell you — from a mental standpoint, I’m fit a thimble. Fiddle?… I’m doing great.
We wouldn’t dream of doubting it. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is more to psychology than dealing with what most people traditionally think of as mental “illness”. Even a well-adjusted person is going to have emotional highs and lows. Sometimes you’ll be doing very well. Other times, you’ll experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
These emotional responses are normal — evolutionary events. Your body’s way of telling you that you should slow down a minute and pay extra close attention to what is happening here to make sure it is safe.
That’s decidedly a good thing, but you also need to know how to manage it. Too much stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on your overall health, creating symptoms that do lasting damage.
Anxiety and Your Heart
Anxiety can play a role in your cardiovascular health. When people are stressed for long periods of time, it can result in a heightened heart rate, high levels of blood pressure, and other negative side effects that damage your cardiovascular health.
Stress and anxiety can also increase inflammation and slow down your metabolism, causing further harm. This means that even if you are living a healthy lifestyle, your stress may be undoing all the hard work you put in with diet and exercise.
Doctors recommend that most adults should seek between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Note that that number reflects more than just the time you spend with your head on a pillow. You need to actually be sleeping, and logging in REM cycles to get all of the benefits of sleep.
And what are those benefits? Sleeping can help repair tissue damage, increase your metabolism, and even help prevent the onset of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
And of course, without great sleep, you’re more susceptible to all of the above. Weight gain, inflammation, and yes, even mental decay.
Anxiety and stress are also linked with increased rates of cognitive dissonance. The experience of feeling outside yourself in a way that prevents productivity and serious concentration. In small bursts, this can be disruptive, even depressing. Over prolonged periods of time, the implications can be much bigger.
A reduction in your capacity for concentration could stand in the way of how you do your job, eventually resulting in consequences. Consequences that certainly won’t reduce your stress.
Clinical Versus Applied Psychology
Psychology enters general health practices in one of two ways, either through clinical psychology, or applied psychology. Clinical psychology is what most people think of in terms of getting mental health treatment. You sit down and speak with a psychologist and they help you work through emotional or behavioral issues such as those highlighted above.
Contrary to popular belief, seeing a psychologist is very normal and not necessarily indicative of serious mental illness. Many people go to therapy to grow as a person and learn how to approach everyday situations through a healthier lens.
Applied psychology looks at broader group mindsets. For example, if research indicates that African Americans have an easier time getting promotions if they adopt qualities more often associated with white people, clothes, speech patterns, etc. an applied psychologist might analyze the mental reactions of everyone involved.
Why did the person seeking the promotion feel that they needed to change the way they dressed and spoke? What impact did their sudden change have on the person giving the promotion out? In other words, how are people making decisions, and what impact do they have on the broader community?
Far from its Full Potential
We’ve described what role psychology can have on general health, and what difference mental well-being plays in healthcare outcomes regardless of whether or not they are being professionally addressed. But how is this playing out in real life?
The truth is that only a small fraction of the population gets treatment for mental health. There are a variety of reasons for this. One of the most prominent is stigma. Historically, people who have sought psychological help have been looked at as unstable or otherwise dangerous to be around.
This problem is largely abating as mental illness has become destigmatized in recent years. We certainly still have a long way to go before attitudes concerning mental health and wellness are where they need to be, but conversations tend to be more open.
There is also the issue of cost. This problem may be harder to solve. Even middle-class people with decent health insurance may find that psychological treatment is only partially covered by their plans. For example, a coverage plan may offer three sessions a year with a psychologist. Better than nothing, to be sure, but also far from the ongoing assistance that so many people require.
Alternatives to traditional therapy have alleviated this concern a little bit. People can now receive remote consultations, sometimes at a fraction of the cost. There are also applications, instant messaging services, and online support groups that can help.
These services might not be a worthy substitute for traditional care, but they can still have a big impact on people who otherwise might not have had any assistance at all.
As awareness spreads and people come to understand how related physical and mental health is —your brain, after all, is just another part of your body — it’s possible that psychological care will be more broadly accessible to everyone who needs it.