Behavioral medicine is the field concerned with the integration of behavioral, psychosocial, and medical knowledge and techniques related to the understanding of health and illness. Physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, and other health professionals in this field apply this knowledge and these techniques to prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of medical conditions.

Health psychology is the study of how the interactions of biological, personal, and social factors influence health and illness. Some questions health psychologists address with patients and in research include:

  • What are the different ways in which people adapt to chronic illness?
  • What factors influence a person’s readiness to change health and lifestyle behaviors?
  • How are stress and other nonmedical factors related to physical illness?
  • How does stress and illness impact a person’s life—work, personal activities, relationships, household? How much do these factors affect the illness?
  • What barriers prevent someone from getting better or receiving all the benefits of a treatment?
  • What factors are placing additional stress or burden on the patient and make the medical condition worse?

Biofeedback is a technique that trains you to improve your health by using cues from your body; it’s like a window into your body. Sensors link you and a computer to display the electrical activity in your muscles, blood vessels, skin, heart, and lungs. By using this feedback, you can learn how to control muscle tension, blood vessel constriction, breathing, and heart rate. This, in turn, can help you reduce the severity of your pain, anxiety, and other physical symptoms.

More info: How does biofeedback help problems with stress?

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates your body’s basic vital functions that we don’t usually think much about like breathing, bladder control, and heart rate. When we develop a chronic medical condition (pain or other illness), this part of your nervous system is dysregulated (out of balance), increasing your worry, sensitivity to pain and other sensations, and overreaction to everyday stressors as well as decreasing your short term memory and ability to concentrate.

The ANS is made of two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. They work together to maintain balance in your body and are more popularly known for regulating your flight-or-fight response.

The sympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that prepares the body for stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that returns the body to balance (homeostasis or relaxed state).

autonomic nervous system

EMDR was originally developed to effectively and quickly resolve traumatic memories. This exciting technique has also proved to be effective for managing pain, anxiety, and stress as well as for enhancing athletic performance and improving smoking cessation.

More info about EMDR and answers to frequently asked questions: What is EMDR?

Sometimes it is also helpful to use standardized tests to identify issues to address that we may not be readily aware of and that may present barriers to a successful outcome and guide treatment. These tests in conjunction with a clinical interview are often administered before beginning a treatment program and again at the end of the program to measure change and evaluate outcomes.

These tests often address the following factors:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • coping styles
  • functioning in daily life activities
  • exposure to past traumatic or stressful life events
  • understanding of pain or illness
  • satisfaction and trust in healthcare providers
  • pain intensity and description
  • understanding of how the medical condition affects the future

Preparing for surgery involves addressing several issues. Sometimes a surgical preparation program may help you:

  • gather accurate information about the surgical procedure and the recovery process
  • develop communication and assertiveness skills for interactions with health care providers and loved ones
  • set realistic expectations about surgery and recovery
  • learn how to practice relaxation techniques before surgery
  • learn appropriate cognitive techniques to challenge catastrophic thinking or other presurgical anxiety
  • sleep well before and after surgery
  • learn pain and nausea control skills for post-operative pain

More info: How to prepare psychologically for back surgery

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