Improve health and wellbeing with the biopsychosocial approach

Lubna Somjee, Ph.D. Clinical and Health Psychologist/Executive Coach and Business Strategy Consultant

We used to think treating the body was the solution to treating medical conditions. This is actually an antiquated notion. Research has shown, for many years, that medical health and illness are due to the interplay of three factors: biological, psychological and social. This is called the biopsychosocial approach to health. The biological component of health care is obviously important, however, when you address it exclusively you are unable to treat patients effectively because you are ignoring other factors that impact their disease.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Assn (2004), behavioral and social factors cause or contribute to nearly every cause of death, illness & disability and directly causes approximately 1/2 of deaths each year. This is staggering, but how often are these factors addressed thoroughly?

There are some major medical settings that do address all three factors consistently in delivering all medical care. However, that is not the norm and majority of people are missing out on ‘Real Healthcare’. Additionally, if all three factors are not addressed, it severely limits the focus on prevention of medical diseases. In short, patients lose out when a biopsychosocial approach is not utilized in medical settings.

There are four main components to the biopsychosocial approach, including biological, behavioral, psychological, and environmental. For more information on how these components play a factor into your overall health, click here.

The good news is that while many of us are unable to obtain ‘Real Healthcare’ from our current health care settings, there are things we can do to help ourselves. While we do not have complete control over our health, there are things we can do to stay on top of our overall well-being.


Do be honest

Talk candidly with your physician. Approximately 60% of visits to a physician have a significant psychological or behavioral component. Talk honestly with your physician about stressors in your life as well as your personal habits or health related behaviors. It all relates to your overall health status and it is important for your physician to be aware of all your risk factors in order to address them properly.

Do find integrated health care settings

These are health care settings where physicians and psychologists work side by side and develop treatment plans together (that include the factors listed above) as it relates to your overall health. Admittedly, most settings are not fully integrated. If you cannot find one near you, the next best thing is to not only get physicals and talk with your physicians, but also get a mental health check up from a psychologist. This allows you to address all four factors and learn more tools when it comes to managing your health care.

Do familiarize yourself with health psychology

Health psychologists specialize in promoting medical health by helping to prevent disease or lessening the impact of the disease utilizing psychosocial tools, alongside medical interventions provided by a patient’s physicians. They work with medical patients in a number of different ways including but not limited to: Providing psychosocial pain management techniques for people with chronic back pain, working with patients to help them stick to a healthy exercise and diet based on their triggers for unhealthy eating and inactivity, providing various techniques to patient with with borderline hypertension to manage their hypertension, and so forth.

Do develop a quality social network

How many people you have in your social support network can be important. However, quality is important too. You may have many friends and family, but if the people in your support system are unhealthy or toxic, it may not be useful to your health. Positive social support can help lead to better mental and medical health. Try and surround yourself with people whom you enjoy spending time with, whom you trust and who care about you.

Do make small changes

Many people often try to make healthy changes all at once. They promise themselves they will start working out every other day for one hour, or eliminate all unhealthy eating. Making big changes is challenging for most and people’s enthusiasm often runs out when they find themselves being unable to keep up with their goals. Start small. For example, if you do not exercise regularly, start by walking twice a week for 5 minutes. When you are able to do that consistently for two weeks, build up from there. Or start by eliminating one eating habit such as eating junk food each evening from 7 days to 6 days a week - and build from there. The process takes longer but tends to set people up for success long-term.


Do not manage stress when you are stressed

Think about the Olympics. People train for years in order to compete and be at their best for the Olympics. An athlete does not wait until they arrive at Olympic city to train and practice. Why? There is no way they are at their prime. Waiting until you are stressed to take care of yourself is not optimal. So pick things you can do and start with a small stress management regimen and build from there.

Do not ignore workplace stress

We spend much of our waking lives at work and for many it is a significant source of stress. Given how much cognitive, emotional and physical energy is expended each day at work, be sure to manage stress by doing things that replenish you. Otherwise, stress can lead to you becoming less productive at work, less able to think critically and can also lead to burnout. Chronic workplace stress can also lead to medical and mental health disorders if left unchecked.

Do not forget to develop a plan

If you want to make healthy changes in your life, develop a detailed plan. The more concrete you make it, the more likely you are to follow through. For example, if you decide you want to read to decompress, make sure it is on your calendar where you keep track of other important activities. If you are wanting to start an exercise regimen, plan it out: schedule it in your calendar, specify how long you will exercise, what you will do, what your back up plan is if weather interrupts your plan (different activity) or you feel fatigued (exercise that is less rigorous or for a shorter amount of time) and so forth. Using your brain is key to staying healthy.

Do not see a healthcare professional that does not listen

Research shows that if communication between you and your health care professional is poor, you are less likely to participate actively in your health care, have greater difficulty understanding information presented to you, or your health care professional might miss important information and opportunities to help you. If you are not connecting with your healthcare professional, let them know what you need. If you have tried to talk with them and they do not respond, it might be time to find someone else.

Do not run from distress

Most people want to distance themselves from distressing feelings by keeping busy, using denial, or minimizing their problems. Once you distance from distressing feelings, you no longer have the ability to work with your feelings and find ways to manage them. If you distance yourself from your feelings, your feelings will eventually ‘leak’ out via medical or mental health issues. Confront your feelings, sort through the origins and assess what you need to do to deal with the challenges. Enlist the help of friends or family to help. If you have tried and are still having difficulty coping with the challenges in your life causing distress, seek out a licensed psychologist.

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Our medical well being is dependent on biological, behavioral, psychological, and environmental factors. The biological component of health is obviously important, but when the other factors that contribute to our health are ignored, we lose out. The good news is these factors also give us more tools to remain healthy. Seek out health care professionals with good clinical skills and effective communication skills. Talk about Real Healthcare with your health care professionals. Get on a path to Real Health.

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Photo Credits: © Ambrophoto -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Lubna Somjee, Ph.D.Clinical and Health Psychologist/Executive Coach and Business Strategy Consultant

Dr. Somjee is a licensed psychologist with extensive training and experience in evidence based clinical and health psychology services. She provides treatment for adults and adolescents with a wide variety of emotional and medical concerns. ...

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