Recent studies in the relationship between mind and body hint at new ideas that go beyond traditional biomedical approaches to illness. This holistic approach has inspired a field of health psychology research in which both a medical and a psychological perspective are used to study why we become ill; the way we respond to illness; and how we maintain, or fail to maintain, our health.
Psychogenic illnesses occur when organic malfunctioning and tissue damage are directly caused by a patient's anxiety or depression. A stress-related migraine headache is one example of a psychogenic illness. Painkillers are often used to treat migraine headaches, but some researchers believe that psychogenic ailments like migraines with no complete organic explanation cannot be effectively cured unless the underlying source(s) of depression or tension are also addressed.
Psychological factors can also affect physical and brain function, and can weaken the immune system's ability to fight disease and ward off infection. Unhealthy behaviors like smoking and alcoholism are examples of learned psychological behaviors and addictions that have severe physical consequences.
The combination of these mental and physical health risks results in potentially serious health problems that cannot be treated effectively without examining their psychological causes. That examination is the essence of holistic (also termed biopsychosocial) approaches. Holistic medicine examines the relationship between mind and body, and acknowledges the behavioral and social factors that make us sick. By studying these relationships, health psychologists hope to find more ways to prevent illness and improve our health and well-being.