Psychological Issues Related to Herpes

Diagnosed with Herpes

 Learning that one is diagnosed with Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), either oral or genital, can be very emotional. A person may experience a variance of emotions, ranging from disbelieve to anger. This may be especially true for those diagnosed with genital herpes. Feelings of disbelief may morph into feelings of anger or resentment aimed toward the person that may have infected them.  The carrier may then experience sadness and confusion, as well as shame and embarrassment, as the notion of being infected is finally accepted.  Psychological issues related to a herpes diagnosis are felt almost universally amongst people of all ages. Studies have shown that being diagnosed with HSV carries the most psychological impact on a person (as opposed to being diagnosed with other STIs, not including HIV).1 HSV’s incurable prognosis as well its cyclic and often painful outbreaks, can make living with the virus extremely stressful. Simply knowing that one is infected can lead to feelings of stigmatization, both self-imposed and from others. This stigmatization may increase a person’s stress levels (which may already be extremely high), causing further detrimental effects on one’s overall health and well-being. HSV is, however, common in the United States: an estimated one in four Americans are infected (statistics vary among countries).1 Being diagnosed with HSV can feel extremely alienating and foreboding, but it is important to remember that no case is isolated as there is an entire community of individuals experiencing similar feelings and emotions.

The Effects of Stress on Herpes Outbreaks

            The detrimental effects of stress and social/self-stigmatization are many, but one of particular importance is stress’s direct effect on HSV outbreaks. Many studies report a positive correlation between increased stress levels (caused by stigmatization or physiological factors concerning the virus, e.g., pain) and the number and magnitude of HSV outbreaks experienced. The more stress a person experiences, particularly if one has poor stress coping skills, the more outbreaks the person has. These recurrent outbreaks can then cause a person to experience more stress. Thus, people living with Herpes may easily fall into a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of outbreaks that may be difficult to stop. Because of the qualitative nature of these studies, it is impossible to infer that high levels of stigmatization or stress actually cause outbreaks. It may be the case that outbreaks cause an increase in cortical levels (the hormone that is associated with stress), consequently increasing negative feelings and stress.2  The direction of cause and effect is difficult to establish in this relationship, but these two factors (stress and number of outbreaks) are nonetheless, extremely related.   

            Furthermore, a person’s stress level is influenced by their personal rate of outbreaks. Many people initially lack information about properly managing their outbreaks. As a result, they may experience a sense of powerlessness and a loss of control over their own bodies. There is a direct connection between psychological and physical health in persons living with herpes: when an individual is experiencing more negative emotions, he/she will perceive and report more physical pain. The opposite also holds true. When a person experiences an outbreak, the stigmatized feelings brought on by other individuals and society will often cause him/her to believe they are feeling pain from the outbreak.3 However, an increase in positive feelings of self-worth and a decrease in overall stress levels may actually decrease levels of perceived pain!

Other Psychological Issues affecting Herpes

            Other common psychological issues related to HSV are the feelings of shame, embarrassment, anxiety, or depression. These psychological effects will often influence a person’s decision to inform medical professionals, friends, family, and potential sexual partners of their health status. Not informing potential sexual partners can have devastating effects on possible intimate relationships, and can also result in legal repercussions (civil lawsuits from a partner for negligence or personal injury may be incurred).4 It is important to inform possible sexual partners of HSV presence before any sexual encounter may present itself. This means telling your partner before any sexual contact begins (e.g., with clothes on during a conversation). Being in an open and honest relationship built on trust can have beneficial health and psychological effects, as the carrier no longer feels stigmatized by potential partners.

How to Reduce the Psychological Effects of Herpes

            The first step in reducing detrimental psychological effects related to herpes is acceptance. Herpes is incurable and requires a lifetime of medical treatments, including antiviral drugs and periodic visits to a physician. Once a person accepts their herpes diagnosis, they can move forward with their treatment options that may include stress- reducing techniques and general applications of positive psychology (e.g., increasing the number of positive experiences one has, such as going to the beach, listening to music, going out with friends, etc.) Researchers have found that stress reduction, short-term cognitive behavioral stress management, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques have also been successful in combating the frequency of outbreaks. Findings like these reinforce the concept that stress reduction and positive self-image are essential tools available to people who are living with herpes and are looking to decrease the frequency of their outbreaks. Such techniques are relatively simple to follow, and when combined with the proper medical attention, can help people regain control over their bodies and their lives.  It is highly recommended that people work with a doctor to develop a plan for managing their infection that best suits their needs.

 

References

  1. G., Sally, M.S.W. "Navigate / Search." Herpesorg. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
  2. Mindel, A., and C. Mark. "Result Filters." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S.      National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014
  3. Merin, Abigail, and John E. Pachankis. "The Psychological Impact of Genital Herpes Stigma." Journal of Health Psychology (2010): 80-90. Print. 
  4. "Do You Have to Tell Your Partner about an STD?" Lawyers.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Last Updated 06 January 2015.

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