Receiving an HIV positive diagnosis can be gut-wrenching. It comes with an avalanche of emotions and questions. How can this be possible? How do I tell my family? Am I going to die soon?
Due to the nature of the disease and the stigma associated with it, HIV can have dire consequences on a person’s mental health. While it’s important to follow the recommended treatment plan and your medical provider’s advice for its effects on the body, it’s just as crucial to take care of your emotional wellbeing.
Living with HIV
Let’s start with the basics. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The crux of the illness is that it destroys the body’s CD4 T cells, which help fight diseases and infections. As a result, if left untreated, the patient’s immune system is destroyed.
This is why it’s so important to get tested for HIV if you’re at risk. Early detection and treatment can block the virus, giving the patient a good chance of living a long life. That doesn’t mean that you can go on as if nothing is happening inside your body. The diagnosis is life-changing. Therefore, getting a support network may be as necessary as the antiretroviral medication.
Emotional Effects of HIV
When a person is diagnosed with HIV, they can feel shock, anger, fear, denial, and shame. It’s no secret that there are a lot of stigmas associated with the condition. It’s not a truth that everyone feels comfortable sharing with friends. It’s not a topic of conversation they want to bring up on dates. The fear of being judged or rejected often result in the person isolating themselves socially and emotionally.
The emotional effects of an HIV diagnosis don’t necessarily lead to a diagnosis of clinical depression or anxiety. Though your mood and emotions will be affected. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be. With the right treatment and support, gloomy feelings can eventually subside.
HIV and Depression
While feeling sad and despondent while you get used to the idea of having HIV is normal, pay attention to signs that you may actually be clinically depressed. The most common symptoms include:
- A constant feeling of sadness that lasts for several weeks or more
- A loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- A deep feeling of hopelessness
- Feeling exhausted all the time
- Difficulty sleeping (or in the alternative, sleeping too much)
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling sluggish
- Feeling guilty
- Suicidal thoughts
People living with HIV are more likely to become clinically depressed. It’s important not to sweep this under the rug since left untreated, it can be life-threatening. A patient can be at an even higher risk of depression if they are keeping the diagnosis to themselves, or if they’ve already lost a loved one who was also HIV positive.
How to Cope with the Mental Health Effects of HIV
1. Tell someone. Even if you’re a person who likes to keep to yourself, this is not something you should deal with on your own. Be selective. If you have a significant other, you have to tell them. In fact, some jurisdictions require an exception to confidentiality if keeping the information concealed could result in harm to someone (e.g. your significant other). In addition, studies have shown that people who have a support system respond better to treatment.
2. Join a support group. One of the best ways to cope with being HIV positive is meeting other people who are going through it as well. It’s a place where you can go without fear of judgment, and where you can listen to stories from people who’ve been living with the diagnosis for years, sometimes even decades. You can get a list of support groups from the facility where you were first diagnosed, where you’re receiving treatment, or online.
3. Exercise. Regardless of whether a person is HIV positive, incorporating regular exercise into their lifestyle is always a good idea. Doing so lowers the risk of many diseases, such as diabetes, heart conditions, and certain types of cancers. Since a person who is HIV positive has a compromised immune system, keeping diseases at bay is crucial. Always make sure to run an exercise program by your doctor first, then start doing something you enjoy. If you’re working out for over an hour, make sure to replenish electrolytes.
4. Avoid things that make you unhappy. Now is the time to get rid of toxic friendships, relationships, jobs, or any unnecessary stressful situation. This is because stress can weaken your immune system, and HIV already makes it harder for your body to fight disease. To add insult to injury, stress can make you feel pain more acutely.
5. Learn more about HIV. Knowing how the illness affects your body and reading about all of the advances within the medical field to fight it will help you regain a sense of control over the situation.
If You Believe You May Have HIV or Have Already Been Diagnosed, St. Hope Foundation Can Help You
At St. Hope, we serve many patients living with HIV. We believe that treating people with compassion is as important as the medications they receive. We foster a trusting patient/medical provider relationship to ensure that everyone who walks through our doors feels comfortable and receives the care they deserve.
We take same-day appointments, accept all insurance plans, and welcome walk-ins.
Call us at 713-778-1300 or visit us at 6800 West Loop South, Suite 560, Bellaire, TX 77401.