The Psychological Effects of Herpes
by Sally G. M.S.W.
Acceptance and Adjustment
Sadly, in much of society, a stigma is associated with the Herpes virus. And, for unknown reasons, it is the “go to” sexually transmitted disease (STD) in pop culture when the goal is to ridicule or shame someone. Jokes about Herpes or about people possibly having the virus appear regularly in movies, television, radio, and on the Internet.
Thus, understandably, many people with Herpes, especially soon after being diagnosed, feel shame and embarrassment and fear telling anyone they have it. Others feel guilty and full of self-blame thinking that they “brought it on themselves”. Some individuals feel that they are being punished by God for their sexual activity. And still others fall into a depression and suffer from low self-esteem, wondering if anyone will want to date them or be sexual with them again.
These are intense emotions which create a great deal of stress in people. So why does “catching a virus” cause such emotional upheaval? Perhaps it would help first to debunk some of the most popular myths surrounding Herpes:
MYTH #1- Herpes is a very contagious virus. “I’ll pass this to everyone I know!”
This is false. You cannot transmit or catch the herpes virus through the air you breathe or from casual contact on toilet seats, chairs, and similar sorts of workplace or home contact. You can only catch herpes from skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. Herpes is not considered to be a virus that is easily caught like the common cold.
MYTH #2- Herpes is rare. “Why am I the only one who has this?”
This is false. 70-80% of people experience Oral Herpes (cold sores) by the age of ten years old. Most acquire the virus non-romantically as a baby or young child when they receive a kiss from an adult who carries the Oral Herpes virus. Genital Herpes affects about 25% of Americans. This means 1 in 4 people have it, with total numbers of carriers of the Genital Herpes virus exceeding 50 million people in America alone. You are not alone.
MYTH #3- Herpes is the direct result of promiscuous sexual activity. “I must sleep around too much.”
This is false. While being sexually promiscuous does carry increased risks of acquiring any STD, you can just as easily catch Herpes from a long term partner or in a monogamous relationship as you can from a one night stand. Again, 1 in 4 people in America have herpes and many are not aware that they do, or that they can shed virus even when they don’t have blisters. The virus can also remain dormant (or hidden) for years. Thus, very often people don’t know that they have it until they pass it to a partner.
Also, since 70-80% of people have Oral Herpes, (which can be passed to the genitals during oral sex), an individual could catch the oral type in the genital area unknowingly within a relationship of any duration. You don’t have to be “easy” to get the virus.
Myth #4- Herpes is so dangerously contagious that having a baby is too risky. “I can never have a baby.”
This is false. Women who have genital herpes before they become pregnant have a very low risk of transmitting the virus to their babies. Less than 0.1% of babies born in the United States each year get neonatal herpes. Fetuses are at highest risk if the mother gets first time genital herpes outbreaks late in the pregnancy. In all cases in which the mother either has genital herpes or develops it during pregnancy, it is essential to tell the treating physician or mid-wife so that all possible precautions are taken. These may include anti-viral medications and possibly a Caesarean delivery.
These 4 Myths often cause undue stress and worry in people who acquire the virus. But it may also be helpful to examine some of the main TRUTHS about the virus that tend to be upsetting:
Truth #1- Herpes is forever.
This is true and can be a sobering fact to accept. There currently is no cure for Herpes, and the virus stays in the nerve cells beside the spinal cord at the base of the pelvis for life. To learn that you have any illness that never totally goes away and that can recur at any time is stressful and upsetting.
Truth #2- I will have to alter my sex life.
This is true. When you have outbreaks, abstaining from any sexual activity is recommended. And even when you do not have blisters, you could be shedding virus that is contagious. Thus, to avoid passing Herpes to a partner during sexual activities, additional precautions such as daily anti-viral medicine, condoms, dental dams, and even protective gloves may be necessary.
Truth #3- There is no guarantee that I won’t pass Herpes to my partner.
This is true. Though you can be very careful, nothing short of total abstinence from any skin to skin contact will prevent the possible spread of the virus. This fact can create guilt, fear, and worry in people with the virus. The risk of transmitting the infection within a relationship is about 4% per year, and this risk has been shown to be significantly reduced by combining the taking of antiviral medication by the partner with the infection with the use of condoms.
Truth #4- Herpes outbreaks are painful.
This is true. Although individual tolerance of pain differs, Herpes outbreaks can be painful. They can include painful blisters, itching, and shooting pains in the genital area, as well as burning or other pain during urination and tender lumps in the groin. Initial outbreaks can also include flu-like symptoms of aches and fever.
Truth #5- The Herpes blisters will come back again and again.
Though there are individuals who only have one outbreak in their lives, it is generally true that outbreaks will happen from time to time. Genital herpes infections are usually characterized by recurrences, generally 4 or 5 the first year. But both the number of recurrences and the severity of symptoms tend to lessen over time.
These are some sobering and upsetting truths. As well, people with the virus are often angered by the response of friends, family or medical professionals who tell them: “You should be happy it’s only Herpes.” (implying that they could have AIDS, Cancer or other potentially terminal illnesses and be a lot worse off). While this is true, it is not often a helpful line of reasoning to the person who just had their first painful outbreak of Herpes.
So rather than having “just a little virus”, people with Genital Herpes infections face a chronic illness that may be painful, bears a societal stigma, and affects their emotional and physical lives including their sexual identity. It is no wonder that people react to Herpes with such strong emotions.
To further examine these emotions, I have outlined a series of stages and common thoughts associated with each stage that a person generally goes through when the first Herpes outbreak occurs. These stages are much like the grieving process for a death or other loss:
The 5 Stages of Emotionally Dealing with Herpes:
Stage #1: Denial- Ignoring symptoms and/or denying that they could be Herpes:
“It’s a pimple, it’s a rash, it’s jock itch, it’s an allergy, it’s nothing.”
Even after a diagnosis is made, people can remain in denial. “This isn’t happening to me.” Or, “This isn’t going to put a damper on my sex life!”
Stage #2: Anger- Angry, rageful, or vengeful feelings to the person who gave it to you,
to yourself, or to God (or your Higher Power):
“That %$I%! jerk! I want revenge!” — “Why did I ever sleep with him? I am such an idiot!” — “Why am I being punished?! Life is so unfair!”
Stage #3: Bargaining- Another form of denial, trying to making a deal or promise with God (or your Higher Power) or yourself:
“God, if you can make it so these blisters aren’t Herpes, I’ll never have sex again….or I’ll give up drinking….or I’ll go to Church every week, or…..”
Stage #4: Depression- Feeling sad, hopeless, and/or helpless, and having low self-esteem, sometimes accompanied by a change in eating, sleeping, exercise, work, and social habits:
“Life sucks. I’m worthless. I’m a bad person. I’m being punished for my sexual behavior. The pain will never go away. No one will ever want to be with me sexually again. What’s the point of even dating?”
Stage #5: Acceptance- Feelings of calm and being at peace. Being basically happy and hopeful about the future, and resuming normal eating, sleeping, exercise, work and social habits:
“I caught a virus. It can be a nuisance, and it is something I need to manage and be aware of, but I’m okay. I’m a good person. I don’t blame myself and I’m not being punished by God. I will be careful, take better care of myself, decrease my stress levels, and will approach life with a positive outlook. There are many people with Herpes out there. I may meet someone who already has it. Or there are plenty of people who can understand and accept that I have this. It does not have to be deal-breaker in a dating or long-term relationship.”
While each person grieves the losses associated with Herpes differently, most people will go through all of these stages, though not necessarily in this order, often jumping back and forth between them. It is important to note that there is no “normal” time frame for feeling these emotions. Some people will get to the Acceptance stage in months. For others, it may take a year or more.
All of the feelings associated with these stages are a normal reaction and will pass or lessen with time. We encourage anyone experiencing these emotions to talk to a counselor, friend, or attend a Herpes support group. And if you are having any thoughts of harming yourself or anyone else, we urge you to contact 911, a crisis hotline, or a mental health professional immediately.
As well, I have created a list of suggested Do’s and Don’ts that may be helpful as you move through your feelings towards acceptance of the virus:
THE DON’T LIST
Don’t ignore symptoms.
If you have blisters on or near your genitals or unexplained genital pain, please see your Doctor. A viral culture and blood test will usually confirm the diagnosis of Herpes if it is present. Ignoring symptoms will not make them go away and can result in spreading the virus unnecessarily to a partner.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Don’t blame, judge, or criticize yourself, including thinking that you deserve Herpes or got it as punishment for your sexual behavior. These are not life-affirming ways to think and not helpful in managing your stress, which is essential to keeping the virus as inactive as possible.
Don’t talk to friends or family who tend to have a blaming or judgmental attitude, especially surrounding sexuality. You don’t need nor deserve that negativity.
Don’t hide the diagnosis from people you date and or have sex with.
While you certainly don’t need to tell everyone in early dating stages, you owe it to a person to tell them about the virus BEFORE you get into a sexual relationship with them. It is advised that you are straightforward and that the conversation happens with clothes on prior to any skin to skin contact.
Special note: Can we guarantee the person won’t leave? Of course not, but if this is someone who would bail out over a treatable virus, is this really the person you’d want for a long-term partner? Yes this hurts, as does any rejection in a relationship. But one day, you will be thankful that you found out sooner rather than later about this individual’s level of character.
Don’t wallow in self-pity.
It’s normal to have some “poor me” thoughts. Let yourself feel them but try not to dwell on them. Staying in a negative state of mind usually snowballs into low self-image, depression, and isolation.
THE DO LIST
Do talk to a counselor or therapist about your feelings.
Sessions are confidential and a great way to vent your feelings and to get feedback. Group therapy is another way to express feelings in a safe setting, get your feelings affirmed, and have negative beliefs challenged by other group members.
Do talk to your close friends or family who are trustworthy and supportive.
Using your support system is very important now. Friends and family can listen and give you love, validation, and hope.
Do try a Herpes Support Group or Social Outing.
You will meet many people who can relate to what you’re going through. You might also make a new friend or even find someone to date. If nothing else, you’ll get out and do something social.
Do educate yourself about Herpes.
Knowledge is power. Learning the facts about Herpes as well as measures to minimize transmitting it to a partner will help you to feel more in control. I strongly recommend reading every one of the papers on this website to give you the information you need to help control the condition.
Do pay attention to the basics of good physical health.
Try to eat a balanced diet, get sufficient sleep, and get some exercise. And avoid smoking, recreational drugs or abuse of prescription drugs, and drinking to excess.
Do find ways to better manage stress in your life.
Though stress is a part of everyone’s life, there are many ways to decrease the impact of it by changing how you react to it. Along with counseling and support groups, stress management techniques may include deep breathing, meditation, journaling, Yoga, relaxation techniques, biofeedback, or spiritual work. No single approach is right for everyone so I encourage you to explore the vast amount of books, CDs, DVDs, and workshops available on the topic.
There also may be concrete steps that you can take to eliminate certain stressors. Often just learning it is okay to say “No” sometimes to commitments can significantly lessen the stress in your life. As well, taking action to resolve a worrisome situation such as a workplace or relationship conflict or a financial problem, can help to decrease your level of stress.
Do keep your sense of humor active. See a funny movie, watch a favorite sit-com, go to a comedy club, read a funny book or a favorite cartoon, or hang out with a funny friend or relative. Whatever makes you laugh, do it! The proven benefits of laughter include stress reduction, pain relief, an enhanced immune system, and a healthier outlook on life.
Do treat yourself.
Do something nice for yourself. Indulge in a scoop of your favorite ice cream. Buy yourself some bath beads. See an uplifting movie. Take a long walk in the park. Whatever makes you happy, do it! You’re worth it!
Do be grateful.
Do think about all of the things that you are grateful for in your life. This might be general good health, a loving spouse or significant other, supportive family or friends, a good job, a loving pet, a nice place to live, or a sunny day. It is always helpful to find something that is positive and good in your life and to be thankful for it.
In summary, yes, having Herpes can be a hassle, and dealing with it can feel overwhelming and upsetting sometimes. But if you take general good care of yourself, and seek support to help you work through your feelings, you can and will reach a place of acceptance about the virus. Eventually, you will be busy living your life and all of your initial fears and worries will seem far away.
For any questions regarding mental health and Herpes, please contact me at SallyG@herpes.org.
For any other questions, contact Dr. H at www.HERPES.orgTHIS PAPER WILL BE UPDATED AT PERIODIC INTERVALS AS SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE, APPROVED THERAPIES, AND FEEDBACK FROM USERS OF THIS SITE SUGGEST NEW INFORMATION THAT SHOULD BE CIRCULATED.
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