Learning that one is diagnosed with Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), either oral or genital, can be a very emotional experience. A person may experience a variety of emotions, ranging from disbelief to anger, due to the stereotypes that surround sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the incurable nature of this specific disease.1 Genital herpes is a common infection, affecting more than one in six people aged 14-49. Oral herpes is even more common, with 47.8% of people affected.2 However, misconceptions about the disease and its prevalence can lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety among those diagnosed. Despite these psychological consequences, individuals with herpes can find ways to ease their stress and have healthy sexual relationships. This article explains the effects a herpes diagnosis can have on one’s psychological well-being, along with effective methods for reducing them.
The most common psychological issues related to HSV are feelings of shame, embarrassment, anxiety, or depression.3 Upon receiving a diagnosis, people feel isolated and may not feel comfortable sharing these feelings with those they would normally rely on for emotional support. One study found that people with herpes experienced higher levels of sexual anxiety and sexual depression than individuals not affected by STIs.1 Another source of anxiety is the fear of rejection by potential sexual partners. Many people with herpes feel a sense of dread about the possibility of passing it on to others, and worry that they will be met with reactions of judgment or disgust if they disclose their status to a new partner.1
Unfortunately, the stress caused by herpes can lead to more frequent outbreaks, which can lead to more stress. Medical studies have confirmed that stress is one of the factors that can trigger outbreaks.4 In addition, qualitative research indicates that the negative feelings associated with herpes are more pronounced in people see an increase in the frequency of outbreaks over time.3
Reasons for Distress
If herpes is so common, why does it produce these significant psychological consequences? One reason is that many people with herpes feel as if they are the only ones affected by this disease. The reality is that the vast majority of people with herpes are never diagnosed by a healthcare professional. The CDC estimates that 90 percent of people with genital herpes do not know they have the disease.5 Most doctors do not test for herpes in routine STI tests unless the patient specifically requests it.6 This means that although a large number of people have herpes, few of them are aware that they have the disease. This lack of awareness can lead to feelings of alienation for those who are diagnosed with herpes.
Another reason for the stress surrounding a diagnosis is that sex education classes can inadvertently perpetuate the stigma of STIs. These classes may portray STIs as grotesque or scary in order to encourage students to use protection and get tested.7 Although these education tactics are meant to encourage safe sex, they can cause feelings of shame for people who contract STIs. The lifelong nature of herpes can worsen these feelings; because there is no cure, people must cope with this stigma for the rest of their lives.
How to Cope with a Herpes Diagnosis
Although herpes can cause feelings of distress and isolation for those afflicted, there are many ways to cope with these negative feelings, build healthy relationships, and foster a positive self-image. The following list provides advice for those who have recently been diagnosed with herpes.
- Remember that herpes is a very common condition that affects millions of people. You are not alone in your diagnosis; many others are struggling with the same emotions. Once you realize how prevalent this condition is, it will feel less alienating and you can begin to accept it.8
- Be sure to communicate with your doctor in order to come up with a treatment plan. Although herpes cannot be cured, there are medications available that can reduce the severity and frequency of outbreaks and make you less likely to pass the infection to a partner. These medical treatments can make herpes much more manageable and lessen its impact on your daily life.2
- Communication with partners is essential for a healthy sex life and positive romantic relationships. Although it may feel scary to disclose your diagnosis to someone, it is important to be honest and let them know before any sexual activity occurs. Many people actually feel relieved after having this conversation. One study found that for individuals diagnosed with herpes, disclosing their status alleviated feelings of sexual anxiety, low sexual esteem, and sexual depression, and increased sexual satisfaction.1
- If you are experiencing troubling emotions following your diagnosis, talking to a trustworthy friend or relative may ease your distress. If you do not not want to confide in those around you for fear that they will spread the news of your diagnosis, seeing a counselor or attending a support group could help you process your feelings in a confidential setting.8
If individuals accept their diagnosis, implement an effective treatment plan, communicate with partners, and reach out for support, they will find that herpes is a manageable illness.
People who are diagnosed with herpes often feel a range of negative emotions like shame, anxiety, depression, and fear of rejection. Despite the high prevalence of the disease, it is still stigmatized. If people with herpes can realize that they are not alone and work to maintain honest communication with their partner(s) and physicians, they can go on to have a healthy and satisfying sex life.
- Newton, Danielle C. and Marita Mccabe. 2008. “Effects of Sexually Transmitted Infection Status, Relationship Status, and Disclosure Status on Sexual Self-Concept.” Journal of Sex Research 45(2):187–92.
- “Genital Herpes: CDC Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 28, 2017.
- Merin, Abigail, and John E. Pachankis. “The Psychological Impact of Genital Herpes Stigma.” Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 16, no. 1, 2010, pp. 80–90.
- “What Triggers Herpes Outbreaks?” Livestrong.com, August 14, 2017.
- “Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 26, 2017.
- Nack, Adina. 2002. “Bad Girls and Fallen Women: Chronic STD Diagnoses as Gateways to Tribal Stigma.” Symbolic Interaction 25(4):463–85.
- Bobrow, Mikayla, “Full Disclosure: Herpes Stigma and Communication Practices among HSV+ Individuals” (2016). International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE).
- “Emotional Issues.” American Sexual Health Association.
Last Updated: 16 October 2018.