“When one’s immune system is compromised, it is essential to de-stress in as many ways as possible...for me, this means not working and using this time to return to health. I’m learning to live in balance, creating space and time away from my busy life to nourish and recharge myself. Having the courage to say ‘no’ at times and simplify my life is essential for the restoration of my immune system.”

Stress is very common among people living with HIV. We worry about our health, about telling others about our HIV status, about being rejected in relationships or discriminated against at work.

People cope with stress differently. For some, stress and worries can take over and become chronic. Chronic stress is characterized by tension in our muscles, headaches, an inability to relax or sleep and other physical symptoms. Some people turn to practices that can create more problems, like using alcohol and drugs or engaging in sexual risk-taking.

Telling others you have HIV (disclosure)

It can be stressful deciding whom you can tell about being HIV positive.

To help you decide, ask yourself:

  • Who do I feel needs to know?
  • Who will not judge me?
  • Who do I feel safe telling?
  • Who is a good listener?
  • Who will support me unconditionally?
  • Who will respect my privacy and only tell others if I ask them to?
  • Who is sensible, reliable and might be able to help me if they knew?

For the most part, you don’t have to disclose to anybody until you’re ready, and you don’t have to tell everyone at once. Though it may seem hard to disclose at first, many people find that it becomes easier the longer you live with HIV.

“All of [my friends] were supportive; nobody rejected me as I had feared they would.”

The one exception is that you have a legal duty to disclose your HIV status to sex partners (and likely the people with whom you share drug equipment) in certain circumstances. 

Sharing this information can be very stressful. Counsellors at some HIV testing clinics or those who work with Public Health can help you plan how to do this, or even do it for you. Although you may feel judged or rejected when telling friends, families, co-workers, sex partners or people you have shared drug equipment with, people’s reactions may not be as bad as you fear. You are a good judge of whom you should tell about your HIV status, so trust your feelings.

The people you tell may need more information about HIV, including how it is and is not transmitted. Many HIV organizations have counsellors who can also give you pamphlets that you can give to the people you tell.

 (Adapted from Managing Your Health)

Things you can do to decrease your stress levels now

  • Problem-solve — If the source of your stress is something you have control over, try to address it and eliminate the root cause.
  • Breathe — Concentrate on taking slow, steady breaths. Breathe in to the count of four, pause, and breathe out to the count of four. Repeat. Find some time every day to focus on your breath and slow it down.
  • Relax — Tense up each muscle in your body, one at a time, then release it to see how a relaxed muscle feels. A hot bath with aromatherapy oils or Epsom salts or getting a massage also helps to relax muscles.
  • Laugh — Studies show that laughter reduces stress.
  • Appreciate the good things — Every day, try to count five things in your life that you are grateful for. This reinforces a positive attitude.
  • Talk about your fears — Keeping your fears bottled up makes them worse. Find a friend, a counsellor or an elder you can talk to about your biggest fears and worries.
  • Learn about stress reduction — There are many complementary therapies that teach relaxation and stress reduction. Some community organizations offer free massage, yoga and meditation classes.
  • Live in the here and now — Life with HIV can be all about living in the past with regrets or in the future with worry about what lies ahead. Find some time every day to try to let go of the past and future and live in the moment.
(Adapted from Managing Your Health)