Herpes may raise strong emotional issues, especially in the first few weeks or months after a diagnosis. Some people initially feel embarrassment, shame, anger, or depression. The good news is that these emotions tend to fade away over time. Some studies have shown that even six months can make a difference in adjusting to herpes.
Why does such a common virus have the power to affect us? The major reason seems to be the fact that genital herpes is sexually transmitted. Growing up in our society, most of us come to view a sexually transmitted disease as a fate that befalls only those who have done something wrong. In addition, many people lose perspective about the medical implications of herpes. Too often, we see health as an all-or-nothing proposition: someone with a chronic infection is deemed unhealthy and somehow “imperfect.”
The first step in dealing with a herpes diagnosis, then, is recognizing it as a common, manageable virus, not a punishment or judgment. The next step is realizing that health is never “perfect.” In reality, everyone faces a host of physical challenges as inevitable as life itself. The task is to meet them and get past them. Fortunately, most people with herpes find that, with time, they are able to adjust to the medical and emotional impact of herpes and move on.
If you are experiencing a strong emotional response to a diagnosis, it might be helpful to explore why those feelings may be happening. Closely connected to the issue of self-image is the matter of how we believe others see us. This is where the social stigma about genital herpes – whether perceived or real – can be pinpointed.
One reason that genital herpes raises issues of social stigma is the fact that, as a society, we're just beginning to feel comfortable talking about sex and sexuality in general. Today, we are surrounded by images of sex in art, entertainment, and advertisements. There are signs as well that on a personal level we are becoming somewhat more open about topics such as sexual orientation and sexual function. With herpes there's a similar trend to more awareness and openness. Surveys show that the public is more educated on the subject than ever before. Perhaps the day will come when even the idea of social stigma will be a distant memory.
In the meantime, of course, it's very difficult to separate how one feels about having herpes from worries about how others might feel. Should you tell a friend? Will you be able to remain sexually active? How can you tell a sexual partner or romantic interest? When is the best time to tell? Concerns about any or all of these questions are not unusual for someone newly diagnosed. Rejection and misunderstandings about the nature of a herpes infection can and do happen. But a myriad of personal accounts suggests that in the great majority of cases, herpes does not stand in the way of successful, enduring relationships.
What can you do to speed the process of adjusting to herpes? Keep in mind the following:
- Realize that it's normal to be stressed emotionally by herpes, especially at first. Give yourself time to adjust, and remember that the emotional issues will get easier.
- Try to keep in mind that genital herpes is somewhat like other infections you may have had in the past. You are capable of managing it.
- If you're feeling isolated, you may need to find someone to talk to. Perhaps you might pick one close friend and tell her or him about it. You can ask that the conversation be kept in absolute confidence. You can also call our National STI Hotline (919.361.8488) and speak to a counselor about your feelings or visit a local HELP group.
- Try not to make the assumption that having herpes will prevent you from being romantically involved or having successful long-term relationships. There are millions of couples in which one or both partners have this virus. For the vast majority, the relationships stand or fall on far more important issues.
For more information on herpes and emotional adjustment, read our book, Managing Herpes: Living & Loving with HSV