Coping with HIV/AIDS: Mental Health
If you are diagnosed with HIV, your physical health is not the
only issue you have to deal with. Along with the physical
illness are mental health conditions that may come up. Mental
health refers to the overall well-being of a person, including a
person's mood, emotions, and behavior.
HIV/AIDS can have a major impact on many parts of your life.
People with HIV and those close to them are subject to many
things that may affect their mental health.
Many people are surprised when they learn that they have been
diagnosed with HIV. Some people feel overwhelmed by the changes
that they will need to make in their lives. It is normal to have
strong reactions when you find out you are HIV positive,
including feelings such as fear, anger, and a sense of being
overwhelmed. Often people feel helpless, sad, and anxious about
Some things to keep in mind about your feelings:
No matter what you are feeling, you have a right to feel that
There are no "wrong" or "right" feelings; feelings just are.
Feelings come and go.
You have choices about how you respond to your feelings.
There are many things you can do to deal with the emotional
aspects of having HIV. What follows are some of the most common
feelings associated with a diagnosis of HIV and suggestions on
how to cope with these feelings. You may experience some, all,
or none of these feelings, and you may experience them at
People who find out that they are HIV positive often deal with
the news by denying that it is true. You may believe that the
HIV test came out wrong or that there was a mix-up of test
results. This is a natural and normal first reaction.
At first, this denial may even be helpful, because it can give
you time to get used to the idea of infection. However, if not
dealt with, denial can be dangerous; you may fail to take
certain precautions or reach out for the necessary help and
It is important that you talk out your feelings with your doctor
or someone you trust. It is important to do this so that you can
begin to receive the care and support you need.
Anger is another common and natural feeling related to being
diagnosed with HIV. Many people are upset about how they got the
virus or angry that they didn't know they had the virus.
Ways to deal with feelings of anger include the following:
Talk about your feelings with others, such as people in a
support group, or with a counselor, friend, or social worker.
Try to get some exercise--like gardening, walking, or
dancing--to relieve some of the tension and angry feelings you
may be experiencing.
Avoid situations-- involving certain people, places, and
events--that cause you to feel angry or stressed out.
Sadness or depression
It is also normal to feel sad when you learn you have HIV. If,
over time, you find that the sadness doesn't go away or is
getting worse, talk with your doctor or someone else you trust.
You may be depressed.
Symptoms of depression can include the following, especially if
they last for more than 2 weeks:
Feeling sad, anxious, irritable, or hopeless
Gaining or losing weight
Sleeping more or less than usual
Moving slower than usual or finding it hard to sit still
Losing interest in the things you usually enjoy
Feeling tired all the time
Feeling worthless or guilty
Having a hard time concentrating
Thinking about death or giving up
To deal with these symptoms, you may want to:
Talk with your doctor about treatments for depression, such as
therapy or medicines
Get involved with a support group
Spend time with supportive people, such as family members and
If your mood swings or depression get very severe, or if you
ever think about suicide, call your doctor right away. Your
doctor can help you.
Finding the right treatment for depression takes time; so does
recovery. If you think you may be depressed, don't lose hope.
Instead, talk to your VA provider and seek help for depression.
Fear and anxiety
Fear and anxiety may be caused by not knowing what to expect now
that you've been diagnosed with HIV, or not knowing how others
will treat you after they find out you have HIV. You also may be
afraid of telling people--friends, family members, and
others--that you are HIV positive.
Fear can make your heart beat faster or make it hard for you to
sleep. Anxiety also can make you feel nervous or agitated. Fear
and anxiety might make you sweat, feel dizzy, or feel short of
Ways to control your feelings of fear and anxiety include the
Learn as much as you can about HIV.
Get your questions answered by your doctor.
Talk with your friends, family members, and health care
Join a support group.
Help others who are in the same situation, such as by
volunteering at an HIV service organization. This may empower
you and lessen your feelings of fear.
Talk to your doctor about medicines for anxiety if the feelings
don't lessen with time or if they get worse.
If you are HIV positive, you and your loved ones constantly have
to deal with stress. Stress is unique and personal to each of
us. When stress does occur, it is important to recognize and
deal with it. Some ways to handle stress are discussed below. As
you gain more understanding about how stress affects you, you
will come up with your own ideas for coping with stress.
Try physical activity. When you are nervous, angry, or upset,
try exercise or some other kind of physical activity. Walking,
yoga, and gardening are just some of the activities you might
try to release your tension.
Take care of yourself. Be sure you get enough rest and eat well.
If you are irritable from lack of sleep or if you are not eating
right, you will have less energy to deal with stressful
situations. If stress keeps you from sleeping, you should ask
your doctor for help.
Talk about it. It helps to talk to someone about your concerns
and worries. You can talk to a friend, family member, counselor,
or health care provider.
Let it out. A good cry can bring relief to your anxiety, and it
might even prevent a headache or other physical problem. Taking
some deep breaths also releases tension.
HIV/AIDS and some medications for treating HIV may affect your
brain. When HIV itself infects the brain, it can cause a
condition known as AIDS Dementia Complex (ADC). Symptoms can
include the following:
Difficulty paying attention
Sudden shifts in mood or behavior
If you think you may have ADC:
Don't be afraid to tell your doctor that you think something is
Keep a notepad with you and write down your symptoms whenever
they occur. This information can help your doctor to help you.
Build as much support as possible, including friends, family,
and health care providers. Although it's possible to treat ADC
successfully, it may take a while for some symptoms to go away.
It is completely normal to have an emotional reaction upon
learning that you are HIV positive, such as anxiety, anger, or
depression. These feelings do not last forever. As noted above,
there are many things that you can do to help take care of your
emotional needs. Here are just a few ideas:
Talk about your feelings with your doctor, friends, family
members, or other supportive people.
Try to find activities that relieve your stress, such as
exercise or hobbies.
Try to get enough sleep each night to help you feel rested.
Learn relaxation methods like meditation, yoga, or deep
Limit the amount of caffeine and nicotine you use.
Eat small, healthy meals throughout the day.
Join a support group.
There are many kinds of support groups that provide a place
where you can talk about your feelings, help others, and get the
latest information about HIV/AIDS. Check with your health care
provider for a listing of local support groups.
More specific ways to care for your emotional well-being include
various forms of therapy and medication. Used by themselves or
in combination, these may be helpful in dealing with the
feelings you are experiencing. Therapy can help you better
express your feelings and find ways to cope with your emotions.
Medicines that may be able to help with anxiety and depression
are also available.
You should always talk with your doctor about your options.
There are many ways to care for your emotional health, but
treatments must be carefully chosen by your physician based on
your specific circumstances and needs.
The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone;
there are support systems in place to help you, including
doctors, psychiatrists, family members, friends, support groups,
and other services.
AIDS.org: Mental Health
Articles and publications on depression and coping, stress and
anxiety, and death and grief.
AIDS.org: Telling Others You Are HIV Positive
Issues and guidelines about telling family members, friends, and
others that you are HIV positive.
American Academy of Family Physicians: HIV: Coping With the
Q and A about coping with fear, legal issues, and other
American Psychiatric Association's Coping with AIDS and HIV: An
Information on psychiatric reactions, treatment, and getting
The Body: Mental Health
Articles and links on depression, anxiety, stress,
relationships, and other mental health issues.
The Body: AIDS Hotlines and Organizations
A comprehensive listing of HIV/AIDS hotlines and organizations,
including a state-by-state breakout of HIV/AIDS organizations
and support groups.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Caring for Someone
with AIDS at Home: Providing Emotional Support
Information for caregivers and loved ones on providing emotional
HIV InSite Links: Hotlines
HIV InSite Links: Mental Health
Links to organizations and other resources dealing with
depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues.
Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS)
A non-profit organization that focuses on pets as a way to
improve the mental health and well-being of people with
HIV/AIDS. Includes information on health issues and
international list of organizations