Living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. Anxiety is a common response to being diagnosed with HIV or any serious medical condition. Finding out that you have HIV may bring uncertainties and concerns about your health, relationships, and future.
One myHIVteam member described how anxiety affected them: “When I came back from work, I had this anxiety that everything was going to end very soon. I am also terrified because my workplace doesn’t know that I have this virus. I have anxiety that they might be able to find out from somewhere. I know I have been overthinking things a lot since I found out about my status.”
It’s not unusual to feel some level of stress when you first receive unexpected or unpleasant health news. Anxiety is considered normal when it lasts for a few weeks or a month. However, anxiety that persists for more than six months may be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder, a condition that affects about 2 percent of the general population and almost 16 percent of those who are HIV-positive.
You can take steps to help manage anxiety and keep it from taking over your ability to function.
Sometimes, professional interventions through psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (types of talk therapy) are recommended for anxiety. You might also ask your doctor if you may benefit from medication, like antidepressants. Check in with your health care provider to get medical advice and recommendations regarding treatment for anxiety.
In addition, here are some key strategies to help you cultivate a positive mindset, calm your worries, and embrace a more fulfilling life with HIV.
Knowledge is power when it comes to reducing HIV-related anxiety. Educate yourself about the virus, HIV treatment options, and the latest medical advances. Understanding your condition can alleviate anxiety by getting rid of misconceptions and empowering you to make informed decisions about your health care.
Ask questions at health care appointments to learn about and be proactive in your treatment. Some HIV medications may have side effects that contribute to anxiety. Not everyone responds to different medications the same way, so be sure to tell your doctor if something doesn’t feel right.
If you think your symptoms of anxiety could be a result of your medication, contact your health care provider. They may be able to adjust your treatment plan or suggest additional medications and methods to treat unwanted side effects.
Taking care of your physical and mental well-being is essential to managing anxiety. Make self-care a priority by engaging in activities that promote relaxation, such as:
Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep can also positively affect your overall mood and help lower anxiety.
Stress worsens anxiety symptoms, making stress-management techniques essential. Experiment with different approaches to see what works best for you. You might explore mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation (a technique of tightening and relaxing muscles), or journaling. Don’t wait for a stressful life event — incorporate stress management into your daily routine to cope with everyday situations.
One member of myHIVteam described how they experience anxiety. “I’m not always happy,” they said. “I have to push myself to get through the day sometimes, and it’s tough because anxiety is always around the corner for me. It’s something I’m learning to live with, but it doesn’t define who I am.”
Practicing mindfulness and gratitude can help you adjust your focus away from anxious thoughts and bring you into the present moment. You can try activities that promote mindfulness, such as meditation or walking. Additionally, take time each day to reflect on what you are grateful for, no matter how small. By getting into the habit of journaling about three things you’re thankful for each day, you can work toward shifting your mindset.
Finding healthy distractions can also be an effective strategy for managing anxiety. Spend time on activities you enjoy, which might include:
Positive distractions such as these can provide a mental break, reduce anxiety, and boost your mood.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can have a significant impact on anxiety levels. Physical and mental health are closely linked. To feel your best, avoid alcohol, recreational drugs, and too much caffeine, which can increase anxiety symptoms. Instead, focus on making positive lifestyle changes. Work on the aspects of your health that you have control over.
For example, make a conscious effort to make sure you get enough sleep — perhaps set an alarm to signal when it’s time to get ready for bed. Members of myHIVteam have also described their strategies for a good night’s sleep. “Rest has to be a constant regimen for all of us who live with HIV,” one member shared. “Also taking ‘running thoughts’ out of the brain and writing them in a journal before bed helped me more than I ever imagined.”
“Working out and wearing out are great ways to improve not only the depth of sleep but the length of sleep time,” wrote another. “When I exercise, I sleep better.”
Scheduling 30 minutes a day to be physically active or signing up for a group fitness class can help you stay accountable to getting regular exercise. Not only can physical activity improve your sleep, but studies also show that exercise can significantly reduce anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety often thrives in silence and isolation. Foster open communication about your feelings, concerns, and fears with people you trust — friends, family, health care providers, or therapists. Talking openly about your anxiety can provide relief, offer different perspectives, and remind you that you are not alone on your journey.
Engaging with mental health professionals who specialize in working with individuals with chronic (long-term) health conditions, including HIV, can be immensely beneficial. Get in touch with therapists, counselors, or support groups in your community or online. They can provide guidance, support, and coping strategies tailored to your circumstances. One-on-one meetings with a professional can be especially helpful if you experience social anxiety and have trouble reaching out elsewhere.
If you have financial concerns related to HIV, disability benefits, or your medical bills, find a social worker to help you access resources and get back on your feet. “I’m filled with a lot of anxiety about bills, trying to find the money to pay them,” shared a myHIVteam member.
In response, a member encouraged taking the process one step at a time. “What I’ve learned is not to let the big picture overwhelm me,” they said. “But if I could isolate and organize each bill and allot even 10 dollars a month toward each creditor, at the end of the day, that’s all you can do.”
Support systems are crucial if you’re experiencing anxiety. You might be surprised to hear how much others can relate to your situation. Surround yourself with friends, family, and loved ones who are understanding and supportive. Joining HIV support groups or online communities can also provide a sense of belonging and allow you to connect with others facing similar challenges.
On myHIVteam, the social network for people with HIV and their loved ones, more than 37,000 people with HIV come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories.
How has your HIV diagnosis affected your mental health? Do you use physical activity or relaxation techniques to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and improve your quality of life? Post your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by sharing on myHIVteam.