For many people a diagnosis of herpes simplex and genital herpes in particular can be a devastating experience. This is due largely to feeling anxious and depressed about the stigma attached to the virus and not knowing how to cope with it. Unfortunately, even well after the infection has cleared up many people still suffer from emotional repercussions which may significantly alter their quality of life. Although this is not rational, it is a natural response due to misinformation.
Sadly, there is a considerable amount of confusion about herpes simplex and vague rumors and hype seem to have stuck in people’s minds. Most medical experts believe that misinformation about the virus actually causes more anxiety, worry and suffering than the condition itself. These issues will be discussed in more detail.
We will discuss possible first reactions to a diagnosis of herpes simplex, some of the common fears and doubts that people experience and how some problems can spiral when the situation is not dealt with in a knowledgeable way.
Many people feel very shocked they are first diagnosed with genital herpes. For some the infection is discovered by chance and prior to this they may not have been in a faithful relationship and neither partner will have had any apparent signs of the infection.
Then there are those who assume wrongly that only people who are very promiscuous get the virus and that they do not need to worry about it. They then feel shattered when they become infected with the herpes simplex virus.
Swiftly following the initial shock there are feelings of distress and anger: anger at the person from whom the virus was contracted, especially if you were unaware he or she was carrying it, and anger at yourself for contracting the virus.
There may also be overwhelming sense of grief – you imagine that things are never going to be the same again and feel as if you will have to cut yourself off from people whenever symptoms are present.
This response is not helped by the fact that you may be going through a painful primary episode at the time of diagnosis. The illness may cause you to take time off work, going to the toilet may be a nightmare because it hurts so much and you generally feel ‘unclean’ and vulnerable.
It is quite natural to feel upset at first, but the infection does need to be put into perspective before any feelings of anger, distress and depression become long-term problems. Being told that you have genital herpes can be such a shock that you are unable to take in any of the advice the doctor gives you. Instead of gaining a proper understanding of herpes simplex, negative catchphrases such as ‘incurable’ and ‘contagious’ can tend to stick in the mind.
Without being put into their correct context these phrases can create unnecessary alarm. We rely on modern medicine to have an answer for most ailments: when we are told that there is no cure currently available for herpes simplex the worst scenario can spring to mind. Some researchers have found that the responses to a diagnosis of genital herpes are remarkably similar to those for cancer.
In reality the word ‘incurable’ creates a false impression of the seriousness of herpes simplex. While it s true that the virus will always remain in the body, for most of the time there will be no symptoms and it will have limited consequences foe a person’s health.
Bearing It Alone
Many people say they feel incredibly alone when they have symptoms of herpes simplex. Even though they may be upset about their predicament, they choose not to share their feelings with friends or family because they feel ashamed and guilty. Although awareness of sexual health has come a long way in recent years, especially with the advent of HIV and AIDS, discussing sexual matters still causes embarrassment for some and genital infection is often regarded as a taboo subject.
While keeping quiet about your problem, you will probably pick up bits and pieces of information about the herpes simplex virus, much of which may be exaggerated or put in the wrong context. As a result you could become even more worried about the infection.
People with genital herpes are often left thinking that their ‘nasty’ infection should be kept a secret. They can feel worried that others will shun them if they find out. It is also possible to become paranoid about passing the virus on, even when there are no signs of infection. Some feel reluctant to talk to their problems because they are worried that people will gossip and conclude the infection is due to promiscuous behavior. Even telling a long-time partner about the diagnosis can become an issue (see below).
Ignorance can even lead some people subconsciously to believe that having genital herpes is a punishment for enjoying the sex or being unfaithful to a partner.
Effects on Sexual Activity
When a person is suffering from a lack of self-esteem, one of the first things to be affected is his or her relationships and sex life. With genital herpes, this scenario escalates as it is combined with anxiety about the diseases and the possibility of passing it on. Sufferers will have been told by a health specialist to avoid having sex while the symptoms are present, but a few will feel so unsure about themselves that they will lose all sexual confidence and will abstain from sex altogether. They go as far as depriving themselves of physical contact, warmth and loving which, in fact, may be needed more than ever at this time.
Any breakdown in sexual activity can create tremendous pressure within a relationship and may eventually contribute to a separation. Some people say that even after they have told their partner about the virus, they use excuses for not having sex rather than admit that they have a recurrence.
Studies have shown that the effects may be worse when the infection strikes teenagers who may be just starting to become sexually active. Already anxious about sexual relationships anyways, having an infection as well can lead them to reject sex altogether.
A person with genital herpes may lose an inclination to get involved in a new relationship for fear of having to tell the other person about being ‘infected’. Others who are very distressed may become insecure about the partners they choose. While both partners have the infection they may fall into the trap of using this security to stay in an unhappy relationship. There are also instances of people sleeping only with other people they have herpes simplex or becoming involved in a relationship when they are not really interested in the other person but are just trying to protect themselves from being rejected.
Insecurity Over Recurrent Infections
One of the main causes for concern about herpes simplex is its recurrent nature. Especially in the first two years, when infections may be more frequent, it is often difficult to predict when there will be another episode and how serious it will be. Those who suffer from outbreaks of oral herpes are just as likely to be upset as those with genital herpes.
In fact, due to the visible nature of oral herpes it can be even more distressing. Fortunately, repeat episodes are often less of a problem than anticipated and most people adjust when they realize their symptoms are becoming less frequent and do not last long.
Some people do have regular outbreaks where one episode seems to be followed by another, and this can be very traumatic. It is common for these people to describe a feeling of loss of control over their lives. Often antiviral drugs have only a limited effect and there is a feeling of hopelessness as there seems to be no real solution to the problem. This can lead to depression, which spirals with each recurrence.
Why Our Response To A Diagnosis of Herpes Simplex Is Poor
There are many reasons why people’s response to herpes simplex is power, but there are even more reasons why it need not be so. Unfortunately, there is the problem that many people still find it difficult to talk about their genitals in terms of sexual health. It is quite ironic when you think that genital infections constitute one of the most common forms of infection in adults. Even so, most people still think it will never happen to them and are shocked when it does.
The fact that genital herpes has the stigma of a sexually transmitted diseases makes matter worse and this situation snot helped by the fact that herpes simples was the subject of sensational media reporting in the 1980s.
During this time many inaccuracies were published and rumors and speculation about the extent of the condition and its seriousness flew thick and fast. In some instances referred to as the ‘new sexual leprosy’ or ‘the curse of the promiscuous’.
Many of the false impressions of herpes simplex remain today, causing serve distress for many. After the hype in the 1980s, the subject of herpes simplex seemed to disappear off the agenda altogether, so it is not surprising that people have been left with a distorted image of genital herpes. One of the ludicrous anomalies is that herpes simplex can only be called a sexually transmitted diseases when it has been transmitted though intercourse (genital to genital).
If you have caught it on the genitals from your partner’s cold sore or herpetic whitlow, then officially it cannot be one since you can hardly catch a sexually transmitted diseases from someone who does not have one. In fact, herpes simplex is a skin condition (and was listed in that section of all the older medical textbooks) which happens to occur on the genitals.
Fortunately things have improved more recently and sexual health is receiving the attention it deserves in certain circles. It is now a matter of education and awareness reaching a wider proportion of people.
How To Deal With a Diagnosis
If you are diagnosed as having herpes simplex the ideal situation would be to try to ensure that you suffer little or no emotional trauma right from the start. In most cases there is no need for this trauma and, if our responses were kept in proportion to the illness itself, the virus would probably receive the same kind of attention as thrush, or even the common col or flu.
Probably the best way to approach a diagnosis of genital herpes is to ignore any vague rumors you have heard about the virus before, especially if this information has come from friends who have limited knowledge if the virus, or from old media reports. It is likely that this information may cause you to be more worried than is necessary and it is important that any predetermined negative views are dispelled straight away.
Listen To Advice
Some doctors have a good understanding of herpes simplex and will be able to explain its implications and answer any of your questions thoroughly. Try to block out feelings of panic and concentrate on what the doctor is telling you – knowing the facts about herpes simplex is the first step to recovery.
When you are diagnosed, do not be afraid to ask questions as your doctor should be aware that many people are confused about the virus. Occasionally a doctor may not have sufficient experience of the virus to explain the situation fully and dispel any misconceptions.
If you do not feel satisfied with the information you have received, it might be worth while vestige your local GU clinic and talking to someone there. Usually if a doctor appears to be blasé about the diagnosis it is rarely a serious condition. It is likely that your doctor will refer you to a clinic anyway for further tests and you could seek advice from a Family Planning Clinic or a Well Woman Clinic, or you might want to contact the Herpes Association.
In general there are several main points to remember when you are diagnosed with herpes simplex:
• It is rarely a serious condition
• Herpes simplex is extremely common and almost everyone will contract at least one type of the virus at some point in her or her life. Estimates suggest that between 20 and 30 percent of the adult population are infected with HSV2.
• The symptoms will disappear of their own accord and antiviral drugs may help to speed this up, especially in the primary episode.
• Most people find the recurrent infections are mild.
• Managing herpes simplex usually involves common sense when it comes to practicing safer sex and abstaining when sores are present unless your partner has the same virus as you.
How To Inform a Partner
When you feel confused and upset about having the virus it is easy to imagine that your presumably uninfected partner will react badly, too – you worry that he or she may be angry, hurt, or even accuse you of being unfaithful. This is a delicate issue for many people and can be a serious cause for concern.
Once you have reached an understanding of herpes simplex yourself and have put it into its correct perspective, it is best to tell your partner. There is no need to feel worried about this, so long as you explain it thoroughly and present all the facts.
You will probably be surprised at how well your partner takes it – after all, you will have explained that it is a very common infection which is not serious. It is quite likely that your partner will have the virus anyways but may not have noticed it – a simple laboratory blood test will establish this.
If your partner does not have the infection, this means that you will have to take a few extra precautions in your sexual activity. For your own sake it is much better to tell someone close to you about your infection. Bottling it up will only make you feel worse. As with keeping any ‘secret’ there is a great sense of relief when you are able to share it with someone you trust.
If you find it difficult to discuss the subject, show your partner some of the literature on herpes simplex available. To settle any further doubts, you might both benefit from speaking to an expert together.
When you have just met someone and do not feel secure enough to talk to him or her say that you have had symptoms of genital herpes in the last, it is acceptable not to when you have sex for the first tie as long as the virus is latent and there are no signs of infection.
It is highly recommended that you practice safer sex in a new relationship anyway. If herpes simplex symptoms are present, however you should avoid sexual contact until it has healed completely. If the relationship develops and you intend to keep seeing that person, it is probably a good idea to tell him or her so that you are both able to modify your sexual activity when a recurrent infection occurs.
Sometimes anxiety about herpes simplex can start to filter into every part of a person’s life; some people begin to fear they will never be the same again. Even when recurrences are relatively infrequent, some people worry about when the next episode will occur and prepare themselves for the worst. In these cases reassurances and support in the from of professional counseling or a support group are essential.
Do not let a doctor dismiss your problem by saying there is nothing to worry about. There are many experts you could be reffered to who are very experienced in talking to people about their sexual health. Usually just a couple of sessions will help considerably in putting herpes simplex into perspective and sorting out any doubts you have.
You will soon be convinced that there is nothing to be ashamed about and no reason to feel you are alone. Thousands upon thousands of people have experienced genital herpes and for most of them it does not constitute a problem.
Talking to professional counselors who come across people with the infection all them time can be an enormous help. Make sure any counselor you approach is qualified and belongs to a recognized association.