Short-term day to day stress is something that we all experience and it shouldn’t cause any major problems, or be anything to be overly concerned about. In fact, not all stress is ‘bad’ stress. Anything that causes a change in any aspect of your life can cause stress, even if the change is good. Getting a promotion at work, for example, is usually good, but can be stressful.

If the demands of life become too much to cope with, however, then stress can cause problems. If you are finding it difficult to cope with new situations physically, mentally or emotionally, then the stress caused by this can become too much to deal with. Being diagnosed and living with HIV can bring with it times of increased stress, but there are things that you can do to try to keep stress levels down.

Stress and the immune system

Short-term stress should have no detrimental effect on your immune system, but long-term stress can be a problem. Too much stress can suppress the immune system, whether you are HIV positive or not, leaving you more open to viral infections such as colds and flu. It can also mean that these infections are more difficult to fight off. Since you are HIV positive, your immune system may not be as strong as it used to be. The combination of a weakened immune system and too much stress can therefore have an effect on your day to day health.

HIV treatment and stress

Starting on anti-HIV drugs for the first time or changing the combination you are on can be stressful. There’s a lot to consider and new routines to learn. In the initial period, the side effects of the drugs can be stressful to deal with for some people. If you are worried about coping with the stress of starting or changing treatment then speak to your doctor, or talk to a health adviser at your clinic about stress management.

Managing stress

Before you can start to manage stress, it’s a good idea to first try to identify what’s causing it. You may be under a lot of stress because of being diagnosed HIV positive, or because you’re starting or changing treatment, but there could be many other reasons as well. Talk it through with someone who may be able help identify the cause, such as your doctor or a health adviser at your clinic. It may even be worth considering going to see a counsellor, such as the ones available through Terrence Higgins Trust. When you have identified what factors are causing you stress then you can start to do something about it.

Other ways to manage stress include learning how to relax. There are many different kinds of relaxation technique, from simple breathing exercises to complementary therapies such as massage and yoga. Some people find that these kinds of complementary therapies work very well for them. We talk about complementary and alternative therapies in the section on HIV treatment.

Physical exercise can also be a really good way of relieving stress. It doesn’t have to be really hard exercise – sometimes a gentle swim or going for a walk can help you to unwind and also help you to cope physically and mentally with the stresses in your life.

"Some people think that weight training at the gym four or five times a week is boring, but I've actually found it to be quite therapeutic, and a help when I'm stressed. So many things in life are out of your direct control - problems at work or money worries and suchlike - and the gym is different and rewarding in the sense that the amount you get out of it corresponds exactly to the effort you put in. It's not complicated or difficult, just straightforward physical exertion, and this can be quite calming intellectually and relieve physical tension. After a difficult day at work, I've found that working out helps me to go home with a clearer head, and also sleep better later. And over time, when you see the good physical results of training, it's satisfying to know that they're entirely your doing, and no one else's." (Daniel, 38)