Stress is a state of physical, mental, and emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. It can also be a reaction people experience as they encounter rather routine changes in life, if the changes are frequent and ongoing.
Stress is a normal reaction, but it can have a number of negative effects on the physical body. According to the National Institutes of Health, “long-term stress may contribute to or worsen a range of health problems including digestive disorders, headaches, sleep disorders, and other symptoms. Stress may worsen asthma and has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental [conditions].” In addition, stress is known to suppress the human immune system. For all these reasons, it is particularly important for people living with HIV and AIDS to manage the level of stress in their lives.
It’s important to note that the last sentence reads “manage” stress and not “eliminate” stress. For nearly all of us, experiencing a certain level of stress is a routine part of our daily lives. Stress often arises as a response to change, and change, for better or worse, is a constant in most of our lives. So rather than spend time and energy toward eliminating stress, people living with HIV/AIDS could benefit from reducing and managing their stress levels.
Decades of research has shown that both physical and emotional/mental stress suppresses the human immune system. This essay will not focus on how this happens, but it is worthwhile to note that stress reduces the production of T-cells in the body. These are cells that help fight infection. Unfortunately, it is also the class of cells that HIV attacks in infected people. An individual living with HIV/AIDS may have a lowered level of T-cells due to HIV. Ongoing physical and emotional/mental stress will only add to this deficit.
In my years of experience working with the HIV/AIDS community, I’ve learned many individuals in this group live with additional life stressors and, thus, elevated levels of stress. A few of these stressors include:
- Shame and stigma
- Fear of unwanted disclosure of HIV status
- Managing a complicated medication regimen and numerous medical appointments
- Changes in occupational status
- Changes in financial status
- Chemical addiction
Numerous HIV-positive people have come to me over the years, concerned that ongoing stressors in their lives are causing anxiety and depression. Many seek therapy to help support them with their stressors, but just as many are interested in learning how to relax in the hope of lessening their stress before it adversely affects their immune systems.
Fortunately, there are several easy, low-impact, and free forms of relaxation available, some of which can be taught and practiced during a therapy session. They include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
- Exercise (as low impact as walking) including yoga
- Healthy diet and sufficient sleep
Massage and acupuncture are often considered complementary or alternative therapies. Both have been offered free of charge to HIV-positive individuals at numerous social service agencies in New York City, among other places. Many people, particularly those living with HIV/AIDS, report that therapeutic touch brings on a deep sense of relaxation and well-being. For those with relatively good physical health, moderate exercise, including walking and yoga, can be a big source of stress reduction. Many people over the years have reported that joining a gym or exercising in a park on a regular basis have helped reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
Some individuals may find that their stress and tension has brought on anxiety that they feel unable to control despite many attempts to do so. They may seek treatment with psychotropic medications. There are numerous antianxiety psychotropic medications, many of which are widely known by the general public. They include Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax. These medications are all controlled substances and can be obtained only through a prescription.
For both mental and physical health, I have learned from experience to never underestimate the benefits of a good night’s sleep. One of the most common symptoms of stress I hear reported is insomnia. Feeling refreshed and fully awake helps make it easier to handle life’s daily stressors. Without a sufficient amount of sleep, many people experience an impaired ability to concentrate, regulate their emotions, digest food, and stay awake throughout the day.
- Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (July 2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association, Vol. 130(4), pp. 601-630. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Stress. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stress
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