The Importance of Stress Management for People with HIV/AIDS

A man walks along a tree-lined pathStress 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
  • Meditation
  • Exercise (as low impact as walking) including yoga
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • 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.


  1. 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
  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Stress. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joseph Robert Scrivani, MSW, LCSW, HIV / AIDS Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Chara

    January 7th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    After I tested positive I thought that I would rather die than to have to live with this. But so far I have found some wonderful doctors and my family has all been so supportive. I will not say that things are easy but it is not the automatic death sentence that I thought that it would be either.

  • Laine

    January 7th, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    I do not think that most of us understand just how much of a negative and detrimental impact on our lives that stress and anxiety can have.
    Especially when you are dealing with a disease like HIV it is so important to remain in a positive state of mind whenever possible and to find effective ways to deal with any stress and anger that you could be feeling.

  • logan e

    January 8th, 2016 at 8:15 AM

    I would love to know if there have been any truly valid studies done that show life expectancy decreases with higher stress levels?

  • Townshend

    January 9th, 2016 at 9:37 AM

    When you are already dealing with a compromised immune system the very last thing that you would wnat to do is to treat your health in way that is going to compromise it and slow down it’s ability to heal even more. When you allow this much stress into your life that is exactly what you will be doing. You are allowing something that can seriously weaken you do even more damage because your body is already with HIV having to work twice as hard to keep itself healthy. That is why it is imperative to develop new and even better coping and stress management skills if you find yourself having to live with HIV.

  • katydid

    January 9th, 2016 at 4:44 PM

    Are primary care doctors helping with referrals for this sort of treatment?

  • Cherie

    January 11th, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    I understand that in the medical field there is a great deal of care taken to protect one’s privacy but I think that there is still a great fear that this does not always happen and then you are being outed like Charlie Sheen on the Today show.

  • Trent

    January 11th, 2016 at 2:41 PM

    THere are many people who may find meditation to be most helpful.

  • Ed

    January 13th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    We have come so far since the early days of an HIV diagnosis. Then we didn’t know how much external factors could pull down our care and not allow us to live like those who are receiving this kind of diagnosis today. We are all much better educated about what works well for treatment and what does not, as well as how other factors that you may not have once anticipated could have such a huge impact on your over all health.

  • anonymous

    January 18th, 2016 at 9:36 AM

    You should be able to divulge information on your own terms, not on the terms that someone else sets for you
    Feeling like that ability to protect your confidentiality has been taken away from you
    that is a serious breach of your own personal and private information

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