How Stigma and Emotions Trigger Genital Herpes Outbreaks
By Contributing Author: Stephanie
As a sociology student who lives with genital herpes, I find particular interest in the stigma of the virus. The term ‘stigma’ was originally used by the Greeks to describe an abnormal or immoral trait in an individual. The term was brought back into context in the 20th century by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman uses this term to refer to a trait that is deeply discrediting to an individual’s identity (Goffman 1986). I am sure we can all agree that a genital herpes diagnosis certainly fits this criterion.
Because of my background in this area I automatically made a connection between research on stigma in the field of sociology and the section titled “The Impact of Our Emotions on Symptoms” in Dr. Kelly Martin Schuh’s book: Live, Love and Thrive with Herpes. In this section, Dr. Kelly, as she is known within our community, discusses how constantly worrying that symptoms might show up ironically can trigger an outbreak. I have also experienced this phenomenon as someone who is dating with genital herpes. One of the many pieces of research connecting these two topics is a 2009 study by Rao and colleagues. The researchers in this study were aiming to develop a stigma scale for chronic illness, as opposed to short-term illness. Simply put, the study found that when an individual is diagnosed with a stigmatizing illness, he or she goes through what is called the “Self Stigma Process.” A person goes sequentially through Steps 1 through 5 and experiences the Self Stigma Process in steps 3 and 4
How Stigma Affects A Person With Herpes
- Enacted Stigma
- Felt/Perceived Stigma or Stereotype Awareness
- Stereotype Agreement
- Self Concurrence or Internalization
- Self Esteem Detriment/Psychological Distress
During this process individuals will become aware of stereotypes about their illness, begin to agree with them, and eventually internalize these ideas, which will finally cause them psychological distress (Rao et. al 2009). In other words, awareness of the stigma brings about stress, and as we all know stress can trigger outbreaks. As I reflect on how the “Self Stigma Process” relates to my own experience with herpes, I find it to be a good fit. When I was first diagnosed I became much more aware of the social stigma that such a diagnosis holds. I then began to understand the negative stereotypes that create the stigma, and I even began to believe those to be true about myself. I finally internalized those negative beliefs and began to feel extreme shame and guilt towards my diagnosis, which I believe caused an increase in the physical symptoms I was experiencing. As Dr. Kelly, I, and I am sure many of you have experienced, dating with herpes brings all those negative stereotypes associated with the virus to the surface. The thought of having to disclose your situation with someone can cause extreme distress. The irony of this situation is almost humorous, but I know first hand that it can be very traumatizing.
Although I have begun to reverse some of my internalization of those negative stereotypes, dating still brings me back to them even if it’s just for a brief moment. So, how do we stop this vicious cycle of dating, stress, and outbreaks? The good news is that awareness of this connection is the first step to controlling it. Once you know that this particular thought process could actually make your symptoms worse, you can start to change that thought process to control the situation to your liking. It may seem to be much easier said than done, but the answer is much simpler than you probably imagine: affirmations. As Dr. Kelly’s book Live, Love, & Thrive with Herpes illustrates, affirmations begin to develop new neurological pathways in the brain to enhance positive self-concepts. An affirmation can be thought of as creating a truth about yourself through your words.
Affirmations: An Exercise
- Write some positive statements about yourself and why you are so incredibly dateable and lovable, and then say them out loud. Some affirmations I have made include phrases like:
My skin is flawless I am sexy My body is strong, healthy, and beautiful
Once you hear the thoughts out loud you may just start a new process that we can call the “Self Love Process.” With this information I hope you all can start more positive thought processes when it comes to dating and looking for love! Purchase Your Copy Here
- Goffman, Erving. 1986. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster Inc.
- Rao, Deepa, Choi, Seung W., Victorson, David, Bode, Rita, Peterman, Amy, Heinemann, Allen, and David Cella. 2009. “Measuring Stigma Across Neurological Conditions: The Development of the Stigma Scale for Chronic Illness.” Quality of Life Research 18:585-595.
- Schuh, Kelly Martin. 2012. Live, Love and Thrive With Herpes: A Holistic Guide For Women. Pink Tent International, LLC pg. 27-28.
Hi Everyone! My name is Stephanie. I was diagnosed with HSV-2 in April of 2014 when I was 22 years old. Right now, almost three years later, I am a doctoral student in the sociology department at Purdue University. I recently completed my MA in sociology at the University of Northern Colorado where I explored the role of stigma in the process of disclosing a genital herpes diagnosis. With that said, if anyone is interested in reading what I discovered in my project, I am happy to share that with you! I plan to continue advocating for our community, as well as studying the social factors that influence sexual health in order to understand how we can create a world that is easier for people diagnosed with STIs. I really enjoy writing for the Pink Tent community and am excited to be able to share some of my experiences and thoughts about living with genital herpes with you all.