How Stigma and Emotions Trigger Genital Herpes Outbreaks

How Stigma and Emotions Trigger Genital Herpes Outbreaks

By Contributing Author: Stephanie

The Stigma Of Herpes
The Stigma Of Herpes

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

  1. Enacted Stigma
  2. Felt/Perceived Stigma or Stereotype Awareness
  3. Stereotype Agreement
  4. Self Concurrence or Internalization
  5. 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

  1. 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 Live Love and Thrive with Herpes


  • 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.   


StephanieHeadshotAbout The Author

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.



  1. Susan says:

    Hi Stephanie …. Thank you for your blog… I have been living with herpes pretty much my entire adult life. I was diagnosed at 22 … And I am 54.
    My first serious partner deliberately & intentionally infected me. At the time herpes was the “Worst” STD, because there was No treatment. HIV was not really even on the radar.
    As a sexually active 20+ year old, at the time, my partner & I had had three conversations around HSV 2, where I had shared, that I would not stay in a relationship where my partner had an STD… Well, just over a year later, he did what he did… I had even asked him at the very moment, what the “odd abrasion” on his penis was? He assured me it was nothing & explained he had “caught his penis on his zipper”. Duh young and inexperienced… I wondered how that could happen. Needless to say, 7-10 days later I became very ill. My mother even took me to the emergency room. A couple days later, my family Dr. The Dr. Who had delivered me, diagnosed it as genital herpes…. What can I say… That moment is forever branded in my mind. My life changed that day, and it has Never been the same…
    My life dreams were shattered… My path was forever altered…
    It has been a long struggle.. Very emotionally painful at times…

    Thank goodness women like you & Dr Kelly who have stepped up to provide a support forum for women in our shoes…
    I have searched and waited many long years for this…. I thank you for what you’re doing…

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Susan. It sounds like it has been quite the journey for you. Just remember to find the silver lining in every experience. I see that my journey with this will be continuous throughout my life, but I am so happy with where it has taken me already. Sending love and strength your way!

  2. anita says:

    Hi stephanie, yes I agree how stressful it is to be dating and those tr8ggersm8f avig to tell someo e adds to the stress. Yet, I find myself iso
    ated now and won der which is more stressful. I think too much isolation causes more stress than giving someone a chance. I am now making an effort in making contact with men now to find companionship. I think once I am very comfortable with someone, maybe those fears about the talk will not be so extreme.

    • Stephanie says:

      Anita, I think that is great you are starting to make efforts to date! Since I have been diagnosed I have had “the talk” with four different men. The first one was a bad experience where he just stopped talking to me, and the other three got better with practice! The last man I told did not seem phased at all. What I have realized throughout my experience disclosing to potential partners is that they react as a reflection of the way I disclose the information. The first man was scared and turned away because I presented the information from an insecure and fearful place. Now, I just make it a conversation that is open for questions without letting it seem like it is hard for me to talk about. It still is hard to do, and it puts you in a very vulnerable situation; but just remember that you are who you are and you should be proud of and confident in every piece of it! I wish you luck on your journey forward!

  3. Cathy Mitchell says:

    Hi my name is cathy. I am 53yrs old. My husband just left me in July. I caught him cheating. I was just told I have type 1 and 2. Thank you for sharing. This will help me get through it.

    • Dr. Kelly says:


      Take a deep breath and know that you are worthy of love. Take the time you need to grieve and heal, and then go out there and stake your claim for a beautiful partnership based in love, honesty and joy.

      Live. Love. Thrive.
      Dr. Kelly

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