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Coping With Herpes

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Study examines psychological adjustment of women with genital herpes

Many people—perhaps even you—have turned to the Internet to both learn more about genital herpes and seek out others as sources of both information and support. But is reaching out for support online an effective way to cope? Not necessarily, according to as recent study of women with genital herpes.

In the study, recently published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers looked at different psychosocial factors that influence psychological adjustment among women with genital herpes—specifically, perceived stigma, coping, communication with a healthcare provider, and social support. While previous research has found social support to be an important element in psychological adjustment for those with genital herpes, this study found that the source of support was important as well.

When looking at reported sources of support, including friends, sexual partners, healthcare providers, religious/spiritual figures, and the Internet, researchers found that not all types of support were equally helpful. One interesting finding: higher levels of support from the Internet predicted poorer quality of life, even though women reported that they perceived this type of support as most helpful.

Why the disconnect? The study authors suggest some ideas, including the possibility that perceived stigma and/or lack of information offered by a healthcare provider may drive women to search for information and support online. So those looking to online for answers may lack the support offline that they need to adjust to their diagnosis.

Of course the Internet also offers the option of anonymity, which may reflect the influence of perceived herpes-related stigma. The study authors suggest a need for more research to “examine the extent to which anonymous support seeking actually reinforces perceived stigma for STIs or other stigmatizing conditions, thus resulting in poor psychological adjustment.”

Indeed, perceived stigma played an important role in the quality of life reported by women in the study and influenced the way in which they coped with herpes. Researchers found that women who experienced more perceived stigma found positive coping strategies to be less effective, and reported a lower quality of life.

Another focus of the study was communication and interaction with healthcare providers. Researchers asked women in the study to rate the importance of herpes-related topics (such as how herpes is transmitted and discussing herpes with a sexual partner) as well as their level of satisfaction in discussing these topics with their healthcare provider. The full range of topics was taken from a previous study conducted by ASHA.

Here researchers found that the participants ranked the topics in importance similar to how these were ranked in ASHA’s study. Yet they also found a discrepancy between the importance the women placed upon specific topics and their level of satisfaction with the extent that their healthcare provider informed them these topics. This then leaves women searching for an alternative. As they note, “If women leave their health care provider’s office uninformed after a profound diagnosis, they may seek this information elsewhere, which is why many women in this sample turned to the Internet for support.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t useful resources available on the Internet (although plenty of poor information can be found there as well), as well as excellent online forums for support (such as the Original Herpes Home Page* and ASHA’s own message board*). However, it seems logical that it should not serve as the only source of either.


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