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Home Support Emotional Support The Better You Think, The Better You Feel, so Let’s Have Good Thoughts for Every Meal!

The Better You Think, The Better You Feel, so Let’s Have Good Thoughts for Every Meal!

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As owner of the Westover Heights Clinic in Portland, Oregon, a private clinic specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, Terri Warren, RN, ANP, is well versed in patient education and conseling. For this anniversary issue, Warren, also a member of the HRC Scientific Advisory Committee, offers her insights for patients on dealing with the emotional aspects of genital herpes infection.

When you were diagnosed with genital herpes, you had lots of feelings, I would venture to guess, most of them not ones you would describe as positive. But where do feelings come from? Our emotional reactions come not only from the events that take place in our lives, but from how we think about those events.

Let’s say that two people get divorced. One person says, “I’m a total failure. I’ll never get married again. I’ll never find another person to love me, this is the end! I’m a terrible loser and this is just more evidence that I’m right .” That person will feel desperation, depression and despair. Another person thinks, “Well, that’s a bummer. I thought I had a good marrriage, but it wasn’t a perfect fit from their perspective so I guess I can’t force this to work. I’ll bet there are partners out there that are better for me. I’ll be by myself for a while and pull myself together a bit, then maybe I’ll put an ad on one of those online dating services and see who I meet.” The second person will feel a loss but will also feel hopeful about the future.

The event is the same–getting a divorce. But the two individuals’ thoughts about it are very different. And as a result, their feelings as they face the single life again are also very different. This is true about most of life’s experiences. Think about unemployment as another example. The event is the same for everyone–loss of income, perhaps a move to a new town, living in a new place, structuring the work hours differently, scanning the want ads –but the feelings vary greatly from person to person. For the person who felt trapped by their old, dead-end job, the prospect of the opportunity to find something more rewarding might be welcome, but for the person who thinks that unemployment is shaming and embarrassing and should be avoided at all costs, any feelings they have about being unemployed will be extremely negative.

With this article, I’m going to try to help you think differently so you can feel differently. In my many years of seeing herpes patients, I’ve noted some common thinking traps that many people experience. I’m not suggesting you should be emotionally blunted or grateful because you have herpes, that’s just ridiculous, but by thinking differently, you may be able to turn your negative feelings into ones that are more positive and can make you happier in the long run.

The three common thinking problems that people with herpes experience are:

  • Overgeneralizing
  • Catastrophizing
  • Demanding

When you overgeneralize, you may have destructive thoughts that are too broad to fit your current situation. Here is an example:

Destructive thought: I’m worth less as a person because I have genital herpes than someone who isn’t infected.

This type of thinking causes problems because it involves overidentifying with one’s disease–“I am my herpes” vs. “I have herpes.”

Constructive alternative: My overall worth as a person is not affected by having herpes. Rather, I’m a person with many different characteristics, some great and some not so great. Herpes is only one characteristic (OK, maybe not such a great one), not all of me. But I really am a balance of attributes, not just this one.

At times, particularly during outbreaks, you may find it harder to accept yourself and recognize that balance; instead you might feel less desirable and less attractive. Having herpes may dominate your thoughts, and you’ll find it harder to bring to mind what your better attributes are. But they’re there; just keep reminding yourself about them. Make lists of your strengths. No, you aren’t perfect, but this isn’t the time to dwell on the negative side of the list. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of time for that. And remember, you weren’t flawless before you had herpes either. People are drawn to you or move away from you for a variety of reasons; herpes is just one. And think about this possibility - if someone else has herpes, maybe someone you’ve started dating, and is dreading having to tell you, they will see your herpes as a positive characteristic, not a negative one!

Destructive thought: I will never find anyone who’ll want to be sexual with me, because I have herpes.

This belief generalizes from your thoughts about your present, situation and attempts to predict the future with no evidence to support its conclusion. Most of you don’t have any proof that you won’t meet people who can accept the risk of getting herpes from you. Let’s say you’ve been turned down by someone, they refuse to accept the risk of getting herpes from you. Now you have a very small piece of evidence, but that doesn’t mean that every time you tell, someone will reject you does it? When you first learn to water ski, you fall down most times you try to get up, but eventually, you’ll be skiing more than falling. I believe the same is true for meeting partners when you have herpes. In my experience, those people who get repeatedly rejected after they disclose their herpes status are getting rejected for other reasons as well, not just the herpes. But that’s a whole different article.

Constructive alternative: Why should I think that I’ll never have healthy, long-term, sexual relationships? Some people may not want to take the risk of getting herpes, but there are most likely those who will, especially if the relationship is a good one.

When some people are first diagnosed as having herpes, they say they simply can’t take the risk of being rejected by someone so they don’t tell anyone and just kind of stay at home, hibernating. I think that’s okay for a while, it really is. But if this goes on and on, and you continue to think this way, it suggests that you think there is no way you could stand it if you were rejected. What is it about being rejected that would cause you not to live through the experience? Yes, it would be unpleasant and your heart might beat quickly, but it wouldn’t kill you. And what about a life in which you live completely alone forever? Wouldn’t that be much more difficult than risking a possible rejection, if, of course, you desire to have a partner? How will it feel to be 85 and all alone to look back and say, “Well, at least I didn’t give anyone little blisters on their genitals during my lifetime!” That’s nice, but hardly an astounding legacy.

The reality is that once you begin having sex as part of your life, it’s hard to simply stop. It’s important to remember that the fears about transmitting herpes will ease with time, and in a healthy reality, a realistic plan to prevent transmission will replace the fears.

Catastrophizing is making a smaller deal a huge deal and sometimes it also involves overgeneralizing. Here an examples:

Destructive thought: Having herpes is the end of my world. I’ll never ever be happy again.

This belief usually implies that having herpes is simply too much to bear and that one cannot possible be happy in spite of having herpes.

Constructive alternative: Having herpes is certainly inconvenient, not my first choice of a life long disease and an unfortunate hassle. But other people seem to find happiness in spite of having herpes, I think I’ll try to figure out how they do that. I’ll bet I can do it too

If you really think having herpes is a catastrophe, you don’t have enough information about genital herpes. The more you know, the better you will be able to cope. The medical aspects of having herpes can be successfully managed, and the psychological ones can too, even if that’s a significant challenge for some people. Seeing a professional counselor may also be helpful. Having a close friend to talk to is also very useful because keeping all your thoughts inside can make you feel pretty lonely.

Destructive thought: I should not have contracted herpes, and my partner should never have given it to me!

These thoughts jump from the realistic desire to have avoided getting herpes to the unrealistic demand that such a thing must not have happened. Remember that most people who have genital herpes don’t know it. People can’t prevent the transmission of something they don’t know they have. And let’s imagine that you got herpes from a casual sexual encounter. Where is your responsibility in this? Did you even ask your partner to get tested for STDs prior to having sex, and were you also tested?

Constructive alternative: I wish I hadn’t gotten genital herpes, that’s for sure but at the time I got it, I didn’t know that my partner could give it to me. Given the information I had at the time, I guess that’s kind of just the luck of the draw. Maybe I should have asked them to be tested for STDs. In the future, that’s what I’ll do so I don’t get another STD.

This thought allows you to share in the responsibility and gives you credit for doing the best that you could while encouraging you to do better next time. Accepting responsibility for any part you played in getting herpes can help you leave behind destructive demanding thoughts. But don’t move from taking responsibility for your part (if indeed you had one) to guilt. That’s not a helpful emotion either. Find the balance in there somewhere.

Destructive thought: I should not have to deal with the outbreaks, cost of medicines and social stigma associated with genital herpes.

This thought also insists that one’s preference for not having to endure misfortune must be granted. But why must it be granted? Where is it written that you shouldn’t have any pain or problems in life? Are you somehow different from all other people on this planet who do have problems to some degree?

Constructive alternative: I certainly don’t like dealing with the disadvantages of having herpes, but life sometimes deals us “unfair” blows. Its just part of the human experience to have to go through things that we don’t like very much. And there are plenty of people out there with medical problems that are far more serious than mine. This isn’t going to be the last bad thing that happens in my life, and if I can learn to take this one in stride, it will be good practice for things to come that are far more serious.

You certainly don’t have to use the specific constructive alternatives that I suggested above to replace the self-defeating ones, but it’s important that you come up with your own believable, helpful ways of thinking about the problems around having herpes.

And you need to keep reminding yourself of these alternatives. Once isn’t enough. When you feel yourself slipping into unhelpful beliefs or thoughts, remind yourself: keep working on it. What might seem gimmicky now will begin to feel more normal as you work on it. You might want to purchase the book Feeling Good by David Burns for a longer discussion about changing your thoughts to change your feelings.


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