Life with HIV: Keeping a calm mind and happy heart

Stay calm and be happy, the doctor says. It’s good for your immune system. And you’re like, “thanks a million, Doc. Now I’m stressed and depressed because I’m not calm and happy.” 

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By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

It might sound a little crazy at first to think you can be calm and happy when you’re living with HIV. But you can. And you can be confident, smart, good-looking, successful, and admired.

People living with HIV pull it off every day. Not because they have to. They just want to.

Some people get diagnosed with HIV and think “that does it, having fun got me into this mess and I’m never having fun again.”

That doesn’t really work either. You need fun, you need joy, you need happiness. And you deserve all three. Really.

What to do About Stress

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Stress puts your nervous system on high alert and messes with your immune system. Scientists have done a bunch of studies proving it.

There’s just no way to get around it: It’s stressful to know you’ve got HIV. But once you know, you start taking control of it. It’s hard, but you’re strong enough to make it this far. That’s plenty strong enough.


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Distraction is one of the best ways to deal with stress. If something’s on your mind, get your mind thinking about something else.

  • Play a video game.
  • Watch TV.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Work out.
  • Read a book.
  • Hang out with friends.
  • Learn to meditate.
  • Take up yoga.

It’s all good if it calms your mind down.

But what if you have family, friends or a job that are stressing you out? Try to find little escapes to get away and take your mind off whatever’s causing the stress.

This is hard to get right at first, so go ahead and ask your doctor or counselor for help with stress.    

Staying Happy

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Think about what makes you happiest. Now relax: you don’t have to be that happy all the time. No one is happy 100% of the time.      

Of course, you want joy in your life, and contentment, but you especially want to avoid feeling sad. We all do.

When we slip into sadness and depression, it can work like stress: it makes your immune system have to work a little bit harder. So, let’s help it out as much as we can by spending time doing things that make us happy.

What are Some Ways to Stay Happy?

  • Make time to do things you really enjoy.
  • Help other people out.
  • Join a support group.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Join a movement.
  • Hang out with other happy people.
  • Learn a musical instrument.
  • Take up a team sport.
  • Go to church.
  • Learn to cook.

These are just suggestions. Everybody’s idea of happiness is different.

One of the keys to happiness is telling yourself it’s OK to be who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you. OK, you have a disease, but there’s medicine for that.

Some people will treat you badly if they know you’re HIV-positive, but that’s not about you. That’s about them being judgmental, ignorant, and intolerant.

The main thing, though, probably comes down to this: do what comes naturally to you.

If you want to be in a relationship, go for it. If you want to make new friends, do it.

If you want to have a career, become successful, and make lots of money, being HIV-positive won’t get in your way.   

If all else fails, ask other people living with HIV what makes them happy, and see if it works for you.

Positive Peers is made possible through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, HIV/AIDS Bureau Special Projects of National Significance (SPNS) Grant to The MetroHealth System. Click here for more information about the SPNS grant initiative.
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