How stress impacts your T-cell count when you’re living with HIV

Stess-and-hiv-positive peers

Stress sucks. We all know stress can affect our emotional and mental wellbeing, but just how much does it impact our physical health? The simple answer: It affects our bodies a lot.

Among other things, stress messes with your body’s ability to create T-cells, which are your immune system’s key infection fighters. The number of T-cells (also called CD4 cells) you have can tell you and your doctor how healthy your immune system is.

HIV basically kills off T-cells, so a low T-cell count makes it easier for HIV to break down your immune system.

So, should you be worried that stress could impact your T-cells?

Stess-and-hiv-positive peers

Back when there were no meds to treat HIV, this was a big question because getting rid of stress did make the immune system stronger, which could delay the progression of HIV to AIDS and add months or years to people’s lives.

But now that we have powerful anti-retroviral (ARV) medications that shrink your viral load to undetectable levels and help your T-cell count work its way back to a normal, healthy range.

Translation: Taking your HIV meds as instructed makes your immune system healthy again. And a healthy immune system by definition includes a healthy T-cell count. Your HIV meds do such a great job of protecting your T-cell count that scientist don’t even look at stress the same way anymore.

Stess-and-hiv-positive peers

But stress is still a huge deal with HIV

Stress may not be as big of a concern as it used to be when it comes to the immune health of someone living with HIV. But, stress still sucks and impacts the body in other negative ways. And check this out: stress is one of the main reasons people sometimes go off their HIV meds.

Stress can be everywhere in life. People worry about their health, family, friends, job, future, and so on. And if you’re living with HIV you also be dealing with social isolation, depression, and stigma.

That’s not something you fix by deciding: “Today I’ll just cheer up and everything will work itself out,” although we applaud the positive attitude and optimism!

Stress tires you out and weakens your will to deal with pretty much everything. And dealing with your stressors is not always easy.

Stess-and-hiv-positive peers

Quick tips on dealing with HIV-related stress

Stress happens when your body goes into fight-or-flight mode because something in your environment feels outside your control. Lack of control leads to fear, worry, and anxiety — the foundations of stress.

You can’t always control everything, but you can do things that reduce the fight-or-flight reaction:

  • Get some exercise. Go for a walk or a run, try lifting weights — anything that gets you out of your cycle of worry. Maybe give yoga or martial arts a try?
  • Get a massage. Having somebody rub your tight muscles is a proven stress reliever.
  • Spend more time with people. Loneliness is a huge contributor to stress. Hanging out with friends and family is a great stress reliever (provided they don’t do things that stress you out).
  • Deal with your depression. Feeling sad just makes your stress more, well, stressful. Counseling or hanging out with an HIV support group can be a big-time stress reliever.

Stress is like hauling around a 60-pound bag of rocks — but the weight is on your soul instead of your shoulders. It’s worth taking some time to figure out how to take the weight off.

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