After you’ve had herpes for a few weeks or months, the emotions surrounding it sometimes change. You might still have some of the initial ones we talked about, but they’ll tend to fade a bit as you get more information about herpes, in general, and your case, in particular. But now, some new feelings might come into play. Again, not everyone will experience all of what follows. You might move directly into accepting your condition, incorporate the reality of having herpes into your relationships, and get your life right back on track after negotiating this little jog in the road. Or you might be one who struggles a little more with it. Let’s talk about some of the reactions to genital herpes that can come after the initial reactions have passed.


Having herpes can mean the loss of the part of your sexuality that was carefree and without restrictions. You now need to disclose that you have herpes to current and potential sex partners, and that’s, at best, simply not much fun. But in these days of HIV and hepatitis, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to get into the testing and telling mode with partners. In any case, this loss of feeling carefree about sexuality can be a struggle.

There’s another kind of loss, that of your perception of yourself as unflawed. Maybe you haven’t seen yourself as unflawed until you received your herpes diagnosis, but many people have, especially very young individuals who’ve not yet had enough life experience to know that no one is perfect. Getting herpes may be the first significant thing that’s ever happened to you that’s identified you as less than pristine. But the reality is that you were never flawless to begin with; no one is. It’s easy enough to give lip service to that statement, but having something like herpes that’s visible and not open to debate really brings home your “fallibility.”

A third kind of loss, and it can be a big one, is the loss of control. Having herpes, you can’t ever really know exactly when you’re infectious to others, and that can be troubling. Your awareness of asymptomatic viral shedding takes away the control you may have thought you had to be able to avoid sex only when you have no symptoms in order to be “noninfectious.” However, you now know that you can transmit herpes to your partner even when you’re not having an outbreak. That awareness can cause the feeling of loss of control over your ability to have sex during certain “free times.” You now know that you don’t enjoy such a luxury.


People who have genital herpes can feel socially stigmatized. Stigma relates to how society perceives others, and frankly, society sometimes doesn’t treat genital herpes very kindly. There are the rude jokes about herpes that circulate. In the midst of a herpes joke, it’s not easy to speak up and say, “I don’t think herpes jokes are very funny; it’s a common disease, and some people here could be infected, so let’s joke about something else.” Not everyone has negative feelings about people with herpes, but you still may be reluctant to disclose your infection status to others, because they may perceive you in a negative light simply due to your disease.

You can deal best with stigma by asking yourself, is the social negativity about genital herpes really warranted considering the minor medical severity of the disease, or is its “bad reputation” vastly overblown? I think you already know the answer, right? There’s quite frankly little relationship between how herpes is perceived and the real medical problems it presents.


Shame is distress we feel about something we’ve done, but it’s deeper than that; it’s also about who we are. Feeling shame usually arises from standards we’ve been taught and the conflict we feel when our behavior is inconsistent with our beliefs and values. People who feel shame have feelings of disgrace, dishonor, and self-condemnation. The shame involved with herpes often comes from having engaged in a sexual encounter that we regret more than from having the disease itself. It’s about our looking inside ourselves, as opposed to allowing ourselves to be judged by a society that’s looking in on us. Shame contributes directly to problems with self-esteem. It can also contribute to problem behaviors like striking out at others or diverting blame to someone else to make us feel better, though that exercise rarely works. Some people attempt to deal with their shame by being overly pleasant or self-sacrificing to others to counteract their feelings of unworthiness, or they might try to achieve perfection in other areas of their lives to lessen the shame they feel about having herpes. But such compensatory behaviors can’t get to the heart of the matter, so they rarely make shame disappear.

You’ll feel less shame by learning to accept yourself, warts and all (no pun intended). Self-esteem is feeling positive about yourself, but self-acceptance is a broader and healthier condition. If you can learn to accept yourself with all of your limitations and flaws (herpes perhaps being a minor one in the big picture), decide that you’re worthwhile regardless of the errors you make, and strive to be more consistent with your own expectations, shame can slide back into the shadows.


People diagnosed with herpes sometimes pull inside themselves. Feeling shame can contribute to the desire to be alone and result in avoiding others, removing yourself from social situations, and feeling as
if you’re better off not having to face people with the truth about your disease or the dreaded “talk.” Some people feel unworthy of interacting with others and mistakenly believe that they’re no longer “good enough” to interact with others because of the infection. They may choose to avoid their friends or family, rather than have to share what’s really bothering them.

In fact, it’s perfectly okay to want to be by yourself for a little while. You need time to process what’s happened and to feel a little shock, sadness, loss, and embarrassment. If you felt absolutely nothing, I’d be really concerned. Normal people don’t get the news that they have a lifelong sexually transmitted infection, shrug their shoulders, and say, “Okay, what’s next on the agenda?” We humans react, and for some people, that can require a little “quiet time.” But when the “quiet time” stretches into weeks and months, when you refuse to see friends or family or to get involved with social activities, you should consider nudging yourself to get back into the world of the living, little by little.


Most people who get genital herpes don’t suffer from clinical depression. You may feel shocked and upset, but almost everyone works his or her way back to normal psychological functioning within three to six months (Wald et al. 2005). However, you might get stuck in the sadness, shame, and loss aspects and not bounce back all that well. For most people, this isn’t really a case of clinical depression either; it’s just feeling down. For some, however, things can degrade into a truly depressed state of mind where life starts to look very bleak. How do you know if you’re clinically depressed? An experienced clinician can best determine that, but there are some specific warning signs for depression. Please go over this checklist to see if many of these symptoms apply to you:

__ Are you persistently sad?
__ Do you feel pessimistic about the future?
__ Do you feel like a failure?
__ Do you feel guilty?
__ Do you feel as if you’re being punished?
__ Do you dislike yourself?
__ Are you critical of yourself?
__ Do you cry a lot?
__ Are you irritable?
__ Have you lost interest in social activities?
__ Are you having a hard time making decisions?
__ Do you feel unattractive?
__ Are you often tired for no physical reason?
__ Have you lost interest in sex?
__ Have you lost your appetite?
__ Do you have trouble getting motivated to work?
__ Have you lost interest in things that you previously enjoyed?
__ Do you have trouble sleeping?
__ Do you sometimes think you’d be better off dead?

If you checked off several of these questions, it’s possible that you’re clinically depressed. Many people recently diagnosed with herpes also answer yes to many of these questions, but these feelings don’t usually persist over time. And there are degrees to the answers. All of us have felt tired, found it hard to work, or had trouble sleeping at some point, but if these issues start dominating what you do and how you feel every day, you need help. A qualified mental health professional can perform an assessment to find out if you’re suffering from clinical depression. If you are, there are talk therapies, preferably cognitive behavioral therapy (which has been proven to work very well with this kind of problem), and medications to help you find your way out (Mindel 1996; McLarnon and Kaloupek 1988).

And no matter how badly you feel about having genital herpes, it’s most certainly not a reason to kill yourself. If you have such thoughts in your head and any sort of plan to take your life, put this book down, pick up the phone, and seek professional help immediately. After all, we’re talking about a minor infection that most people learn to manage and then lead fulfilled lives that include rich relationships. If you see death as the best answer, then this is one of those times in which you need help from a professional—now!


“Relief?” you ask. “Terri, what were you smoking when you wrote this book?” But some people do feel relief on hearing a herpes diagnosis, and a few of you are saying right now, “Aha, that’s me!” Let’s say
you’re in a relationship in which one person is infected and the other isn’t. For years you’ve used condoms, examined genitals for signs and symptoms before having sex, stopped in the middle of sex if you felt any twinges, and were otherwise saintly in all your efforts to avoid transmitting herpes. And I suspect that one of you was a lot more worried about transmission than the other. But then “it” happened, and now you both have herpes. There’s now a little place in your heart (and maybe even a big place in the hearts of some) that’s relieved that you no longer have to do all that “stuff” to reduce the risk of transmission. This can be particularly true for couples who want to get pregnant at some point. They may be relieved about no longer facing the risk of transmitting herpes during the perilous third trimester.

Another kind of “relief” might be that you don’t have something worse, like HIV infection or hepatitis C, that can actually shorten your life. Or you may have had troubling symptoms for years and gone to specialists to find out what was wrong with you. You’ve taken multiple medications, none of which worked, and had lab tests and diagnostic workups that yielded nothing. Now, finally, you have a clear diagnosis and a way to treat a relatively simple infection. You may not be jumping for joy, but you’re relieved to know what’s actually going on inside your body and to have effective medicines to treat a mostly benign medical problem.

Many people feel that herpes has had a positive influence on their lives. Some say that they make better decisions about their sex partners, others keep a closer watch on their general health habits, and others state that they’re more careful to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV. I bet that if you think about it, you’ll discover aspects of having genital herpes that are positive as well.


So often, I’ve had patients tell me they feel “one down” from people who don’t have herpes. You may feel that if others had a choice about a partner, they’d always pick a person without herpes over you. You may have found adjectives to describe how you feel about yourself that include words like “dirty,” “worthless,” “slutty,” “flawed,” or “disgusting.” I hesitated to even list these words, because I don’t want you to get the idea that you should feel any of these things about yourself. Perhaps, however, you were already there. But put those words away right now. They don’t describe you. This virus didn’t conduct some kind of personality inventory to measure your worth or count the number of sexual partners you had in your life before it invaded your body. It just looked for a cell in which to live. Stop giving it so much power!


Excerpt from The Good News About the Bad News: Herpes: Everything You Need to Know (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Terri Warren, RN, NP, has owned and operated Westover Heights Clinic in Portland, OR, a private sexual health clinic specializing in STDs, for more than twenty-five years. She speaks nationally and internationally on the topic of genital herpes and has authored papers published in several medical journals. An accomplished researcher, Warren has been investigator or subinvestigator in more than eighty clinical trials, mostly involving genital herpes infections. She is also the herpes expert on, where she answers readers’ questions about genital herpes infections.