Do You Have HIV Phobia?

A Paralyzing Fear of HIV Infection That Doesn’t Exist

There are two words that can strike fear in many people—cancer and AIDS. And while those fears may be completely rational and understandable, what happens if they take control of your life?

If you fear the possibility of HIV so much as to be unable to cope with everyday life, then it is possible you have an anxiety disorder that is sometimes described as an HIV phobia (formerly known as an AIDS phobia).

Woman anxiously staring out the window
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Understanding HIV Phobia

HIV phobia—a specific kind of nosophobia—is an irrational, obsessive fear of getting infected with HIV or the fear you have already been infected despite evidence to the contrary.

AIDS phobia was broadly reported and described in the 1980s and 90s, before highly effective antiretroviral therapy was available.

It is a condition that may be easy to dismiss, but is still one that a person rarely gets over without some sort of focused intervention. It is something that can often take control of a person’s life, interfering with interpersonal relationships while significantly reducing quality of life.

People with HIV phobia can often be so convinced they have been infected that all the negative tests in the world won’t ease their fear. They can spend enormous amounts of time on the internet looking for evidence that their suspicions are somehow founded, oftentimes from websites offering anecdotal, outdated, or quack medical advice.

There are others who will do absolutely anything to avoid getting HIV even if their behavior is clearly unreasonable. They may fear that stains on a piece of clothing are evidence of HIV-infected blood.

They may devise outlandish ways to avoid infected during sex, falling prey to products or devices that are not only useless but may put them in harm’s way.

If you or a loved one has an HIV phobia, speak with a health professional or community-based AIDS organization for specialist referrals in your area. Alternately, you may be able to access a local support group either through your community HIV center or a 24-hour AIDS hotline available in most states.

Causes

The reasons people develop phobias like this are not clearly understood. Some mental health experts believe that the cause may be genetics—a propensity to develop phobias as part of your genetic makeup.

Others believe that phobias are a result of adverse events and experiences in a person’s life. A fear of water, for example, may result from knowing someone who drowned. Likewise, someone may develop an HIV phobia if they know others who have become extremely ill or died from the disease.

Another factor may be guilt from an act the person perceives as being wrong. Typically, these are sexual encounters that the person regrets, such as a married man who has sex with a prostitute, commits adultery, or has his first sexual encounter with another man.

These circumstances not only carry the risk of HIV, but they also place an individual at risk of having to explain how they got the disease.

In the minds of people with HIV phobia, HIV may be the inevitable result of a wrongful act. They may feel that HIV is the “punishment” for a “crime” they committed and that the guilt they carry is somehow both reasonable and deserved.

Culture often plays a big role in an HIV phobia. A person’s upbringing, religion, and social experiences can add to the undercurrent of stigma that runs rife in some communities, drawing an untenable line between what is “moral” and what is not.

Treatment

Individuals with a debilitating fear of HIV may be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. While it may help to sit with a doctor or counselor to get all of the facts about the disease, it may be more important to explore the root causes of the fears.

In many cases, the phobia will have nothing at all to do with HIV. Sitting with a trained mental health professional usually helps.

Treatment can involve one-on-one therapy, group therapy, or family counseling. In persons diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, prescription drugs like Zoloft (sertraline) and Lexapro (escitalopram) may help.

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4 Sources
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