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Worry and anxiety
You may be concerned about a sexual contact and your chances of passing on or getting an STI, or you may be anxious about having an STI and how that will affect your health, relationships or sex life. You may worry about the stigma or shame around some STIs. Some people feel more anxious when they step out of their comfort zone such as having sex with a sex worker, having sex with someone other than a regular partner or trying some new sexual activity. Another time that is often difficult for people is waiting for test results once you have been tested.
Worry can show up in many ways, including:
- Physical symptoms: rapid heart rate, headaches, chills, nausea, fatigue
- Thoughts: confusion, uncertainty, poor concentration, poor memory, intrusive thoughts
- Emotions: fear, guilt, panic, anxiety, irritability, depression, agitation,
- Behaviour: withdrawal, problems sleeping, changes in social activity, appetite or alcohol/drug use, difficulty working
When worry is not helpful
Worry is a problem when it becomes hard to control and starts to get in the way of your daily life. Obsessive worry is like a downward spiral; the longer you spend thinking about it, the more anxious you can become. A common example of worry is when your STI or HIV tests are negative but you continue to feel anxious or uneasy. You may find yourself looking for more information and getting tested again and again. But worry is an emotion that causes the mind to overthink and often there is no amount of information that will lessen the anxiety.
Worry can be a problem, but it can also be useful. It is often a sign that you are uncomfortable with something that has happened and it gives you a chance to think about what is worrying you and if you want to make changes. Here are some questions you can think about if you are feeling a lot of worry:
- Do you need to look at your comfort level: Everyone has a different level of “risk tolerance” or comfort with sexual activity. Over time, you will learn what you are OK with. If you have sex and it causes you a lot of worry, then you might want to think how you could do things differently next time. For example, if you find you are worrying about a blow job without a condom, you may think about using condoms the next time.
- Do you have good information: Have a look at our “Know your chances” tables for information on your chances of getting or passing an STI with different types of sex.
- Do you have worry in other parts of your life: Is this your only anxiety right now? If you are worried about one thing, it can often lead to worrying about other things. If you are more and more anxious about your chances of getting an STI, then you may want to think about other worries in your life that are adding to that stress.
- Is it time to talk to a counselor: Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who has experience helping people deal with anxiety. If your feelings are making it hard to get by day-to-day, then it might be helpful to talk to a professional counselor. See the list of services in the resources section below.
What you can do
It can help to remember that worry and anxiety are emotional issus and there are things you can try that can help you manage your emotions when you are worrying a lot.
- Stop looking for more answers on the internet: Searching the internet for information can often make your anxiety worse because it is full of information that is outdated or incorrect. Getting the wrong information can increase your worry.
- Try deep breathing and breath counting: Bring your attention to your breath; breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe in, push the air down deep into your stomach. Slow down and count the rhythm of your breath.
- Affirmations: Affirmations are simple statements to focus your mind, help you stay calm, and reduce negative emotions. For example, “I am worried, but I can be calm”, or “I am worried, but the doctor said I was fine”. It can help to combine affirmations with deep breathing.
- Thought stopping: Thought stopping will give you control over negative thoughts. When you become aware that you are worrying, say STOP in your mind or even out loud, if it’s appropriate.Take a deep breath and visualize yourself gathering up negative thoughts and blowing them out with your breath, say to yourself: “blow it away” or “let it go, take another deep breath and say your affirmation.
- Make a worry plan: Write out these strategies on a business card that you keep in your wallet or nearby so it is easy to find when you need it. The worry plan reminds you what you can do.
When I am Worried I Will