Positivity linked to better health outcomes in people living with HIV

21 April 2017

First known intervention to increase positive attitudes in people newly diagnosed with HIV found to have profound health benefits.

A close up of a man smiling

Teaching men recently diagnosed with HIV skills to increase positive emotions has resulted in lower viral loads and lower antidepressant use, compared to those not receiving any happiness intervention.

The study, conducted by researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the USA, forms part of a larger study looking at positivity mentoring in patients with chronic illnesses – including diabetes and breast cancer.

Eighty subjects, consisting mostly of men, were taught a set of eight skills over a five week period, to help increase positive attitudes in relation to their new HIV diagnosis. A further 79 participants were in a control group which received no counselling.

At the end of a 15-month period, 91% of the men who received the positive emotion intervention had a suppressed viral load, compared to just 76% in the control group.

Moreover, antidepressant use more than doubled in the control group over the 15 month period. At the beginning of the study, 17% of participants in both groups reported being on antidepressants, by the end of the study, the use of antidepressants reached 35% in the control group, and remained constant in the positivity intervention group.

Among the skills taught were keeping a daily mindfulness journal; recognising positive events each day; daily meditation and breathing exercises; reappraising daily life events and finding the positive elements; practicing small daily acts of kindness; listing skills and setting goals.

Having a lower viral load is not only beneficial for the patient, but also has public health benefits, as people are less likely to transmit HIV when their viral load is suppressed.

"Even in the midst of this stressful experience of testing positive for HIV, coaching people to feel happy, calm and satisfied -- what we call positive affect -- appears to influence important health outcomes," said lead author Judith Moskowitz.

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Written by Caitlin Mahon

Content Specialist - HIV & Sexual Health