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8 April 2002
HIV Can Serve As Opportunity For Positive Change
by George Atkinson

Contracting HIV would be a devastating experience for anyone. However, a new UCLA study suggests that many HIV-positive individuals believe that their infection and its life-threatening consequence served as a personal milestone that positively changed many aspects of their lives. The UCLA study, published in the current issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that HIV-positive women in the Los Angeles area believe that in addition to negative feelings about being infected with a life-threatening condition, becoming HIV-positive also served as the impetus to live a healthier life, with new priorities and a stronger focus on positive emotional and personal issues.

"We learned that these women, some of whom have been dealing with the effects of HIV infection for years, report many positive changes in their lives in addition to drawbacks," said UCLA researcher John Updegraff, the lead author of the study.

"Despite the fact that HIV is life-threatening, and causes tremendous financial and social burdens, these women found that coping with HIV infection made them feel wiser, stronger and more focused on the issues that truly matter to them, such as their families, their children or their community," Updegraff said.

The UCLA study based its findings on interviews with a multiethnic sample of 189 women from the Los Angeles area. The participants were asked a range of questions that focused on how being HIV-positive had changed their lives.

The study found that 75 percent of the women felt that their views of themselves had changed for the better since learning they were infected with HIV. Further, more than half of the women (53 percent) felt that being HIV-positive had changed their life priorities for the best as well. Overall, the number of benefits reported in the survey was almost double the number of drawbacks.

"The women in our study found that their perspectives on life changed, so many of the issues that had once seemed very important dropped out of view, while the most important aspects of life rose to the top," Updegraff said.

Not surprisingly, the study also found that the ability to find benefits in adversity was related to mental health. The women who found the most benefits in being HIV-positive were also those who showed the least amount of depression and distress.

"These results reflect on the broader issue of how people can use devastating events in their lives as opportunities for growth, even when they face life-threatening issues," said UCLA professor Shelley E. Taylor, a co-author of the study.

Countering the idea that this optimism in the face of tremendous hardship is only a denial of reality, the researchers point out that the women did also report the expected drawbacks of HIV-infection: being HIV-positive had a major negative impact on the women's romantic and sexual relationships, as well as on their thoughts about their health. In all, nearly 80 percent of the women reported that the impact of HIV on romantic relationships and health was primarily negative.

"Being HIV-positive placed yet another set of demands on these women, many of whom were already burdened with the problems of poverty, poor housing, inadequate employment opportunities and other day-to-day stressors," Taylor said. "Clearly, these women understand the problems in their lives, but they nevertheless see their infections as an opportunity for growth and change."

If finding some benefit in adversity helps people cope with such major stressors as HIV-infection, why has this behavior not been studied in detail until recently?

"For decades, researchers assumed that stressful experiences lead only to mental and physical health problems, so researchers did not bother to ask how adversity might change people for the better," Taylor said. "But now, by asking about a broader range of personal experiences, we often learn that people have a remarkable capacity to turn even the most difficult situations into positive breakthroughs."

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