The 5 Stages: Coping With A New Diagnosis

Last updated: February 2021

Diagnoses can come in many forms and take on various weights. For example, a diagnosis for the common cold may be a little annoying. It may require some changes for a brief amount of time, such as getting extra rest and drinking more fluids to stay hydrated. But what about the diagnoses that change our lives?

The grief of a new diagnosis

Receiving an HIV diagnosis can feel frustrating, ominous, and oftentimes confusing. It can be one of the most overwhelming experiences and lead to a roller coaster of emotions. It is often said that the 5 stages of grief that are typically associated with death or a loss are quite applicable to beginning your journey with a chronic condition.

Understanding these stages can help to manage the various feelings one experiences with the new life-changing diagnosis.

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The 5 stages of grief

You have probably heard of the 5 stages of grief before. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is helpful to remember that not everyone who has been diagnosed with a chronic condition will experience all stages – some may not experience any of the stages, and some may experience them in different orders. Here is a look at some of the features of each stage.

Denial

In the first stage of grief, one may find themselves rejecting the diagnosis they have received. Some may seek out additional opinions from other physicians hoping that the diagnosis is incorrect. There may be research into the disease in an attempt to prove that the diagnosis is wrong. Some people may not share the news with those who are close to them in hopes that the news might not be correct. You may find yourself saying things such as, “That does not sound right,” or “There must be another explanation.”

Anger

Maybe you skipped the denial part and instead first experienced anger. A diagnosis of a chronic condition may lead a person to feel like they want to yell or scream or punch a pillow. You may feel resentment at others who do not have your diagnosis and who may not understand what it is like to experience a day in your shoes. You may say things like, “This is not fair!” You may feel annoyed or mad at your family members, your job or coworkers, or even the stranger in front of you at the grocery store. In this stage, you may even feel anger toward yourself.

Bargaining

The third stage of grief is known as bargaining. The bargaining stage is about trying to regain some of the control that you may feel you lost when receiving the diagnosis. Some people may negotiate with a higher power they believe in to help wrangle the thoughts they are having. You may say things such as, “If you make this go away I promise to...” We may often bargain, wondering if we had done something differently or if we promise to change certain ways if the situation will change or even disappear.

Depression

This stage is about grieving the loss of self (or former self). One may also feel sad since they may not be able to do things they did before. Feeling depressed with the news can sometimes overtake a person. During this stage, it may be helpful to seek out support from others, either from close friends, family, or a licensed professional. This stage can be easy to fall into and hard to get out of, so building a support network is important.

Acceptance

Arriving at the stage of acceptance may take some time. There comes a point when you will “make peace” with the diagnosis and realize that it does not define who you are. In this stage, you have a much better understanding of the condition, you learn methods of coping with it, and how life can be with the condition. When you embrace the inevitable, you will open the doors that can lead to understanding and even opportunities.

Your emotions are normal and valid

No matter if you experience 1 stage or all stages, remember that your feelings are normal as you process how the diagnosis will affect your day-to-day and long-term goals.

Process things at your own pace

There is no set time limit that people experience in each stage. Embrace the stages of grief, and learn how to use them to help you guide the physical, emotional, and mental journey of managing your new diagnosis.

Remember that on this journey, you are not alone. There are others who have walked this journey before you and who are there to serve as companions on this emotional roller coaster. Never be afraid to ask for help here in our community. Know that there are always people who are listening and here for you!

How did you process your HIV diagnosis?

Did you experience any of the 5 stages upon being diagnosed with HIV? Share your story with the community on how you handled your diagnosis and what advice you might give to someone beginning on this new path.

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