I used think stress was a purely psychological sensation — an internal battle, where your mind creates a boxing ring and your responsibility and self-doubt get to duke it out for the grand prize. It was easy for me to compartmentalize and dismiss my stress, by saying to myself, "You silly chick! It's all in your head." I never understood the significant, very real, physical ways that stress can manifest itself in your body. Until, that is, stress triggered my HPV, sending me a signal that I could no longer ignore.
Six months after graduating from college, I felt like my life — and my body — were quickly beginning to unravel. I had landed on my feet after leaving school, starting an entry-level job in digital media at a company I respected. There were glamorous, performative elements to my new career path: A brand new byline here, an impressive Instagram post there. My friends and followers congratulated me on my newfound success. But there was a subtext that they couldn't read, hidden between the lines, or rather, the likes. Since my employer had taken a chance upon hiring me, I had thrown myself headfirst into my career, putting my friends, family, and health on the back burner.
I worked 24/7, answering emails, calls, and texts even when out of the office — I RSVPed to fashion shows from my grandmother's bedside and carried an internet modem around with me on a family trip. Even when asleep, I'd suddenly wake up in a panic, clutching for my phone. Constantly reminded that I was replaceable, I reassured myself that It was imperative that I pay my dues. But the truth of the matter was, I was about to burn out.
Stress slowly planted bad seeds all over my mind, and my body took action. This manifested itself in numerous ways: I developed stress rashes all over my body, the medication I took for my Gastroparesis (a chronic digestive illness that essentially means I digest food at half-speed because of damaged nerve endings in my stomach) stopped working, and I experienced my very first panic attack. But the symptom of my stress that truly took me aback was connected to my reproductive health.
After noticing that I had stopped menstruating regularly, I decided to book a visit to my OB/GYN (the same woman who delivered me, BTW. We go way back). She asked if I needed routine testing for STDs and STIs, and I hesitated. Why would I? I had had the same partner for several years. But as I was concerned about my cycle, I wanted to be as thorough as possible.
I was walking to work on a brisk November morning when I got a call from the nurse from my gynecologist's office, informing me that I tested positive for HPV. "Uh, cool. Thanks, I guess?" I responded quickly, embarrassed. I hung up and quickly Googled. Upon feasting my eyes on phrases such as "genital warts," and "cervical cancer," I panicked. I called the nurse back immediately, desperate for answers.
I bombarded my doctor with questions: How had this happened to me? Had my partner been unfaithful? Was I going to die? She assured me that my impending death would not be today. My doctor told me that HPV stands for the human papilloma virus and that there are more than 200 subtypes that have different effects. She informed me that the strain of HPV I carried (types six and 11) is incredibly common — in fact, 50 percent of sexually active women will get it in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV does not always have symptoms, so many people have no clue that they've been infected. In fact, HPV can remain dormant in your cervical cells for many months or even years. While dormant, the virus is inactive, and won't be detected by testing. I could have been carrying HPV for years! I had gotten an STD test just last year, and had tested negative. So, why was I suddenly testing positive for HPV? The infection can “re-emerge,” due to changes in the body's immune system. My doctor asked if I had been abnormally stressed lately. I laughed nervously.
"It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV most often is asymptomatic but can also manifest as anogenital warts (also known as condylomata acuminata)," Dr. Taraneh Nazem OB/GYN, tells Elite Daily. "Stress can impact a woman’s ability to clear her infection. But HPV, just like any virus, can get resolved in anyone with a strong immune system that can fight the infection. It usually takes about 12 months to completely go away on its own, if it’s a benign subtype."
I was shocked — if HPV is so common, why hadn't I ever heard any of my friends bring it up? Why is it still so rooted in stigma? "I think it could be linked the malignancy of the genital tract," Dr. Nazem says. "HPV can be a pre-cancerous virus, depending on the subtype. But there are methods to prevent it through screening with pap smears and the HPV vaccine, called Gardasil, which can be given to women between the ages of nine to 45 and over 90 percent of HPV cancers are preventable with the HPV vaccine!" Perhaps our fear of contracting a certain subtype of HPV has rendered its discussion "off-limits" in casual conversation. Additionally, its link to sex may be another reason that the STI is still considered too taboo for dinner table small talk.
My doctor prescribed me with a lifestyle change — apparently, alleviating my stress would allow the infection to go away on its own. Her counsel was one of the last little pushes I needed to quit my job and focus on my health. Resigning was scary — I was afraid that no one else would hire me again, and that I had somehow permanently hindered my career. But I couldn't have been more wrong.
I spent the next month focused on healing. I started taking new medication for my digestive health, and paid closer attention to my diet. I began exercising again, and rebuilding my physical strength. I regulated my sleep cycle, and eventually, I was able to sleep through the night again. After months of dodging social engagements and canceling plans, I reconnected with friends and spent time with my family. I gave my partner the attention he deserves. And finally, when I was ready to return to work, I applied for a job that prioritizes work-life balance.
I now understand that in order to produce my best work, I need to be my best self — mentally and physically. Although my HPV diagnosis came as a surprise, it was the wake-up call I needed to reevaluate my priorities. As it turns out, stress isn't a mental boxing ring — it's a filter that can paint the colors of our world in darker shades. But there is no amount of regret that can change the past, and no amount of stress that can change the future. My HPV diagnosis provided me with the motivation that I needed to focus on where I am today.