The relationship between stress and clinical outcomes for persons living with HIV/AIDS: a systematic review of the global literature

AIDS Care. 2016;28(2):160-9. doi: 10.1080/09540121.2015.1090532. Epub 2015 Nov 13.


For persons living with HIV/AIDS, the relationship between stress and clinical outcomes has received little attention in current research, yet represents an important area for future research and intervention. Chronic illness has been theorized to place additional demands on a person that may exceed their ability to cope with daily life, leading to long-term stress, which then increases the risk for negative health outcomes in persons already at risk. This paper reviews the existing global literature to answer two main questions: (1) how is stress conceptualized in research with persons living with HIV/AIDS? and (2) what are the current findings linking stress to clinical outcomes? Twenty-three articles are included in the final review. Findings reveal that researchers conceptualize stress in multiple ways for persons living with HIV/AIDS, including depressive symptomology, post-traumatic stress, life events, emotions linked to stress, and biological markers (such as cortisol levels and autonomic nervous system activity). Further, findings related to the link between stress and clinical outcomes are mixed; however, stress was shown to be related to lower CD4 cell counts, higher viral load, and disease progression. Several studies also showed a link between stress and poorer treatment adherence. Implications and directions for future research are discussed, including further thought into how we conceptualize stress for persons living with HIV, future research that is necessary to elucidate current mixed findings on the link between stress and clinical outcomes, and preliminary suggestions for intervention to prevent and alleviate stress in this population.

Keywords: CD4; HIV/AIDS; disease progression; stress; viral load.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / psychology*
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / therapy
  • CD4 Lymphocyte Count
  • Chronic Disease
  • HIV Infections / psychology*
  • HIV Infections / therapy
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Viral Load