Aside from living in isolation, how can we at least reduce the severity of the colds we catch, if not avoid them altogether? In addition to reducing the spread of germs and getting enough sleep, there are a number of lesser-known psychological factors that can influence our likelihood of suffering from cold symptoms.
First off, how can we measure susceptibility to a virus like the common cold? As you have likely intuited from your own experiences, colds can vary in length, the severity of individual symptoms, and how terrible they make you feel. Researchers can measure these variables by exposing participants to cold viruses and monitoring the course of their experiences over a few days’ stay in the laboratory. Scientists collect both subjective ratings of how the sufferers feel and objective outputs such as what comes out of their noses (by timing how long it takes an inhaled dye to pass through the nose, and by weighing the amount of mucus that is blown out into tissues). This is messy work, and we are grateful to researchers like Dr. Sheldon Cohen and colleagues and the willing participants who made the work happen! With this appreciation in mind, here are some of the influences they’ve found:
Stress is one of the strongest influences on our susceptibility to the common cold, Dr. Cohen and his colleagues have shown. By measuring both current stress and lifetime stressful events, they found that experiencing stress greatly increases our risk for contracting colds. Although smoking cigarettes, lack of exercise, and lack of sleep are all associated with a higher risk of contracting viruses, stress independently increases susceptibility above and beyond any of these factors. In fact, increased stress predicts the likelihood of symptoms regardless of age, gender, education, allergies, time of year, sleep, weight, diet, and white blood cell count.
The bad news is that stress is strongly predictive of susceptibility to the common cold: When times are tough, we may have a hard time avoiding these looming viruses. The good news is that our perceptions of stress can be moderated. Research by Alia Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor shows that strategies for reducing stress responses—such as believing that the stress symptoms like increased heart rate are energizing rather than debilitating—can help minimize our susceptibility even when we cannot otherwise change our circumstances.
Having stronger social support is associated with helping us cope and reduce stress; it’s also associated with greater resistance to cold viruses. Surprisingly, a wide social network across a diversity of social circles (such as romantic partners, friends, work colleagues, sports teammates, book club members, and other social groups) is an even stronger predictor of resisting a cold. The link is related not to the number of people in a social group (in other words, it’s not just a matter of having more friends), but rather to the number of diverse social roles we play. Being a member of more social communities helps buffer the potential influence of stress more than individuals can in order to boost immunity and overall health.
Socioeconomic status (SES) is also related to the potential to contract common cold symptoms. Surprisingly, it’s not our actual income levels that predict the likelihood of a cold, but rather our perceived income levels. Regardless of whether our salaries are objectively high or low (in fact, salary has not been found to be a predictor of susceptibility to cold viruses), we are more likely to resist colds if we feel that we are doing well. If we believe we are doing better than the average person, we are less likely to contract cold viruses than if we perceive ourselves as lower than average in education, income, and occupation. These findings suggest that money can’t buy you out of the common cold, but the perception that you are well off may help boost your immunity.
It’s hard to avoid catching the common cold entirely, but understanding some of its psychological influences may help us minimize our chances. Fortunately, perceived stress, social networks and subjective status are all within our abilities to monitor and control. In addition to other cold-avoidance strategies this year, it may be worth adding these mindsets to your repertoire.