Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Man with a cold blowing his nose

The Cold Connection: Exploring the Intricate Relationship Between Stress and Immunity Part 2

by James Porter October 27, 2023

Last week in Part 1, I wrote about the relationship between increased stress and decreased immune system functioning. In particular, we looked at the relationship between colds and stress. I personally don’t get sick very often and I attribute that infrequency (the average adult gets about 3 or 4 colds per year) and heightened state of immunity to my 5 day a week “resilience routine” which consists of a combination of yoga, exercise and meditation. Despite generally taking good care of myself, I came down with a “stress cold” about a week ago.

To be clear, stress is never the sole reason we catch a cold. You must first be exposed to the rhinovirus. But think about all the times you KNOW you’ve been exposed to a cold virus, but didn’t get sick. What accounts for that? I have a Granddaughter who comes to visit us just about every weekend and she occasionally comes with a cough and a runny nose. I haven’t had a cold for two years. She’s 20 months.

But last week, I pushed myself too hard. I flew out to California for a Wellness Conference (ironic, right?). I had to get up at 4 AM Sunday to catch an 8 AM flight out of Newark Airport and upon returning 4 days later, my plane was delayed and got back to Newark around midnight Thursday. I had a harrowing drive home in what turned out to be a tropical storm (that completely flooded Brooklyn the next day.) After a week of having too much to do and not enough time to do it, my immune system was run down, and no doubt on that return flight, I was exposed to the rhinovirus. There was somebody sitting right next to me with what appeared to be a cold.

Three days later I had a scratchy throat, and my nose was starting to run. By the next day, I was coughing, achy and having trouble sleeping. People seldom realize that it’s our immune system that causes us to feel lousy! Many of us take over-the-counter medications to avoid feeling these symptoms but they are there for a very good reason. They are supposed to encourage us to rest and recover.

BUT, if in the middle of your cold, you were about to be attacked by a mountain lion, trust me, you wouldn’t feel those cold symptoms AT ALL! Your body has an override mechanism called the fight or flight response. After all, you wouldn’t want to be dragging your feet while you are deciding whether to run or stand your ground. (Usually running from a large predator is not recommended.) I never fully understood (or experienced) the full impact of this until the other morning, when in the midst of my achiness, runny nose and other common cold symptoms, I got some very stressful news (that fortunately turned out to be a false alarm) but for a short period of time, I noticed that all my cold symptoms completely disappeared.

My nose cleared up. I stopped coughing and I felt fine for about an hour! (And for the same reason, many allergic reactions are treated with drugs that mimic the effects of cortisol like Cortaid and cortisone (that are simply manmade stress chemicals!) I remember reading Shirley McClaine’s autobiography, OUT ON A LIMB, years ago, and she described how she had once broke her ankle during a Ballet recital and managed to finish the performance without missing a beat. Stress chemicals also have an analgesic effect as well.

So cortisol super-charges us in situations where we need an extra boost of energy, pain relief, or symptom lowering in order to get through a stressful or challenging situation even if we get injured or feel sick. Unfortunately, just like when I got stressed out the other morning over bad news that turned out to be nothing, the stress response was activated and put further strain on my body for no really good reason. An hour later, I felt sicker than I was before.

The happy ending is, a week later my cold symptoms were greatly reduced and now two weeks later completely gone. Before my resilience routine was in place, I often would get colds that would last for a month or longer. So this resilience routine can help shorten the length of my colds, even when stress gets the better of me.

James Porter
James Porter