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Mind over virus

I say, "How are you?"

He says, "OK."

And I respond with, "Just 'OK'?"

He replies in a flat-voiced, woe-is-me sort of way, "I think I've got a cold coming on. I was on a plane this weekend and"¦"

Poor guy, he was sitting on an airplane next to someone who had a bad cold, inches away from constant coughing and nasty nose blowing.

He relates mournfully that there were scrunched-up tissues everywhere and lots of mucous-filled, throat-clearing sounds.

And now my colleague believes he's destined for a full-blown cold. And perhaps he is.

But, then again, maybe he's not. If you're already under stresses of some kind (it wasn't a vacation flight, he was on his way to a sick relative's bedside) you're definitely more susceptible to becoming ill. Studies have found that people under stress are significantly more vulnerable to colds and flu, and their symptoms are more severe when they do become sick.

According to a nationally known expert on stress and immunity, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, if you encounter stress and have "a negative response style," you have a much greater chance of getting a cold or the flu. The findings of numerous studies indicate that a person's mood plays a substantial role and "ultimately affects susceptibility to illness."

Consider this possibility: Sometimes you can divert and distract those incoming germs with something as simple as an "I will not succumb" attitude. Maybe if you don't verbalize the thought that there might be a cold in the offing, it simply won't happen.

Here's the underlying premise: Self-consuming, negative "I feel unwell" thoughts can weaken your immune system. People whose brain function (the electrical activity in their brains) demonstrated they tended to dwell on sadness, fear or anger were more at risk of getting sick. People who were inclined to be more positive stayed well. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that sometimes we may actually be able to "think around" bacteria or viruses.

I've heard it referred to as having a "sniffle-busting personality." In a Carnegie Mellon study people with optimism, high self-esteem and a feeling of mastery over their own lives were able to stay cold-free even when they were given the ultimate exposure — rhinovirus or influenza virus in the form of nasal drops. (It gives new meaning to the phrase "I'm getting a cold," don't you think?)

I suggest to my colleague, "Why don't you assume those germs did a "fly by" and you laughed and waved as they passed?"

He says something indistinguishable — in large part because he's caught up in a fit of coughing. I offer a tissue.

Despite the continued sneezing in my immediate vicinity, I still believe in dispositional optimism, described (in a recent article out of the University of Kentucky) as "generalized positive outcome expectancies." I like the idea that how you look at the world may correlate with fighting off viruses and overall good health. I intend to become my own example.

That slight tickle in my throat is probably because of something altogether unrelated.

"Yes, I'm fine, absolutely fine. And how are you?"

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.