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Can You Out-Think a Cold?

A woman sits on a couch covered in a blanket while sneezing into a tissue and holding a mug.
Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock.com

Everyone has a friend or coworker who claims they never get sick because colds are “all in your head.” It always seems to work for them. So is this power of positive thinking mindset really a thing? Can you cure a cold with your mind?

If you’re prone to seasonal colds, here’s what to know about the role your mind plays.

Can You Cure a Cold With Your Mind?

In short, you can’t cure a cold with your mind. But when it comes to out-thinking your illness, there are two factors that people could think are making them “better.” One of them is the placebo effect. Of course, the placebo effect means you’re not so much “curing” your cold as convincing yourself it’s getting better.

The placebo effect is when you think you are taking medication or getting treatment when you aren’t, but the thought alone generates similar effects that the medication or treatment would have given you.

There are some fantastic studies done around the placebo effect. From dental pain to epilepsy, the majority of studies looking into the power of a placebo found that placebos can actually trigger chemicals in the brain that mirror the effects of what the person thought was going to happen to them.

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Keep surfaces disinfected if you believe you're sick.

One study followed 40 patients who were all given a placebo pain medication after a dental procedure. After they took the placebo, half the patients received an additional placebo painkiller, and the other half received naloxone, which stops endorphins from being released in the brain. Those who took naloxone reported much higher rates of pain than those who didn’t, suggesting that the placebo released endorphins in the brain that helped block pain.

Placebos, however, aren’t real treatments. They can’t lower your cholesterol or cure diabetes. They specifically work on symptoms that can be modulated by the brain—like pain or fatigue. Obviously, when you’ve got a cold, you could be experiencing body aches and tiredness, and if you believe your mind could chase down the symptoms, the placebo effect might be able to mitigate them. However, migration isn’t a cure. You still have a cold.

Could the idea that you’re not going to get sick act as a placebo effect and actually help you not get sick? Not really, but it might be able to lessen some of the symptoms you feel.

How Does Positive Thinking Impact a Cold?

A woman blows her nose on the couch

The other possible explanation behind the notion that you can choose to not get sick comes down to willpower. Deciding you won’t get a cold is essentially willing yourself to not get one, and if that desire is strong enough will it work?

The first thing you should know about willpower is that it is a trained component of the mind and body. Just like exercising a muscle, your willpower will increase as you actively work on increasing it, and decrease when you aren’t. Willpower is also a complicated mind-body response that can change based on a number of factors including nutrition, sleep, and response to stress.

Stress in particular greatly affects our willpower or fight response. According to Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, stress and willpower are “incompatible.” Stress triggers our mind and body’s fight or flight response which takes over our brain’s decision-making process. It’s almost impossible to make a wise, thoughtful decision with willpower when that part of the brain is being used by stress.

“Learning how to better manage your stress—or even just remembering to take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tempted—is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower,” said McGonigal.

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Don't underestimate the power of rest to help ease cold symptoms.

Sleep deprivation has a similar effect on the mind and body as stress and will affect your willpower in essentially the same way. Nutrition’s impact on willpower is that what you eat fuels your brain, which fuels your willpower. So if you aren’t giving your brain the energy it needs, you’ll have a much harder time strengthening your willpower.

In short, practicing good health for your mind and body will help increase your willpower. Practicing good health will also help you not get sick. So does willpower actually keep you from getting sick?

No, you can’t will away a cold no matter how dedicated you are. Rather, a person’s commitment to their health—like getting adequate sleep, decreasing stress, and eating a healthy diet—all contribute to your body’s ability to fend off a cold. Sure, you might be doing it to increase your “willpower,” but it’s not your willpower working against the cold. It’s your body doing what it’s meant to do.

Some might say that if willpower leads to making better health choices and better health choices lead to not getting sick, then an argument could be made that willpower leads to not getting sick. But let’s be honest, that’s quite the stretch of logic.

How Do You Prevent a Cold?

Ultimately, there is no concrete scientific evidence to support that you can cure a cold with your mind. Instead, making conscious decisions to eat healthily, sleep well, and avoid stress could help fend them off.

In the end, if you really want to prevent getting a cold, you should follow the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations:

  • Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Disinfect surfaces if a sick person has been in your home.

If you do get a cold, unfortunately, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure. There are, however, some steps you can take to ease symptoms. Stay hydrated, rest, and use medication recommended by your physician. Other than that, you’ve just got to wait it out.

So, can you cure a cold with your mind? No. There’s no amount of positive thinking that’s going to prevent you from getting sick. If you’ve heard someone promote this theory, there’s no scientific evidence to back it up. Instead, it’s best to follow prevention methods to avoid a cold altogether and speak with a physician if you do come down with one.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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