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How to Stop Stress Before It Runs Amok

Stress is mounting for everyone who's watching stocks plummet, savings shrink and job security crumble.

That's on top of the day-to-day stuff: raising children, maintaining a house and commuting without having a meltdown.

People often turn to alcohol, drugs, food and cigarettes to help them cope. They might throw in a massage or spa treatment. While these options might bring quick relaxation, they're no substitute for strategies that bring long-term relief. The key is to find a tactic that cuts aggravation without adding to it.

Stress arises when one lacks enough resources to cope with a threat, whether it's real or perceived, says Erin Olivo, assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University in New York. It's not just a feeling; it's a physiological reaction. Studies have shown that pressure can boost performance. But if it mounts unchecked, it can overwhelm the mind and compromise one's health.

People think they need to integrate relaxing activities into their lives, like meditation or yoga. However, these well-intentioned efforts often backfire, causing people to become more agitated by the prospect of adding obligations to their packed schedules, Olivo says. The best stress-busting solutions are much simpler.

"Everybody has their own way of calming themselves down," she says. "The key is to actually do them."

Dr. Joel Levey, co-founder of Innerwork Technologies, a Seattle-based firm that advises companies on reducing work-related stress, says people should develop their ability to be "mindful," or constantly aware of their surroundings and challenges, and their effects. Workers should pause frequently throughout the day to check on their stress levels. When they notice signs of tension, they should take a moment to breathe deeply and focus on calming phrases.

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