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.
Olivo suggests that people go a step further and challenge their triggers. When they start to feel stressed, they should question whether the problems they're facing warrant their reactions. They might be devoting too much time and energy to an issue that's not as important as it seems. For example, a person might take their supervisor's cold demeanor as a sign that they're angry at him or her. Instead of letting anxiety spiral and hurt productivity, people should question their emotions. Chances are they didn't cause their boss's bad mood. By reflecting, "an individual can approach a stressful situation with a mindful response rather than automatically reacting in a way that may actually only increase his or her distress," Olivo says. If fatigue hits, people should try to take a short nap, if possible, Levey says. The body goes through natural 70- to 90-minute cycles of alternating sleepiness and alertness. It's often counterproductive to push through exhaustion. A "power nap" can actually boost your energy and effectiveness, Levey says. When you're facing a long day at the office, focus on keeping a manageable pace, Levey says. Plan some breaks, drink lots of water and dispel tension as it builds.