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11/29/2012 08:27 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2012

Reduce Stress: Real-Life Tips That Truly Work

Meg Beattie Patrick, a New York City-area communications specialist, has survived cancer, divorce, single motherhood, the death of a child, the loss of a home and business -- and worse. And yet she's survived, her spirit intact. "Let's face it. Massage, bubble baths and yoga really don't cut it for these types of things," she said.

So what really works when you're at the end of your rope? For Patrick, the answer is simple: prayer.

"For me, personally, praying the rosary gives me comfort, peace and focus," she said. "Even when I feel despair and temporarily lose faith, which is natural, a simple mental recitation of the rosary restores my faith, bolsters me and carries me on. It's a personal miracle-cure-all for the worst kinds of stress, at least for me.

"Another trick I have is simply letting go. It works wonders. We're not really in charge, anyway, when you think about it," she added. "We're just driving, but we don't hold the wheel. Once I realized that and fully accepted it, stress became easier to deal with."

For those like Patrick who've experienced stress -- and a lot of it -- there are loads of quick fixes. A massage, bath, walk or a few glasses of wine all have been suggested by experts as ways to remove the albatross of anxiety from around one's neck. But stress is more than just a little rough patch. It is a physical and emotional state that can lead to chest pain, high blood pressure, headaches and a myriad of other health problems. In fact, up to 90 percent of all visits to the doctor are for stress-related problems.

Although stress can result in a wave of hormones designed to get one ready for a looming challenge, it also can put you at greater risk down the road for heart problems, depression, cancer and all sorts of conditions if not handled properly.

And that's why we asked dozens of midlifers about the times in their lives when they felt the most stress -- and how they coped. The result is a hefty dose of real-life tips for reducing stress whenever life throws out a curveball and puts you in a tough spot.

One New Jersey women who asked not to be named said the single best thing she ever did for her anxiety was to stop ingesting news.

"I don't watch news on TV, listen to the radio, read the paper," she said. "I used to be NPR in the car ... now I'm all Classic Rock. I did this after (long after) 9-11, when everyone seemed to be back to normal within a few months and I, 9 ... 12 ... 18 months later, was still a basket case.

"I also must FORCE myself not to Google certain things ... not to read my medical book about diseases ... not to follow what my husband calls Storm Porn (probably the hardest habit to break)," she added. "I live in an ignorance-is-bliss state of mind and assume that if there's something really important I need to know, someone will tell it to me."

Another woman currently coping with a sick parent said she blocks out at least 30 minutes every day for herself. "I walk the dog, sit in front of the TV, read a magazine ... it doesn't really matter ... but everyone in my house knows that I'm in a time out," she said.

When Ann Rasmussen, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey, went through a work crisis "of grave proportions" for about three weeks, she actually wore a four-inch elastic belt around her waist to, quite literally, hug her.

"The belt helped me 'contain' my shaken wobbly core like an embrace. Particularly since I went hermit-like in my crusade to plow through the stressful process and desired no interpersonal contact while I focused laser-like on my exhaustive task ... so it felt unconsciously consoling," she said. "My situation was like how one would feel if one were sued or issued divorce papers and had to supply years of documentation about expenses and grievances.

"I think chewing gum helps too; helps discharge the tension that might otherwise get released in stress-induced diatribes to those around you that you love and need the most," she added.

Courtney Walsh, a journalist in Rome, said that the Italians have a saying -- "meglio parlare con la mamma che prendere Xanax" -- that means "it's better to chat with mom than to take an antidepressant." But what if -- like Walsh -- you've lost your mother?

"Before I had my own family I would call someone -- either my dad or brother or even a close friend and just chat. I would usually not discuss exactly what it was that was stressing me out, but I would be calmed by hearing their voices," she said. "I think the fact that we rarely call people anymore and send emails instead may increase stress by not allowing for this very basic human interaction to have its impact on our systems."

Kathleen Rabiecki, a mother of five in New Jersey, said she's never been big on massages -- no matter how stressed she is -- simply because she can obsess while laying there.

"Fighting stress with stress is very familiar to me. The need to refocus on something different sends me into a flurry of tasks at work to keep from being consumed by what else is biting at me," she said. "My best medicine though is helping someone else with their problems. I may not be able to escape my problems but for a short time I can leave my narcissistic self behind and concentrate on lifting someone else out of their stressful situation."

Still another mother of four in New Jersey, Melissa Bigelow, said that -- although it might sound trite -- "the hardest moments of my life were only helped by prayer and lots of it."

For other real-life tips on how to handle life's most stressful situations, check out our slideshow. Feel free to add your own ideas in comments.

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Reducing Stress: What Really Works

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