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So do people subjected to such stresses actually get sick? There have been surprisingly few studies to test that question, but research on long-term hardship at work finds that the stresses are associated with an increase in heart disease. Other studies, conducted by Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, found that people suffering chronic stress on the job or in relationships are at least twice as likely to get sick from a cold or flu. The more stress people endure, Cohen concluded, the better their chances of falling ill.
But that's not true for everyone, and researchers would love to identify the psychological quirks that protect some people and sabotage others. Small studies suggest that the immune systems of optimistic law students are more robust than those of pessimists and that worrywarts suffer deeper hits to their immune system after a traumatic event than do nonworriers.
We're not all born with sunny dispositions, but experts have identified stress-management strategies that anyone can adopt. Avoid situations that you know cause stress, for example. Discuss problems with friends, family or a mental-health professional before they take on a life of their own. Face stress head-on and don't resort to coping mechanisms--smoking, eating more and exercising less--that only add to the strain. You can't avoid stress altogether, but you can learn to keep it at bay.