Mindfulness techniques, meditation and yoga can all help you manage stress. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There’s no such thing as a stress-free life. And even if there were, it would be pretty dull.

In small bursts, meeting challenges is good for us, whether organizing a big family party, taking on a new project at work or increasing the speed of a daily walk.

Without stress, most of us wouldn’t grow.

But chronic stress—the relentless pressure of chronic illness, for example, or stress from financial struggles—can be debilitating.

“Without actively taking small steps to manage that stress, it can lead to serious problems,” said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

This includes problems such as anxiety, depression and substance use disorder. These can contribute to heart disease and diabetes, or even a recurrence of some cancers.

Often, something tiny—less than a minute of meditation, for example–will give you a chance to take a deep breath and reset.

“Sometimes people think they have to make major changes in their life to handle stress or commit to time-consuming routines,” Dr. Cadieux said.

The idea isn’t to eliminate stress. It’s not possible. But managing it is—and these small acts can help build your physical and mental resilience.

Since stress exacts a physical toll on people, Dr. Cadieux said it’s essential to build physical resilience.

1. Start sleep rituals

“America is suffering from sleep deprivation,” Dr. Cadieux said. “And when we’re fatigued, we just can’t respond to stress as well as we should.”

Electronics are part of the problem, as people spend their late nights watching TV, doom scrolling on smartphones or even reading themselves to sleep with a Kindle.

“Set a time to get off all screens, anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes before bed,” she said.

Don’t think you can fall asleep without electronics? Explore Calm, the popular meditation app that also provides many bedtime stories.

And try and go to bed and wake up at the same time, seven days a week. That makes it easier for your body to know when to rest, she said.  

2. Fine-tune your diet

Don’t just eat well. Eat regularly.

“When people get busy, they can go too long without meals,” Dr. Cadieux said. When blood sugar crashes, people often reach for sugary snacks or too much caffeine, making stress worse.

3. Redefine exercise

Exercise is a powerful stress antidote. But feeling guilty about not exercising isn’t beneficial for anybody.

Ditch the inflexible idea that fitness can only come from 3-mile runs or an hour at the gym.

“Do some wall pushups,” Dr. Cadieux said. “Walk up and down the stairs a few times or try 30 jumping jacks. Even these small bits of exercise can make us feel better immediately.” 

Sleep, nutrition and exercise form the bedrock of a healthy stress strategy.

But there are plenty of other tactics to handle stress as it bubbles up during the day.

4. Practice positive self-talk

Stress is often self-inflicted, with self-statements that are just off base. “Say you’re stuck in traffic, telling yourself, ‘This will make me late for work and people will think I’m lazy,’” Dr. Cadieux said. That’s probably not true. A much better line: “This traffic is beyond my control. I will try not to get upset and explain when I get to work.”

5. Choose social over social media

Time on social media correlates with anxiety, stress and depression. Spending time in genuine social interactions with friends and family—by phone, Zoom or face-to-face in a coffee shop—can help lower stress and improve feelings of well-being.

6. Revisit your gratitude list

Dr. Cadieux said she likes to do this one every day. “I ask myself, ‘What can I take from today that I can enjoy? What was good? What do I need to leave behind?’”

7. Update relaxation strategies

Mindfulness techniques, meditation and yoga are all proven winners, she said. “But it can also be a short walk outside or watching your bird feeder.”

How you relax, she said, is far less important than knowing that you’re relaxing on purpose.

8. Open up to awe

A feeling of awe—being gobsmacked by a sunset, or inspired by the inside of a cathedral—turns out to be medicinal. Researchers have found that it floods people with a sense of quiet humility, which helps counter stress.

9. Limit media exposure

The world is full of stressful events—conflict, melting glaciers, oceans full of plastic. It’s good to be engaged with reality. But too much information can be demoralizing. She suggests setting aside a certain amount of time each day to catch up on the news—and then stopping.

10. Hug it out

Physical contact provides connection and emotional release. Cuddles, hugs and intimacy are all important, helping people increase their natural oxytocin levels, a hormone that promotes calmness and counteracts stress.

11. Power up with music

Music is a proven stress reliever, whether listening to songs you love or making them yourself. Channeling Missy Elliott in the car or Tchaikovsky in the kitchen can make the day sound different.

12. Get your game on

Play can help kids. Turns out adults need it, too. Something as simple as a card game with a child, a challenge like the daily Wordle, throwing a tennis ball to the dog or playing a video game can offer tiny slices of joy.

None of these are permanent solutions, Dr. Cadieux said. But they all incrementally lower stress, which can make you feel more in control and less pressured.

“Often, just saying, ‘I’m going to find time to do one little thing that will make me feel better today,’ is enough to help you recalibrate,” she said.

It boils down to moments of self-care.

“Whether we’re noticing a tree in bud or taking a hot bath, it’s acknowledging that we’re doing something tender for our emotional well-being, deliberately countering that physical sensation of stress,” she said.

And if managing stress feels too difficult, schedule a consultation with a behavioral health provider. “We can help develop individualized plans that make it easier to cope,” Dr. Cadieux said.