How to Deal with Stress: An Unexpected Approach

How to Deal with Stress: An Unexpected Approach

When we ask how to reduce stress, we might be asking the wrong question. Here’s the question we need to be asking instead.

We sat really close together on the bed so that he could see both of our faces in the Zoom window.

From the other side of the screen, our therapist described a fantasy scenario that he imagined would help me deal with my stress were it to come to pass.

He asked me how imagining that scenario made me feel.

My response surprised all 3 of us (the therapist, my husband, and me):

“It makes me feel worried that I would feel dead inside.”

In that moment it dawned on me that the very thing I’d been craving (infinite open space without pressure to do anything in particular) terrified me.

I’d become addicted to a consistent level of stress and needing to “perform” as a stimulant.

Imagining life without the stress/pressure stimulant felt like an energetic flatline.

In a culture so focused on collecting achievements and always working on making things bigger and better, I know I’m not the only one who’s found themselves caught in the double bind.

That’s why, when we ask ourselves how to deal with stress (and even how to reduce stress), we’re missing the mark if we don’t first explore our relationship with stress.I can practice stress-reduction techniques until the cows come home, but if there’s an unconscious part of me that’s unwilling to let go of the stress stimulant because it’s how I feel alive, the techniques won’t make much of a dent.

I’ll keep inventing pressure so that I don’t have to feel the things that are underneath the stress to begin with (like the aching loneliness of being a human amongst 7.9 billion other people, none of whom actually know for sure what we’re doing here on Earth).

What I’ve been doing instead of trying to reduce stress is fill my life with things that make me feel alive.

It’s an additive rather than subtractive technique. Makes me less anxious.

In the Do Less Planner there’s a place for a Bliss List, which is essentially things that make you feel good and make you feel alive in a positive way.

Here are some of the things on mine:

  • Putting my bare feet on the grass
  • Looking up at trees and allowing wonder to fill my whole body
  • Connecting with friends who love me for all of my bigness and my smallness
  • Being near the ocean
  • Kissing my 3-year-old’s chubby cheeks
  • Watching funny shows (Ted Lasso and Trying have been recent favorites)
  • Orgasms
  • Watching running water (remarkably transcendent once you really get into it)
  • Candlelight
  • Dark Chocolate
  • The way the pavement smells after it rains
  • Dancing

I’m finding that the more I fill my life with things that make me feel alive in beautiful ways, the less I need to depend on stress to make me feel alive.

My rate of manufacturing pressure where it didn’t need to be there in the first place has reduced.

Though the circumstances of my life haven’t changed dramatically, the stress feels way easier to deal with.

If you suspect you might also be addicted to stress, even a little, try writing out a Bliss List and adding 1-2 things each day that make you feel alive in a nourishing way.

You’ll likely find that the fires of your life don’t need to be stoked by stress as much anymore and that you start to find space and ease where before it was nowhere to be found.

Now, I want to hear from you:

Do you think you might also be using stress as a stimulant? What’s on your Bliss List? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


  • Yes totally relate and have been combating with my morning ritual I love incorporating many things that are relaxing and invigorating and fill me up
    Also forcing myself to do the scary hard stuff so I don’t create stress from avoiding it
    Gracias for sharing !

    • Kate Northrup

      I love that you’re doing a morning ritual and tackling the hard things first. Way to re-program yourself!

  • Well didn’t you just hit the nail on the head for me this morning. My husband had been saying that it seems like I am addicted to stress, that I need it to keep me motivated and moving – instead of allowing relaxation in. It has been a long, slow road for me to learn to relax. The first time I remember being able to sit and enjoy the scenery was 9 years ago after suffering from burnout. I am still practicing relaxation and your blog helped open my eyes to the underlying issue. I hate boredom and that can feel a lot like relaxation. I will be making my Bliss list and see how that may change my point of view in a healthy way. Thank you!

    • Kate Northrup

      YES! You nailed it: Boredom can feel a lot like relaxation. Learning to feel safe in down-regulation is indeed a process, but it’s a worthwhile one. So fascinating how our nervous systems work and how we’re programmed to be in hyper-vigilance and we feel like we’re going to die if we relax because of that. But we can shift over time. We really can. Our bodies and systems are so miraculous that way!

  • OMG, this one REALLY resonated with me! I do a lot of stuff that brings me joy and pleasure, but I am now realizing that those things, in their own way, are a means of avoidance. I’ve also recently realized that all of the unfinished projects around my house — even fun, arts ‘n crafts ones! — are just another way I’m in avoidance. If I have a never-ending to-do list, then I can maintain a state of never-doneness (read: stress) so that I can avoid the deep feelings of sadness and lonliness that lurk inside. Ooomph.

    • Kate Northrup

      Ooomph is right. I’ve found that just going into the sadness and loneliness and sitting with the ache doesn’t kill me, even though it feels like it’s going to. I even had a friend FaceTime me just to cry with me in that place of feeling like I was going to die and it was profound. Sending you tons of love!

  • Sara

    Phew! Hard relate to this one! Just recently I have asked myself the question “but who would I be if I didn’t have anxiety?” I say I want freedom and contentment but like you said, I keep manufacturing scenarios to ensure that doesn’t happen. I love the idea of a bliss list and I’m gonna try it this week. Thank you

  • Emily

    This really hit home. I need to work on this so much. Feeding off stress is such a vicious cycle. My bliss is going on a hike, yoga outside, and being around water.
    Thank you Kate for the reminder.

    • Kate Northrup

      You’re so welcome! I’m really glad this was eye-opening for you and I love the items on your bliss list too!

  • Jill C

    This post may have cracked open a longtime hard nut for me. Answering the question, “Why do I push leaving for the thing (meeting, appointment) until the last second and end up rushing, berating myself during the ride, and being late?” Despite my stated wish to reduce stress in my life, I keep doing it! I’ve been asking myself, “What is the payoff in it?” Because there must be one somewhere, if I keep doing it, right? I’m going to try this post on for size, Kate. Perhaps I’m needing to manufacture stress where it doesn’t need to be. Hello, bliss list. Let’s do this. Thank you!

    • Kate Northrup

      Oh yes that piece about manufacturing pressure through being late is a FASCINATING one. I’ve found myself doing that less and less as I focus on the life-giving additions in my life that stimulate me in healthier ways. Blessings on your continued inquiry!

  • Maria

    I can resonate whit this I Feel the addiction of stressful mind in my body all the time more or less and hard to found the Space to get more comfteble, maby its depending on curcomstances i,ve been going through. …. So i can definetly resonate whit you.

  • Roxy

    Thanks! It was very insightful. Although I do stop at times to admire something that I like or gives me peace it is not something I am doing on purpose. I have a beautiful garden. I walk around making sure everything is ok instead of sitting out there, and actually admiring it. I will start to make my own list and actually see what makes me feel alive instead of dead inside. I cannot control the stress of work, but I can manage it.
    thanks for your insight!

    • Kate Northrup

      Yes to purposefully savoring your garden and all the beauty in your life, Roxy. It’s going to feel amazing!

  • Thanks for the reminders … this is truly the summer to do less and enjoy the little things In life !! 💚😇🧘‍♀️☕️💫☯️

  • Hi Kate, appreciate your unique perspective as usual. I think I use stress as a detachment rather than a stimulant. In my former marriage, my husband was living a double life and gaslighting me, and I used feeling busy, stressed, and overwhelmed to avoid the subconscious issues. I kept them at bay by interacting with less painful emotions that were more comfortable than the potential gut wrenching agony of betrayal.

    A year later, and guess what? I survived the betrayal. Now I use over-stress and business as lightening rods to highlight when I am avoiding a larger, deeper emotion.

    Going to make my Bliss List today. Thank you for that!

    • Kate Northrup

      Yes – work can also be an avoidance strategy. Similar to substances. And then I think that can fuel the addiction, whether it’s avoidant or stimulating. Looking at this stuff is so fascinating and I love that you see your patterns and are able to see where your attention may need to go based on your own lightening rods!

  • I to realize that I’m addicted to stress. thank you for sharing Kate.

  • Laura O.

    YES. I’ve known for a long time that I’m addicted to stress. I’m afraid to explore what’s under it, and I’ve always approached a solution by trying to reduce stress… reframing, walks in nature, exercise, rest. This works to some extent when I make these actions a priority. Focusing on a bliss list and incorporating that list into daily life as well as expanding the number of ideas on that bliss list… seems it will not only edge out stress but also tells the Universe what feelings and emotions you want MORE of (ie, let’s increase the feeling of bliss!) Wonderful insight, thank you for sharing, Kate!

    • Kate Northrup

      Yes – I love your perspective on edging out the stress and also signaling to the Universe what you want more of!

  • Sandra Wight

    OMG!! I feel the same !!
    I think u may have nailed it😁
    I proudly feel I have no addictions ( as they are very much part of my family dynamic) HOWEVER… I have been hospitalized over a stress event.. 😥😥😥
    Ive been writing a book ( my first) about said event…but still feel like theres a piece missing… maybe it is an addiction?
    This is GOLD.. XX ❤❤❤
    PS Off to write a Bliss List..🥰🥰

    • Kate Northrup

      Oh I’m so glad this resonates with you. Many blessings on your book and your continued healing journey – and enjoy your Bliss List!

  • Cher

    Great Awareness.
    I think building a Bliss List is a wonderful experience for everyone. Thank you.

  • Ever since I read this post yesterday, your question — “are you addicted to stress?” — has been rolling in my head.

    Short answer: yes.

    I’ve been scared to reach my goals because, what if I find they’re empty? And I’m empty inside, too, without stress?

    I’ve felt like entrepreneurship is a carrot game, but didn’t know what to replace the ever-striving for. Thanks to your post, now I know: bliss. Big thanks, Kate!

    • Kate Northrup

      Bliss indeed! I’m so glad this resonated Laura and that you’ve continued to revisit it over and over again. I think for all of us it’s a lengthy ball of yarn to unravel, but one that’s quite worth the effort!

  • Lina Kaisey

    I use this framework to help my clients ease into the deeper/underlying feelings and also have perspective on what a big shift they’re making when they willfully confront their stress/anxiety addiction. So, yes! Thanks!

  • Rachel

    I loved it! Thank you so much for sharing this post!

  • Ouch… that really hit home… I’m going through a serious transition period at the moment to find a healthier work life balance in life. My old me just read this article and burst out: “But I’m so damn good at what I do under that pressure! My brain whizzes at 100 Miles an hour finding the most amazing sollutions to problems, bam, bam… It’s such a rush, it has saved my butt so many times!” I have a long way to go. But I’m taking a step at a time.

    • Kate Northrup

      Denise – I think so many of us work well under pressure because it feels like home to us. Because our culture loves to manufacture pressure. But listen, it’s a journey. I also get things done often right at the end and there’s a certain aliveness with that that I still love on some level. And I still am working to see if that aliveness could be created elsewhere without the pressure. Glad you’re on the journey with me ;)

  • Great article. Stress is a present factor in many people’s lives. It is always great when you can find ways to help yourself manage the stress that you are experiencing in your life. Your suggestion of making a Bliss List is great! -Ryan

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