Nine strategies for entrepreneurs to keep stress from taking over today—and long term

Three stress-management experts on taking charge of your tension, instead of letting it take charge of you

As an entrepreneur, you have far too much on your plate—building a prototype, securing funding, pitching retail partners—to let stress distract you from growing your business. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to better manage your stress levels in the moment, as well as in the long run. WeWork Labs spoke with three stress-management experts about the strategies they recommend to take charge of your tension, instead of letting it take charge of you.

Ground yourself in the present. “When we feel stress, most of us go into fight, flight, or freeze,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “No matter what your response is, one of the best things to do is ground yourself. Bring your mind back to the present moment.” If you’re standing, Greenberg recommends feeling your feet on the floor. If you’re in the shower, feel the water. If you’re eating, really taste the food. “Activating the sensory networks in our brain can often deactivate the worry networks.”

What to do in the moment stress strikes

Focus on your breath. If you pay attention to your breathing when stress hits, you’ll probably notice that it gets fast and shallow. But what you want are slow, deep breaths. “That activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and it puts the brakes on the fight, flight, or freeze response,” says Greenberg.  

There are several types of breathing that are particularly effective for relieving stress, one being diaphragmatic. “Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach,” says Greenberg. “When you breathe in, feel like you’re blowing up a balloon in your stomach, and when you breathe out, breathe like you’re blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.”

Box breathing works well, too. “Inhale four counts, hold four counts, exhale four counts, hold four counts, and repeat,” instructs Jessica Carson, founder of Wired This Way, an online mental-health resource for entrepreneurs, and former neuroscience and psychology research fellow at the National Institutes of Health. That style of breathing helps regulate the nervous system, shutting off the primitive stress response.

Make a control list. There’s no use in stressing over things that you can’t control, so when you feel overwhelmed about just working[?] on tasks in particular, Greenberg suggests making a “control list” that details which parts of the project are within your control and which aren’t. “Every entrepreneur has to get to a point where you’ve done enough to mitigate your risk or ensure a positive outcome,” adds Carson. Focusing your efforts on what you can control can help you reach that point.

Separate stress-talk from reality. “A stressful state of mind is a negative state of mind, where you’re too hard on yourself and you only see the bad outcomes,” says Greenberg. “You have to become aware of when it’s just the stress talking and be able to separate what the stress is telling you from what’s real.”

One strategy is to take a mental step back and ask whether the thoughts in your head serve you in any way. Are they helping you figure out where to focus your efforts, or are they giving you clarity into what your next step should be? If not, that’s just the stress talking.

Consider the worst-case scenario. Stress makes us catastrophize, and as awful as it may make you feel, it can actually be helpful to spend a moment thinking about that worst-case scenario. When her clients are feeling particularly worried that a bad outcome is inevitable, Greenberg asks, “‘How likely is that to happen? How many times have you worried that something really terrible was going to happen, and how many times did it actually happen?’ The vast majority of the time, those terrible things we’re worried about never become reality.”

How to keep your stress in check in the long run

Build stability into your routine. “You can’t get rid of all of the risk and insecurity that comes with being an entrepreneur, but you can introduce as many people, activities, situations, and environments into your life as possible that create feelings of stability and security,” says Carson. Find relationships—whether they’re platonic, romantic, familial, or otherwise—that feel anchoring and grounding. Find activities that give the comfort of repetition and stability, which tells your nervous system that you’re calm.

Introduce as many of these safety and stability variables into your life as you can, but just remember to include some rest time in whatever routine you build for yourself. “A little bit of stress can help us grow stronger, but you have to pair that with your version of regeneration, whether that’s walking outside in the park, doing meditation, or hanging out with friends,” says Amanda Huggins, a personal-development coach for entrepreneurs. “That’s how you replenish, so you don’t show up consistently depleted.”

Practice self-compassion. “Perfectionism increases stress, so try to be flexible and compassionate in the way you evaluate yourself,” says Greenberg. “It’s easy to focus on the 1 percent that went wrong instead of the 99 percent that went right.”

One idea, she says, is to judge yourself mainly on the process alone, not the final product. “Obviously, you have to get results to stay in business, but judging yourself on effort more than outcome puts the control back in your hands.”

Find a purpose outside of your career. “As an entrepreneur, you have to have a sense of self that extends beyond just work,” says Carson. “When I say sense of self, I mean your identity—how you find your meaning.” A passionate entrepreneur tends to interweave their sense of self so greatly into their work that any kind of struggle or failure at work becomes not only a professional or financial threat, but it literally becomes an existential threat.” And that’s a one-way ticket to chronic stress. “So find other ways to define yourself, whether it’s through your relationships, your hobbies, etc.,” says Carson, anything that extends beyond who you are professionally.”

Leave work stress there—at work. It’s not always possible to disconnect from the workday for the night, but you can decide to leave specific stressors at the office. Huggins advises entrepreneurs to make a list of the things they don’t want to bring home, whether it’s a specific person pushing all your buttons or a situation that’s bothering you—and actually write it down. “You can pick it up tomorrow, but the act of leaving that list behind keeps whatever’s on it from weighing you down at home.

This story has been adapted from a piece of exclusive content originally published on WeWork Labs’s members-only platform. Read more about effective ways that entrepreneurs can lower their anxiety levels and beat impostor syndrome.

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