Most people experience anxiety—the body’s natural reaction to a stressful or dangerous situation—at some point in their lives. In fact, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S., or 18.1 percent of the population, every year.
As entrepreneurs, it can be hard to quiet the anxiety you may experience on a daily basis so that you can keep chipping away at your big-picture vision. Anxiety can also hinder one of the most important resources available to you as a founder: your energy, both physical and mental. “It’s like having Google Maps running in the background,” says Amanda Huggins, a personal-development coach for entrepreneurs. “It’s draining your battery whether you realize it or not.” WeWork Labs spoke with four psychologists and mental-wellness experts about how to keep your anxiety levels in check.
Know your triggers
Whether it’s an overflowing inbox, a day of back-to-back meetings, or a difficult funding conversation with an investor, you need to be able to identify your triggers. The key, says Huggins, is to watch for those moments when you feel your anxiety spike and try to trace it back to a root cause.
“The simple act of identifying your anxiety triggers sets you up to manage them long-term,” she says. “Keep in mind, though, that it’s not about eliminating the triggers themselves, because, usually, we can’t do that. But if you know what they are, you can be more prepared when they come up.”
If there’s anything that looks like a recurring pattern, figure out what’s enabling that and address. “For example, if your anxiety is coming from the fact that key employees keep quitting, or three products in a row have been shipped too early and have flaws, then you have to do the work to find out the root cause,” says Michael Freeman, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of San Francisco School of Medicine.
Face what gives you anxiety head-on
“When we feel anxious, our natural tendency is to avoid the thing that’s making us feel that way,” says Bethany Teachman, PhD, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia. If the idea of answering a negative customer email makes our heart race, we put it off. But that vicious cycle isn’t actually an effective way to manage anxiety. “That can make you feel good in the short term, but in the long term it increases anxiety because now you’re not working toward your goals.”
When faced with that heart-racing email, Teachman recommends taking the task and breaking it down into manageable steps, then taking time to celebrate your success when you achieve them.
Release your anxious energy
Unable to focus because your anxiety levels are through the roof? “Find a creative or physical outlet to displace that energy,” says Jess 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. “It can be anything that shuts off your mind and gets you into a flow-like state, whether it’s painting, knitting, or something else entirely,” she says.
Physical activities like dancing, running, or yoga help too, even if to serve as a coping mechanism. “Relaxation and mindfulness may not directly address the source of your anxiety, but they give us better resources and skills to manage them,” says Teachman.
Develop a daily gratitude exercise—and factor in time to breathe
In those truly anxious moments, grant yourself a minute to think about what’s going right in your life. “Having a sense of gratitude or appreciation for the world you live in can give you a mental reset that you need to maintain good mental wellness,” says Freeman. It’s even more helpful if you can build it into a daily practice, rather than rely on it as a last resort.
Just as with stress, breathing exercises—perhaps even paired with your gratitude exercise—can calm the central nervous system and help take anxiety down a notch. Try box breathing: four breaths in, hold for four breaths, four breaths out, hold for four breaths, and repeat.
Set boundaries between your work life and everything else
“One of the biggest anxiety contributors I see with entrepreneurs is there tends to be a lot of boundary bleeds,” says Huggins. Take answering Slacks when you told yourself you were heading to the gym for some metime, checking emails until the moment you go to bed, or working significant hours on the weekends. It all adds up, and setting firm but flexible boundaries around work—the kind that allow for emergencies to pop up but hold steady when things aren’t urgent—is important. “Get clear on where your boundary leaks are happening, and figure out what boundaries you can put in place.”
Teachman finds that people tend to punish themselves for experiencing anxiety, “but it’s entirely normal, for example, to feel very anxious before you give a big presentation or pitch,” she says. “In fact, it’s unusual not to.” Tell yourself that not only is it completely acceptable to have these feelings, but that they’ll pass too.
“The anxiety is signaling that something is dangerous to you when in fact, it’s not,” she adds. “Your body doesn’t know the difference, though, so we have to use our conscious skills to say to ourselves, ‘How bad is this, really, and is there another way I can think about this?’ That act of getting perspective is a really important approach.”
Finally, remember that work may be your passion, but shouldn’t be your whole identity
“Entrepreneurs are often on an intense quest to fulfill a mission and make an impact. And it’s easy for them to lose sight of the fact that it’s just a business. It’s not their whole life—just one part of it,” says Freeman. “You need to maintain some kind of balance and have something else going on so that ‘entrepreneur’ is not your only role.”
This story has been adapted from a piece of exclusive content originally published on WeWork Labs’ members-only platform. Read more about stress-management strategies for entrepreneurs, and how to beat impostor syndrome.
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