According to Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions, entrepreneurial stress is like a man riding a lion:
"People look at the man and think, 'This guy's really got it together! He's brave!' And the man riding the lion is thinking, 'How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?'"
While it's widely accepted that managing stressful challenges comes with the territory of running a business, what's lesser known is the fact that stress can hit entrepreneurs harder than most. In 2013, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed that entrepreneurs were more likely to be worried and stressed than other workers. Psychiatrist and former entrepreneur Michael A. Freeman says many entrepreneurs have innate character traits that put them at higher risk of experiencing stress and mood swings.
"People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states," he says. “You can get into a startup mode, where you push yourself and abuse your body. That can trigger mood vulnerability."
Even though you're bound to encounter stress as an entrepreneur, with the right tools you can overcome its detrimental effects. In some cases, you can avoid stress altogether.
How Stress Affects Your Body
Before we dive into the methods you can use to alleviate stress, let's start with the good news. Stress is actually completely normal, and it’s not necessarily bad. It serves a purpose, after all.
As Tania Glenn, a clinical social worker with a doctorate in psychology, points out, the function of stress is critical for our survival: “The core element of stress, the very foundation of stress, is fight-or-flight syndrome. Without fight-or-flight, we would not survive as a species,” she says.
The notion of fight-or-flight mode acting as a survival mechanism is nothing new; we all know that it's there to help us protect ourselves in dicey situations.
But here's the kicker: our modern lives are often so overwhelming, that everyday situations, including the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, can send us reeling into fight-or-flight mode more often than they should. Our stress response, which used to be triggered only occasionally, now gets triggered more frequently—sometimes far too much.
Understandably, this can have a disastrous impact on our health and mental wellbeing.
Being stressed, especially often or long-term, can lower our immunity and place us at higher risk of infection, lead to cardiovascular disease, increase our blood pressure, and even cause skin conditions like hives or eczema. Stress can also cause everyday aches and pains, sleep loss, headaches, depression, stomach aches, stimulate our appetites, and lead to weight gain.
The Three Main Types of Stress
Although a variety of triggers can activate stress, the American Psychological Association neatly categorizes the types of stress we commonly experience into three main types:
Acute: This is the most common form of stress. It’s the stress you feel from a car accident or when you’re up against a tough deadline.
Episodic Acute: When you’re constantly in the clutch of acute stress, you’re dealing with episodic acute stress. This is what you feel if you’re the kind of person who’s always rushing, always late, always dealing with emergencies.
Chronic: Chronic stress is ongoing, like episodic acute stress, but it’s less thrilling. Rather than the excitement of rushing to appointments and putting out fires, chronic stress is an ongoing grind. It’s the kind of stress that comes from poverty, working in a job you hate, or feeling stuck in an unhealthy relationship.
Also fascinating is the fact that we can transfer the stress we feel to others (or, pick up someone else’s stress). A 2014 study found that seeing someone else experiencing stress is enough to activate our own stress response. Twenty six per cent of people in the study who were simply observing other study participants under stress took on that stress themselves. There was no difference between genders in the study, but the closer the observer was, emotionally, to the person under stress, the more they exhibited an empathic stress response.
Being around a highly stressed friend, partner, or co-founder, can affect your body just as much as it affects theirs.
So when we're feeling stressed, what exactly should we do about it?
Armed with a better understanding of stress, let’s look at the methods you can use to loosen its grip on your wellbeing.
While the thought of standing in front of a mirror and reciting compliments to your reflection might seem embarrassing, a 2013 study discovered that one self-affirmation exercise could helped stressed people perform better on a future problem-solving task.
The self-affirmation exercise in question involved thinking and writing about a particular area of importance in the participant’s life, such as family, job, friends, or belief in a higher power. This kind of exercise can boost self-control in the moment, and can improve self-esteem—an effect which can last for months after the exercise is completed.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure why this exercise works so well, but for people who are stressed it can improve their performance regardless of which self-affirming topic they focus on.
For instance, someone stressed about a job interview, who wrote affirming thoughts about why their family is important to them, would still see a benefit.
Crew founder Mikael Cho uses a morning affirmation to set up his day. It consists of writing down what he’s grateful for, and what he’d like to happen in the day ahead. "Just (by) writing that down, you walk through your whole day with that thought placed in your brain," he says. "So if anything goes bad, if anything goes good, you know where your values and your priorities sit, and what you’re grateful for. And you’re sort of looking to improve into the next day."
If you're worried about an upcoming meeting or a problem that you need to resolve, sit down and write affirming thoughts about something that's important to you. It might just quell your unease, and give you enough clarity to focus on the task at hand.
Share Your Feelings With Other Stressed People
Sharing your feelings with someone else who’s having a similar emotional reaction can help you cope with stress, according to one study. Although the study was small, involving just 52 participants, it found an interesting benefit in sharing stressful experiences with others.
Before giving their speech, participants were encouraged to discuss their feelings with each other. Then, each participant gave a speech while being filmed. Their levels of cortisol, a stress-response hormone, were measured before, during, and after giving the speech.
The study found “that sharing a threatening situation with a person who is in a similar emotional state…buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that typically accompany threat.”
Perry Tam, co-founder and CEO of Storm8 says that it’s helpful for businesses to implement a support system like this, so that employees can share and diffuse their stress.
“A support system inside the startup would be most likely coming from your co-founders and early employees whom you can talk about almost any issues in the company with,” he says.
Exercise has been shown to reduce our feelings of stress and the detrimental health effects of our stress response. Researchers working with rats found this is related to a neuropeptide called galanin.
When researchers blocked galanin in rats while they exercised, “the rats were as anxious as if they hadn’t exercised at all”. Philip Holmes, principal investigator in this study and a professor of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said galanin may be “maintaining neuroplasticity in the prefrontal cortex.”
Just a single exposure to stress can cause a decrease in our neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change. But galanin can reverse this negative effect, even when administered to sedentary rats. The same researchers showed in 2012 that exercise increases galanin levels in a key area of the brain that handles stress.
Which means the more we exercise, the easier we’ll be able to handle stress and bounce back from it. If you want the stress-diminishing benefits of galanin, exercise is your answer.
Not only is laughter the best medicine, just the anticipation of laughter can reduce stress-related hormones in our bodies. Researchers found that anticipating watching a funny film decreased three stress-response hormones.
Participants who weren’t anticipating the funny film didn’t see a significant decrease in their stress hormones. The great thing about this finding is you don’t even need to find anything to laugh at to see a benefit—just anticipate something positive and fun, and you’ll feel less stressed.
Psychologist Eve Ash created comedy-based training videos to help businesses bring more laughter into the office. According to Ash, comedy was seen as an office time-waster for a long time, but recent struggles with short attention spans have made an opening for funny training videos.
“Laughter is an amazing thing for stress relief and does really good things for us psychologically,” she says. “I think if you share with your team something and have a laugh, that really cements learning.”
A study published in Psychological Science found that greater social support and more hugs “protected people from the increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed and resulted in less severe illness symptoms.”
The study questioned 404 healthy adults about their levels of social support. The participants then answered phone interviews for 14 nights in a row, to assess how often they had interpersonal conflicts and how many hugs they were getting. Finally, participants were exposed to a common cold virus and kept in quarantine for observation of their symptoms.
Whether or not the participants reported conflicts in their phone interviews, they were less likely to develop severe cold symptoms if they felt more supported and had received more hugs than others. Lead researcher Sheldon Cohen says the protective effects of hugs “may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy”.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, hug your stress away.
Spend Time With a Dog
Remember Perry Tam, CEO of Storm8? His other preferred solution for resolving the stress of growing a startup involves a little help from his four-legged friend.
“Believe it or not, I found that raising a dog while growing your startup is super helpful when it comes to having a (cute) buddy whom you can count on all the time!” he says.
Similarly, Mikael Cho takes his dog for 3-4 walks per day to get his dose of stress-reducing exercise. Cho says this helps him break up big periods of work and offset the stress of running Crew. And Uber certainly knew what they were doing when they delivered puppies to offices in cities around the world.
Multiple studies point toward the health benefits of dog ownership. Therapy dogs are known for helping to reduce depression, anxiety. They can also help relieve stress in the workplace.
As a company where every day is bring your dog to work day, this stress-relief method is one of our favorites.
Each of the practical approaches above are suitable for alleviating stress in the short-term. Research suggests that achieving long-term relief requires a willingness to rethink the function of stress.
According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, changing how you think about stress can be even more powerful than attempting to control your stress response.
It’s a preventative approach that focuses on rethinking your ideas about stress before it hits you. McGonigal believes this can not only reduce the negative effects of stress, but it can also alter your physical stress response. That is, the pounding heart, the sweaty palms, the feelings of anxiety and lack of confidence. You can change how your body reacts to stress by changing how you think about stress.
In a study that tested this theory, participants were either coached to think their body’s stress response was bad for their health, or a useful way for their body to prepare them to meet whatever challenge created the stress in the first place. Then the participants were put into stressful situations: they performed mathematical calculations on the spot while someone yelled at them to go faster and faster, and they told a panel of obviously unimpressed people about their personal flaws. Obviously neither are enjoyable situations to be in!
The participants who had been told their body’s stress response was useful in these situations actually had less severe stress responses: their blood vessels didn’t constrict even though their hearts were racing (this tendency of constriction is part of why ongoing stress can lead to cardiovascular problems), and they were less likely to feel anxious or lacking in confidence. Participants who were told the stress response is harmful to their health fared much worse.
Another study found a similar result: participants who were taught that stress can be beneficial to performance were found to develop a more healthy attitude to stress over the next several weeks. They tended to perform better at work and report less stress during the weeks after watching a stress education video. Researchers found that those with a more positive mindset about stress were also more likely to appreciate feedback.
Thinking positively about how stress can be beneficial to you may also improve your ability to take on feedback and improve your work.
Stress is a fact of life, and rightly so. It helps us in extreme situations, where a fight-or-flight response is necessary for our survival. However, stress tends to hit entrepreneurs harder than others. Running a business can result in you becoming too stressed, too often.
Using the methods covered in this guide, and redefining your perception of stress over time, can help you diffuse stressful situations and use the presence of stress as a helpful performance primer.
And in times of woe when all else fails, just remember to hug the nearest dog.