How Entrepreneurs Can Learn to Embrace Stress
Changing your mindset can transform challenging situations into opportunities to thrive.
Everywhere you turn, people are trying to chill out. From yoga to meditation to sensory deprivation float tanks, it seems we’re all seeking new ways to combat stress and anxiety -- and the data backs up our collective pursuit of Zen.
According to a survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 million adults now practice either yoga or meditation. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Americans who did yoga increased by 55 percent, while those who practice meditation nearly tripled.
Many founders are intimately acquainted with stress. Change, uncertainty, financial pressure and competition can be a potent cocktail at every stage of the journey. I started my company, JotForm, 13 years ago, so I understand these challenges firsthand.
At the same time, stress is a reality of modern life. That’s why I advise entrepreneurs to welcome it with open arms. We need to harness the power of stress and use it to our advantage, instead of the other way around.
Not all stress is created equal.
Back in 1974, McGill University physician and scientist Hans Selye introduced the concept of positive stress or “eustress,” which he defined as “healthy, positive, constructive results of stressful events and stress response.” The bottom line? Some stress can actually be good for you -- as long as you respond in a healthy way.
Eustress occurs when you view a stressful situation as an opportunity. Eustress motivates you to overcome a challenge or accomplish a task, and it can trigger feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment and wellbeing.
Negative stress, or “distress” occurs when you see a stressor as a threat, and something that will inevitably have a negative outcome. Distress can lead to fear, anxiety and depression. Chronic, routine distress can even threaten your health and contribute to serious issues including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other illnesses.
Stress might be impossible to avoid, but what matters most is how we perceive it -- and we can train our brains to react more positively in the face of stressful situations. We can use several mindset practices to make “eustress” our default response.
First, I suggest working to develop a default belief system that’s hopeful, positive and assumes the best outcome is always possible. This is similar to a “growth mindset,” which welcomes challenge and views failure as a stepping stone to growth.
As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck outlined in her 2007 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” a growth mindset creates a passion for learning instead of a need for approval. “For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” Dweck wrote. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Additionally, meditation can ease a frantic mind and stabilize the body’s warning signals. “It’s a technique for taking things ranging from anxiety to remorse to actual physical pain,” psychologist Robert Wright told Vox, “and taking a perspective on them that somewhat releases you from their grip.”
Protect yourself from negative stress.
Psychologist Melanie Greenberg compares moderate stress to the inoculating effects of a vaccine. Just like your annual flu shot, which contains a tiny amount of the virus, exposure to a reasonable amount of stress can immunize you against a more catastrophic response. Managing some stress is likely to make you more resilient, while teaching you how to respond positively to future stressors.
Building strength through stress is a phenomenon that researchers have demonstrated through academic studies. In a multi-year survey published in 2010, Dr. Mark Seery and his colleagues learned that adverse experiences can build resilience and boost both mental health and wellbeing.
In a paper titled “Whatever does not kill us,” Seery and the team wrote:
“… people with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity.”
Too much stress, however, puts your body on high alert. It triggers the familiar, but often unnecessary, fight or flight response, which makes your heart race, your breath quicken, and primes your muscles for action. It’s a great emergency response system, but modern-day threats like angry emails or getting cut off in traffic don’t exactly require a full-body reaction.
So, instead of avoiding stress, we need to learn how to deal with it -- and research shows that changing your perceptions of stress can literally save your life. In a 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal describes a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that tracked 30,000 U.S. adults over eight years. The study was designed to explore how we think about stress, and how those perceptions can affect our health.
Participants were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year. They were also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?” The researchers then used public records to track deaths among study participants.
As McGonigal explains, “people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But, that was only was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.”
People who reported high stress levels but didn’t consider stress detrimental had the lowest risk of dying, compared to anyone else in the study -- including those who claimed they had experienced very little stress in the previous year. That’s an astounding discovery. It also highlights the power of thought. How we perceive stressful situations can dramatically influence how they affect our lives and our health.
Take control of stress.
While stress might be inevitable, our reactions are not. As I’ve grown my company to serve 4.3 million users and employ a team of 130, I’ve gradually developed four habits that help me to routinely transform stress into opportunity.
1. Reframe the physical symptoms.
From the time we’re young, we learn that shaky limbs, a dry mouth, and a racing heart indicate danger -- assuming we’re not sprinting down a field. When I start to feel the symptoms of stress, I try to remember that I’m not actually facing a threat. There’s nothing wrong with my brain or my body. Instead, I try to see these feelings as investment. My body is telling me that I care about the situation at hand.
By changing your perceptions, you can learn how to welcome stress indicators and respond more appropriately, whether you’re preparing for an investor meeting or tackling a high-pressure deadline.
2. Harness the power of stress.
Positive stress jump-starts your brain, leading you to develop creative solutions and more innovative ideas. Imagining stress as a helpful force can also propel you into action. Instead of feeling paralyzed by fear and emotion, try to channel that energy into momentum. Make plans and lists. Break challenges down into digestible goals. Do whatever you can to see opportunities instead of problems.
3. Focus only on what you can change.
You can’t control the driver who cut you off in traffic. Nor can you influence the economy, market forces, an employee who suddenly quits, or a competitor edging into your space. There’s no point spending your mental energy on things you can change. But if you find yourself in a stress spiral, take a deep breath and regain your focus.
I recommend writing a simple list. Divide your page into two columns: one that outlines things you can change, and one that lists everything you can’t. Fill out the page. At the end of this exercise, you’ll know where to focus your attention and what to ignore completely.
4. Collaborate with positive people.
Most people have felt the contagious effects of stress. When a colleague freaks out, it can be tough to stay calm and positive. Yet, company culture can have a massive influence on how everyone reacts to stressful situations. If you have the ability to move slowly and hand-pick your staff, it’s worth seeking out upbeat people who can roll with the punches without getting knocked out.
As a founder or CEO, you also set the tone for your team. When employees see that you can laugh, get creative, and stay kind in a stressful situation, they’ll model that behavior. They will also be more likely to approach you with tough problems, because they won’t fear your response.
Finally, it’s good to remember that our 24/7 hustle culture plays a role here. We’ve learned to measure people’s worth based on how much is piled on their plate. We respect people who run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Instead of talking about how stressed we feel, we have the power to do something about it.
Stress is your body’s reaction to an outside force. Manage it correctly and it might even make you physically, mentally and emotionally healthier.