4 Expert-Backed Strategies for Managing Anxiety
Experts say anxiety is a habit -- and like any habit, it can be broken. Here's how.
Serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk once said, "Eat shit for 48 months and eat caviar for the rest of your life." At some point, the quote was even turned into a poster. The idea is that sacrificing everything for a few years, even such basic concerns as what you're feeding yourself, is the way to succeed with your startup.
Aside from the fact that this hustle-hard mentality is one, but certainly not the only, formula for succeeding — I advocate for the "grow slow and steady" route — it's also rarely true that the stress and anxiety of running a business goes away after the first few years. As CEO of Jotform for 16 years and counting, I can vouch that the early days were stressful, but those early stage worries were merely replaced by others as the team grew and the company expanded.
Honestly, it's no surprise that we entrepreneurs are an anxious bunch when we are so invested, financially and emotionally, in our businesses. According to a UCSF study, entrepreneurs might even be more prone to mental health conditions than the general population. It's worth considering how to meaningfully manage your stress and anxiety. In fact, experts say that doing so might even make your business more successful. It might not be Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but there are ways to relieve chronic anxiety so you can succeed as an entrepreneur without sacrificing your wellbeing.
But first, a closer look at why we're so anxious.
Anxiety is a habit
Sometimes it feels like anxiety is an entrepreneur's resting heart rate. There is never not something to worry about — a market shift, a new competitor, an upcoming launch, and the list continues.
According to Dr. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health, anxiety is a habit. It triggers certain behaviors — typically ways to avoid those unpleasant feelings, like drinking alcohol or binging Netflix — and forms a trigger/behavior/reward loop.
One of the most common behaviors associated with anxiety, which probably feels all too familiar to any entrepreneur, is worrying. Dr. Brewer says that while worrying gives people the illusion of control, it's actually counterproductive. "There's this fallacy of correlation that our brain assumes is causation… We could be worrying. We could come up with a solution, but it doesn't mean that the worrying caused us to come up with a solution. And there's plenty of research showing when we worry, we actually narrow our focus, where we can't actually think creatively."
To keep our thinking sharp and our worrying under wraps, here are some expert-backed strategies for combating anxiety.
1. Challenge the causal connection
You likely know whether you tend to be a worrier. But instead of continuing that habit loop unfettered, take a moment to consider whether your worrying actually leads to meaningful results.
As Dr. Brewer tells Harvard Business Review's The Anxious Achiever podcast, we can explore whether our brains are making false causal connections. If we think we need to worry to plan for some negative contingency, we can experiment doing the opposite. "We can plan and not worry and see which one is more taxing on us emotionally and physically, because it's like turning our car on and just slamming on the gas in neutral when we're worrying, right? It doesn't really get us anywhere, but it certainly uses a lot of fuel."
Acknowledging whether you're wasting your mental fuel or not is the first step toward short-circuiting your worrying loop.
2. Map out your habit loops
Knowing is half the battle, says Dr. Brewer. Even if you can't change the behavior right away, recognizing your triggers can give you a strong starting point.
For me, especially in the first few years of running my own business, every issue that popped up triggered my anxiety — from user problems to staff issues, it felt like I was putting out fires nonstop. Not all stress is bad. Sometimes, it might even help us, but eventually I had to acknowledge that my triggers were everywhere, and I was getting burned out. A day at the office was a minefield of anxiety. I had to change, and in my case that meant learning to delegate.
Trying to locate the triggers that lead to your worrying can help you to figure out a plan of action to slowly alleviate anxiety.
3. Practice self-awareness
This tip goes hand-in-hand with recognizing your loops. But instead of just tuning in when anxiety already strikes, experts recommend trying a regular practice to cultivate self-awareness.
Trish Cotter and Kathleen Stetson of MIT's Sloan School of Management experimented with self-awareness with a cohort of accelerator program founders. They hypothesized that "if entrepreneurs understood more about the mechanics of themselves — their thoughts, feelings and automatic physical and emotional responses — they could make better personal choices in the face of the everyday stresses of entrepreneurship." They introduced a self-awareness framework that included: 1) noticing present thoughts, feelings and physical sensations 2) labeling those sensations; 3) reflecting on patterns over time; and 4) making informed choices based on self-reflection.
By the end of the program, 88% of the participants established a regular mindfulness practice, and 93% felt that self-awareness practice could help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.
An important caveat of the experiment: Cotter and Stetson didn't require participants to begin a self-awareness practice. "We simply presented the research-backed benefits and showed them how it was possible to integrate it into their already-packed day."
Entrepreneurs speak the language of results, and when it comes to self-awareness, the numbers speak for themselves. Implementing your own mindfulness practice can help you to cultivate that valuable headspace.
4. Aim for good enough
Finally, when you notice yourself obsessing over attaining perfection, ask yourself if less effort (and stress) will achieve more or less the same results. Says Dr. Brewer, "If we can find that sweet spot where we do a good enough job, which for most of us, is a fine job for our bosses or whatever, our bosses are going to be much happier."
In the end, it's a calculation of returns. If another day of obsessively tweaking a project will only yield marginally better results, it's better to devote your energy elsewhere — to other projects or even your own wellbeing (like the above-mentioned self-awareness practice).
It might seem counterintuitive to entrepreneurs, but sometimes "good enough" really is a better target for the overall health of you and your business.
Becoming a more balanced entrepreneur might not be the stuff of viral tweets and posters, but it has helped me to grow my business over the last decade-and-a-half. I hope the above strategies will help you to reduce your anxiety and become a healthier, happier and maybe even more successful business owner.
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