Small business owners and startup founders have a lot on their plates at the best of times. Add a global pandemic, home-schooling, being separated from loved ones, and seemingly unending uncertainty to that, and it’s understandable many entrepreneurs are feeling a touch more anxious than usual.
Last month, Airtree hosted a session on managing anxiety and building resilience for its community of startup founders, teams and anyone else interested.
In the session, Dr Jodie Lowinger, founder and chief of wellbeing and performance consultancy Mind Strength, unpacked some of the triggers that might set business leaders into a spiral of anxious thought.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a kind of “collective anxiety”, Lowinger said.
It’s something everyone, including business leaders, are experiencing. But many of those leaders have their whole livelihoods on the line, and they’re managing teams at the same time, on top of anything in their personal lives.
Lowinger also shared some quick tips to stop anxiety in its tracks, which we have included below. But if you’re struggling with anxiety, burnout, a low mood or depression, please reach out and seek help.
These things are responsive to the right strategies, Lowinger said, and you don’t have to wait until they’re debilitating to start tackling them.
“We can turn anxiety problems around,” Lowinger said.
“We’ve got to eradicate any stigma or shame around any of these things.”
First of all, Lowinger encouraged entrepreneurs to recognise ‘worry’ thoughts.
Worry crops up when your brain tries to create certainty where there is none, she said. That means imagining any and all possible scenarios, and inevitably honing in on the most terrifying ones.
“Worry is like the bully that bosses us around and tells us all sorts of garbage,” Lowinger said.
“We think that it’s helpful, but in essence, it actually wreaks havoc in our lives.”
Of course, a big part of being an entrepreneur is anticipating and planning for all kinds of different scenarios. But, our brains are wired to treat those perceived threats as real ones, and that will likely tip you into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
It’s about recognising the stories your imagination is telling you as worries, not legitimate threats.
“We want to learn how to take ourselves out of that,” Lowinger said.
“Realign with problem-solving and action-planning around the things that are in our control … not struggling and grappling with things that are out of our control,” she advised.
Be kind to yourself
“You cannot pour from an empty glass. In order to be able to look after others, you absolutely must be able to care for yourselves,” Lowinger said.
Currently, the COVID-19 environment means business owners are not able to achieve things they want to, or would be able to otherwise, she explained.
At the same time, entrepreneurs are prone to perfectionism. They want to be doing their best 100% of the time, and that’s just not feasible right now.
“We’ve got to be purposefully imperfect,” Lowinger said.
Five minutes of exercise is better than zero minutes, she said. A Zoom call with your loved ones is better than nothing at all. The same applies to your business, and the energy you’re able to direct towards it.
“It’s about being kind to yourselves — listening to that critical voice that says you’re not good enough or you’re not high-performing at the moment, and responding to it with actions that are helpful rather than unhelpful,” Lowinger explained.
There’s a balance to be struck here. For many startups, it’s harder than ever to make sales and get those all-important runs on the board. For others, COVID means business is going gangbusters.
Either way, these business owners are working harder than ever.
But, Lowinger said, working hard is not what causes burnout. What creates burnout is working hard without making any progress.
“It’s when the context is such that no matter how hard we work nothing makes a difference.”
Sometimes, all you need is a slight shift of mindset, she explained.
Can you approach the challenge from a different angle? Can you make a pivot to align with the new COVID-19 environment? Or, does this require a full rethinking of your business?
Either way, it’s about recognising when your hard work isn’t getting you anywhere, taking a step back and thinking creatively about what you could do differently.
“You have to pivot and respond so that you’re not just beating your head against a brick wall,” Lowinger said.
“It’s the difference between worry and problem-solving.”
If you or someone you know need to talk to someone, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.
You can reach Beyond Blue’s COVID-19 support line on 1800 512 348, or find mental health resources for small business owners here.