No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness – Aristotle
A study from by Dr. Michael Freeman at the University of California San Francisco found that 49% of those who start a company say they have struggled with some form of mental illness in the past. 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health conditions.
Starting a company, and sticking with it, is outside the realm of what most people do. The high creativity that propels an entrepreneur can also cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, or manic disorders. This is true also for those who rise to high levels within existing companies.
My anxiety started in college and followed me through my corporate career. It started as a feeling of inadequacy that made me vulnerable to abusive and codependent behavior. Here are a few things it caused in my worst days:
- Depression– Anxiety and depression are like siblings. Or more like twins. I didn’t realize that long term anxiety would lead to depression. Until one day I came home from spin class – something that had always made me feel awesome in the past – and found myself sobbing on the floor of my shower for no reason.
- Scary or obsessive thoughts– At its worst my anxiety caused me to hold on to a visualization of a horrible skin infection I had seen in a photo somewhere. I knew this was being caused by my anxiety but I still couldn’t get rid of it. It followed me everywhere and made me physically sick all day.
- Verbal diarrhea– A funny term for something that can be hugely damaging. I found myself talking and ranting. I would say things I didn’t mean, or let out thoughts that didn’t need to be said. It was a huge problem. I hurt people, made people feel bad, and represented myself in a horrible way to the outside world.
- Isolation– I was unable to enjoy friends or look forward to a social event. I masked with a smile and buffered with over-drinking, but the lack of enjoyment took its toll. I found myself with no real connection to anyone around me.
- Insomnia– I woke up every night between 2AM and 3AM and I would just start working. I knew I wouldn’t be going back to sleep. This went on for years.
Many people experience feeling paralyzed or stuck. Some have panic attacks. Some people have incessant thoughts of self doubt – the phrase “I don’t know” or “f&*% this” running through their head at every situation.
I turned a corner on my anxiety with yoga and meditation. One month I made it my 30 day goal to do yoga every day, even if it was only for 10 minutes, followed by a short meditation. At the end of thirty days I was feeling so good. One month turned to three, then to six. I let go of things I had been holding on to for years. Things that used to bother me just didn’t any more. I stopped being angry. I began to enjoy my days and feel excited about the future. I found myself smiling again for no reason. My emotional set point rose and every day I felt lighter.
Now I’m talking more openly about my journey through anxiety, and it’s a conversation people want to engage in. So, I want to start by listing the things that work for me. Please add your own in the comments. It’s an important topic, and one with no clearly defined right or wrong answer.
What has helped me
When I first realized anxiety was affecting my life in a negative way I sought out a professional counselor. The benefit I got (and still get) from counseling does not come from dredging up pain from the past, or dissecting people and events. It’s a common misconception that counseling or therapy is this painful experience where you relive all your past wrongs. For me the benefit is in the guidance. My counselor gives me new ways to look at things and helps me redirect my thinking into more productive patterns.
Not all professional help comes in the form of a therapist or counselor. I have a client (Stephanie Filardi) who does Reiki and Shamanic healing. I have done more than 5 Shamanic sessions with her (over the phone, no less.)
Shamanic (think shaman) is like a journey in your mind combined with a boat load of talk therapy condensed down into one session. It’s completely relaxing and meditative, and helps reveal deep truths. I have found it incredibly beneficial.
Of course, some find support from their priest or pastor. Spouses and partners can be wonderful support systems. Some have an incredible friend that lends support and guidance. Some people get support from their pets. The point is that support is key. It helped me to feel safe and guided, and led me to some of the other pieces that have helped so much.
After my first session with Stephanie Filardi she recommended that I take an epsom salt bath. That long soak was the first thing I enjoyed in a really, really long time. Now, the bath is an almost daily ritual for me. Being kind to myself is an essential part of the work I do. I consider it part of my job.
“Apply your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others”- every flight safety manual ever
I also meditate. So yea – meditation – I know – it’s a little cliche and new-agey. But if you are still reading after the Shamanic stuff, I don’t think the meditation is going to scare you off.
The fact is every major religion practices some sort of mindful stillness in the form or prayer, silence, or meditation. The practice is crucial to well-being. Meditation is an ancient practice with modern-world, scientifically proven results. Even the shortest daily meditation practice can actually rewire neural pathways that cause you to have unwanted thoughts, feel negative emotions, or self-deprecating internal dialogue.
Here is my advice when it comes to self-care:
- Enjoy something – Allow yourself to enjoy an activity and make a point of doing it regularly. My friend gives herself a Netflix day. For me, it’s hiking to waterfalls, floating in the lake, and doing anything with my kids. Oh, and that bath.
- Get aligned – Find a happy state of mind every day. This is different than doing something you enjoy. What I mean is that you should spend time feeling good every day. Whether through prayer, meditation, stillness, walking, running, gratitude, visualization, journaling – whatever it is. Find an internal happy place and stay in it for at least one solid minute every day. It will truly do wonders for your outlook.
- Disconnect – Another friend said he reduces anxiety by leaving his phone in the car. Simple, but true. That phone will constantly call your name as long as you let it. Be unreachable for a period of time every day. This is essential.
I have a morning ritual. To be honest, sometimes I resent it. It takes a long time and it can sometimes feel like a burden. But I have come to respect it and see it as part of my work. I am better when I do it, so I do it.
Here is my morning ritual:
- spend some time with my kids before school,
- vacuum all of my floors (I’m not a freak but I do have 2 dogs and a cat),
- do yoga,
- get in the bath,
- meditate either during or after the bath.
I do all of this every day before I sit down at my desk. I call it ‘getting my mind right’. Some days I call it ‘getting my shit together.’ It has helped me deal with my husband’s second deployment with much more ease and grace than I did the first. It is essential to my state of mind every day.
There is something else I want to say about stability. I was able to stabilize my business finances and my income using the method outlined in Profit First. Basically – I put everything my company makes into different buckets, and I only pay myself a set amount each week from the ‘owners pay’ bucket. It takes a lot off my mind and helps to keep the business financially stable. I find that this stability gives me one less reason to feel anxious.
Spending time in service of others takes your mind off you for a while, which can be incredibly elevating.
I teach a yoga class 2 times a week for a group of older ladies who are seeing these amazing benefits from the work we do in class. Beth now stands up straight, where she used to walk completely doubled over. And, Rebecca can now pop up and down off the floor with ease. I saw one of my wonderful ladies stand on one foot for a full 30 seconds the other day. It makes me feel incredible to know they are stronger and more comfortable because of the work we do together.
Quitting the corporate world was not the answer to my anxiety, but it was the beginning of a journey. People don’t become high performing professionals without constant personal growth. We continue to learn every day. It’s part of the entrepreneur’s journey. If I had to give advice I would say do something that falls into each of these four categories regularly. Don’t wait until you find yourself isolated or on the floor of your shower. Enjoy your life now.
This summer I will be leading a 90 day group coaching program called ‘Business Yoga’ that will help business leaders decrease anxiety while increasing productivity and happiness.
I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Please comment and share with someone you think might benefit.
For more on the statistics quoted in this article read the post Genius in Madness from StartupGrind.com.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and/or anxiety or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.