Beating Down Anxiety as an Entrepreneur

A version of this article was published on Thrive Global on November 16, 2018

Beating Down Anxiety as an Entrepreneur

10 Tips for battling stress & overwhelm.

By Rebecca PanFounder & CEO, Covo Coworking Inc.

Being an entrepreneur means sometimes waking up with your chest tight, jaws clenched, and worries on your mind before you even open your eyes.

This is all too often a steady state for startup folks. There’s always too much to do, too little time, too many responsibilities, too many hard choices to make, and too many difficult conversations looming.

I know deep in my soul that entrepreneurship requires a heavy dose of inspiration and an equally heavy dose of delusion. 

Most of us enter into entrepreneurship because we have an idea, a dream, and a driving need to execute. We may or may not have the experience, knowledge base, or internal fortitude we wish we could bring to the table, but we take on the challenge anyway. As a seven-time Founder, and CEO of a growing startup, I know deep in my soul that entrepreneurship requires a heavy dose of inspiration and an equally heavy dose of delusion. Both are critical to gathering the courage to begin and the fortitude to continue day after day.

If you’re anything like me, you live in a balance between the days when everything flows and you couldn’t be happier, and the days of crippling anxiety and worry. The good part is, and a big part of why we’ve chosen this life, is that it’s never boring. But the flip side of that excitement and constant stimulation is a huge amount of stress, anxiety and pressure from a wide range of people, including partners, investors, staff, customers, and last but not least, ourselves.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things we can all do to increase the number of wonderful days, and decrease the anxiety. Here are a few of my favorites:

#1 Don’t Short Yourself on Sleep

I can’t overstate this. There are countless studies proving that getting enough sleep leads to a happier existence, more productive output, and the ability to weather stress and anxiety better. I get 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night, take naps when I need them, and stopped apologizing for this a long time ago. This is my biggest and best weapon in my arsenal against anxiety.

#2 Don’t Force Your Mind to Relax

One of my most anxiety-inducing habits when I was younger was to tell myself I HAD to go to sleep or I would be a mess the next day. As we all know this has the complete opposite effect, putting our body into fight or flight mode, and making it absolutely impossible to actually relax and fall asleep. Instead, I remind myself that resting and relaxing gets me most of the benefits of sleep, so if sleep isn’t coming easily, I just relax, and count down slowly from 100, visualizing each number quietly and calmly before moving to the next. This method has been effectively helping me fall asleep since middle school.

#3 Kick the Caffeine Habit

This is a hard pill to swallow, I know! I’m crazy for coffee and tea, but am super sensitive to caffeine. If I have any in my system, including the minimal amounts in green tea, my brain loops and whirs all night long. This means that I am extremely careful with caffeine intake, and generally reserve it for weekends. Not having caffeine means it’s that much more critical to get enough sleep, as I can’t use it as a “I’m tired and need a boost.”

#4 Recognize that We are All Bags of Chemicals

Our body chemistry is not always balanced or optimized for health and productivity. We can do things to help it along. I take a supplement called L-theanine, a naturally occurring, easy to find, and inexpensive amino acid that calms the mind and reduces the negative impacts of caffeine. I learned about this six years ago, and it has been a game changer for me ever since. It calms my mind, let’s me focus, and allows sleep to come on those nights that my brain won’t turn off.

#5 Write It Down

When our brain calms down and we create a bit of space, it often fills up with things we need to do, remember, or forget. My brain will start to loop on these items. I try to write them down or record them, so they are out of my head. I often wake up in the middle of the night with things I need to do, people I need to reach out to, forgotten tasks, all competing for mind space. Writing it down on a pad of paper or a note on my iPhone gets them out of my head and puts them some somewhere I can deal with when the time is right. It could be right then, or a time that I schedule on my calendar. But it helps calm the noise.

#6 Move Your Body

I don’t like to exercise. I’ve never experienced the runner’s high of endorphins flooding my system, and I’d much rather curl up on the couch with a soft blanket, cup of decaffeinated green tea, and a sci-fi thriller. But for me, walking is different. I walk to work at least once a week. It’s 3.1 miles away, and takes me about an hour and a half, because I walk very slowly, looking around and appreciating my surroundings.

I walk through some of the most beautiful and most sordid parts of San Francisco. Through the Castro and through the seedy underbelly of SF, the Tenderloin. I often listen to audiobooks, podcasts or write articles and blog posts using voice to text on my phone. This article’s first draft was written this way just this morning. Walking gives me a chance to clear my head, get thoughts out of my cranium and into text, or take my brain to intriguing new places via TED talks, podcasts, or audiobooks.

#7 Cherish Your Body like Your Best Friend

It’s so easy to take our bodies for granted, especially when they are working well. My first 19 years on the planet I enjoyed a pain-free existence and completely took my body for granted. I then injured myself, and have dealt with chronic pain ever since. There are few things as stressful as acute or chronic pain. Pain robs us of sleep, makes it hard to be fully present, takes away the joy of celebratory moments, and tends to get worse in times of high stress.

I have dealt with chronic back pain since 1999. Since then, I’ve done physical therapy, massage therapy, worked with numerous personal trainers in many modalities, tried Pilates, Chiropractic, acupuncture, new mattresses and numerous new pillows, all with little success.

A year ago I started working with a new trainer, whose purpose is helping the body stabilize and move the way it was built to move. It’s amazing how much our body wants to cheat when it moves in order to avoid pain, and how this can often exacerbate existing conditions.

I also began working with the new chiropractor, who’s broken up a lot of scar tissue I’ve developed over the years and helped realign my body. That’s not all. I’ve given myself permission to get massages at least once a month, to help with overall body inflammation and aches and pains. I found a mattress (Casper), and pillows that help me sleep more deeply and comfortably.

Lastly, I take anti-inflammation supplements including fish oil, glucosamine chondroitin, chelated magnesium, and a multivitamin. With all of these measures in place, there are now times when I am strong and free of pain. And I can tell you, after nearly 20 years of chronic pain and discomfort, being pain-free even for a small amount of time, is an enormous lifter of stress and anxiety.

#8 Have the Tough Conversations

Nothing eats at us more than the really awkward conversation we push to the periphery of our awareness. It may be with an employee, a boss, a family member, or a friend, but these conversations that we think we’ve set aside carry enormous weight, worry, and anxiety. I hate these conversations as much as anyone, but do my best to power through, reach out, and get them done. It helps so much! Getting them off my plate as soon as possible (or appropriate) means I live with very little regret and very little dread.

#9 Be Physically Comfortable

I spent the first eight years of my career in New York City, in stiletto heels and pencil skirts. I wore a lot of makeup, and was “on” all of the time. I would work throughout the day, and then have early drinks, dinner plans, and later night plans, often hitting three networking events in a single evening. I maintained this schedule for years, and built a successful graphic design practice, but at heavy cost to my body and mind.

And I’m working from the same playing field as my male counterparts, which is also damn empowering.

A couple of years ago I realized that heels, confining clothes, and makeup are all chock-full of gender bias and bullshit. I made a command decision to refuse to intentionally make myself less comfortable than a man. My style now revolves around comfy, flattering yoga pants and beautiful but comfortable tops, no makeup, low heeled boots, and fabulous jewelry. Sure, I’ll get dolled up for a wedding or a special event and break out even more fabulous heels that I ever wore in New York City, but those are for special occasions and not for my everyday protective armor. I am comfortable! I’m not hurting my body. And I’m working from the same playing field as my male counterparts, which is also damn empowering.

#10 Prioritize Friends and Beverages

I continue to find tremendous calm, comfort, and delight in a beverage and an honest conversation. Running a coworking community like Covo, where I get to interact with and support hundreds of extraordinary Individuals, mentor dozens of female founders, and work alongside both staff and members that I consider forever friends, means the world to me and keeps a lot of stress and anxiety at bay.

Working in a coworking space that focuses on community, true community, especially a diverse and inclusive community like we’ve built at Covo, means that I have wonderful people to celebrate wins with, amazing people to help me weather challenges and difficulties, and folks to just hang out with and enjoy one another’s company. There was a time when I felt really alone, isolated, confused, and inadequate. I still have moments of inadequacy, but I can’t remember the last time I felt lonely, having such an extensive and strong support network.

Humans are social creatures, and we are built to feel and believe that being alone is just one small step from death. Because that used to be true, and our lizard brain hasn’t evolved to the point where friends on Facebook feed that same need for a true connection.

All this to say, I still battle daily with stress, anxiety, and worry. In fact, I woke up this morning with tightness in my chest and worries on my mind. I was inspired to write this article in part to remind myself of all of the tactics and tools in my tool belt to combat stress and anxiety.

The truth is, it takes a lot of effort to choose to be an entrepreneur and also choose to live a happy, healthy life. 

The truth is, it takes a lot of effort to choose to be an entrepreneur and also choose to live a happy, healthy life. I choose both of these things every day, and actively choose to do the work of achieving peace and balance in a world of chaos. I hope some of these tips help you with your journey.