Entrepreneur Stress, Overwhelm & Mental Health Challenges - Phil Drinkwater Coach

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Entrepreneur Stress, Overwhelm & Mental Health Challenges

Entrepreneurs as a group can struggle to handle their emotions at times. Why is this so common?
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Many of us face mental health challenges sometime in our lives, but in my experience early and late stage entrepreneurs face more than their fair share. Why is this? Let’s dive in.

What do we mean by mental health?

When people say they have poor mental health at that time, they typically mean that they are experiencing a significant amount of uncomfortable emotions, possibly at a level that they can’t cope with.

These emotions are a communication system that something isn’t right. They are typically communicating that one or more of our needs aren’t being met.

For example, if you’re someone who needs security, but you feel less secure, you might experience anxiety. Maybe you have a bill that needs to be paid but a supplier won’t pay you. That might trigger anxiety.

What mental health challenges are common for entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs as a group of people are often fairly similar and following a similar journey, so it stands to reason that it’s common to find particular challenges. There are some common challenges:

  • Burnout. When it’s all got too much and the founder becomes frozen, unable to think, make decisions, move forward, or even work you’re in burnout.
  • Anxiety. The uncertainties of the entrepreneurial life can lead to a feeling that the future is fearful, where anxiety highlights a lack of security and certainty.
  • Depression. Feeling trapped and unable to get out, constant setbacks and failures can all trigger feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
  • Imposter syndrome. While not a commonly considered mental health challenge, the emotions from feeling undeserving or a fraud can be debilitating.
  • Sleep disorders. Again, not specifically considered mental health challenges, sleep disorders caused by stress and overwhelm can cause other symptoms to become worse.
  • Isolation. When our connection and stimulation needs aren’t being met, we can feel alone and isolated from the world around us, triggering sadness, loneliness and boredom.
  • Perfectionism. The fear of disappointing others, or of business failure, can trigger both resentment and anxiety that lead to perfectionism, which causes stress and overwhelm.
  • Decision fatigue. With some many decisions to make, it can be exhausting to handle the complex inter-dependencies of constantly making decisions.

What do we mean by stress and overwhelm?

There are many different definitions of stress and overwhelm, but I like to think of them as a continuum of uncomfortable emotions that start with mild stress, through to stress and ending in overwhelm. It’s not the only definition, but it helps to understand what might be happened.

We all have different triggers for stress. For some, it’s distressing to be in a situation where we’ve displeased someone else. For others, financial difficulties are distressing.

We can all handle different amounts of stress. For some people, just the idea that something might happen is a challenge. For others, there would have to be an earthquake of problems around them before stress is triggered.

So, how sensitive your nervous system is to upset, and what your triggers are, is unique to you. There’s no judgement on this point. You are how you are.

What about positive stress?

Yes, in fact many people would consider some level of stress to be helpful to them and their productivity. Many entrepreneurs I speak to tell me they like to live their lives between about a 4 and a 7 on the stress scale.

Below a 4, and life can be dull and boring. Above a 7 and it becomes overwhelming.

  • Do you know what level of stress is right for you in your entrepreneurial life?
  • What one or two strategies can you employ to keep between these two numbers?

Physical responses to mental health, stress and overwhelm

Prolonged stress and mental health issues can lead to physical responses from the body. Our bodies are meant to spend most of our time in a calm and relaxed state, and only dip into stress when our “fight or flight” system is triggered by a rustle in the bushes that might be a lion.

But when we’re chronically afraid or worried or stressed, we might start to experience symptoms like illness, headaches, sleep issues and constant fatigue.

What makes entrepreneurs as a group particularly susceptible?

First off, many of these challenges are made more difficult by ADHD and other neurodiversity traits, and at least 40% of entrepreneurs are ADHD.

For example, the need for stimulation that ADHD brings, combined with an insecure attachment style, can lead to a feeling of loneliness. In addition, ADHD people love new shiny objects, so we have a tendency to pivot from idea to idea, often not finishing anything. This causes stress and overwhelm since we can see we’re not productive and not moving forward.

Outside of neurodiversity, the constant pressure of requiring a stable income and constantly changing and pivoting can be a significant challenge for neurotypical entrepreneurs. If the footfall outside your shop has significant reduced, that will often trigger anxiety, no matter how well you believe you handle your emotions.

Entrepreneurs face a life where we’re striving for glory, but the path can be a significant struggle every day.

What can we do to help ourselves?

Anxiety, stress and even overwhelm should dissipate over time. However, if you’re feeling very uncomfortable, STOP.

Write down the problems that are on your mind on post it notes and take them all physically out of the room you’re in.

If there’s one that’s totally urgent, pick that. If not, separate them into “now” and “later”, where “now” are the group which ideally should be dealt with as soon as possible.

Then take the “now” pile and separate them into “high impact” and “low impact”, where “high impact” are the issues where a solution would very significantly impact your business.

Look through the “high impact” pile and find the most important to deal with. Make a decision on what to handle, and then work through just that one thing. Unless you’re struggling with time, choose to fully solve the problem; don’t just put sticking plaster over it.

Ask yourself some questions, like:

  • What outcome is ideal for this, and how can I take a step toward this?
  • What options am I currently ignoring or discounting in solving this problem?
  • How would <insert favourite celeb business people> solve this problem?

Everything else that’s outside of the room can wait. Block them from your mind and focus.

Once you’ve solved that challenge, come back for the next one.

Look after your mental health

Seeing the signs of worsening mental health and taking action immediately is important in your entrepreneurial journey.

Write down a list of the stages of stress, overwhelm and other uncomfortable emotions for you. It might look something like this:

  1. Become preoccupied that I’m not solving problems
  2. Feeling like I can’t handle this
  3. Headaches and sleep issues
  4. Feeling confused and lacking direction
  5. Overwhelm

If you’re struggling significantly, you might look to work with a therapist or a coach to help you with your entrepreneurial journey.

Most important of all though is to talk to someone about it. A friend. A family member. Your partner. Or find an entrepreneur support group.

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