As an entrepreneur, anxiety may feel like a constant companion. It may feel impossible to manage anxiety.
It can come up all the time about pretty much anything in your business: sales, financial management, bookings, website problems, struggles with copywriting, software issues… the list goes on and on.
If you experience anxiety, you likely have felt all the uncomfortable symptoms that come with it.
Many of my clients report their heart pounds, their breath gets fast and shallow, their muscles feel tense or they get headaches, they sweat, and even digestive upsets like nausea, indigestion and constipation or diarrhea seem to pop up out of nowhere.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you are very likely to experience anxiety. You’re probably very familiar with worry thoughts, and find it hard to manage anxiety. Worry thoughts can run rampant, keeping you up at night and distracting you during the day. These thoughts can come to dominate your awareness.
In the face of all this, it can be challenging to manage anxiety–especially when you’re go-go-go with the responsibilities of running a business.
When worry thoughts take over, you flip your lid. Your CEO-self goes offline and you can’t be the leader you want to be in your business, the one who creatively solves problems and moves her projects forward despite challenges.
Why do we get anxious?
All of these symptoms are directly related to our body’s fight or flight response which is activated by a part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system.
The fight or flight response was originally intended as a survival mechanism to help mammals (including humans) to react quickly to a life-threatening situation.
Unfortunately, the body has the same response to non-life-threatening situations.
These are situations that we know in our minds aren’t really a threat to survival but somehow are perceived by our nervous system as a threat. That can make managing anxiety difficult.
Thankfully the other part of the autonomic nervous system, called the parasympathetic nervous system, helps to relax this fight or flight response and bring the body back into a more balanced state.
By learning how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system–in other words, the body’s own innate sense of “it’s OK”–you can significantly reduce your anxiety and manage some of the symptoms that come with it.
Here are 5 ways to help manage your anxiety.
Engage your sense of touch to calm entrepreneur anxiety
This may seem strange, but simply running your fingers lightly over your lips can help manage anxiety.
Parasympathetic fibres are spread throughout your lips, so touching them stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
When you are feeling anxious take one or two fingers and gently rub them back and forth on your lips. Focus in on the sensation this creates, and you should feel a wave of calm wash over your mind and body.
Touch is a great tool to help calm anxiety, and self-touch is accessible many times when touch from others is not.
One of my favourite self-touch techniques is to massage and gently tug my ears. This works similarly as touching your lips does, to engage the relaxation response. Suki Baxter shows us how in this video.
Use visualization to help manage anxiety
When you are feeling particularly anxious, you might like to take a few moments to visualize yourself in a peaceful place. It could be anywhere: a quiet lakeside retreat, a forest, a secluded beach, or anywhere where you feel most at ease. Engage all your senses in the visualization imagining the sights, sounds and smells.
One of my favourite “visualizations” is of what I call my sanctuary chair, an old La-Z-Boy recliner I bought second-hand. Even when I’m not in it, I can visualize it and feel what it feels like to sit in it.
If you’re feeling too anxious, it can be hard to concentrate enough to guide yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you, this is just an effect of the nervous system being on high alert.
When it is too overwhelming to try visualization on your own, try a guided one. Insight Timer is a good free option for guided visualizations. If you want some other ideas, check out this article in Healthline for some of 2021’s best meditation apps.
Use breathing techniques to calm the nervous system and manage anxiety
There are many breathing techniques that can help you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and calm your anxiety.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it automatically slows down your breathing, so it can be beneficial to help this process along by focusing in on your breathing.
It is important to note that if you’ve experienced trauma, or are a generally anxious person, engaging the relaxation response with your breath may paradoxically make you more anxious.
This inner math goes like this: 1) The world is dangerous, therefore I need to stay vigilant (aka anxious) in order to be prepared for danger. 2) If I relax, then I can’t be prepared for danger. 3) Therefore, when my body receives relaxation messages, I get even more anxious because I need to be prepared for danger.
If you find this is the case, work with a teacher or therapist who can help you find breathing or other practices that work for you.
The simplest way to use your breath to calm anxiety is to focus on your breath with just awareness, not changing anything about the quality of your breath. Here is a guided breath awareness practice I recorded, if you’d like to try it.
Another option is to focus on taking long slow deep breaths, making the exhale a bit longer than the inhale. You can place a hand on your stomach and notice as it rises and falls, with your mind’s eye on the in and out breath. Doing this for even a few minutes can help your nervous system regulate and lower your anxiety overall.
Use movement to help manage entrepreneur anxiety
There is a powerful feedback loop between the mind and body. The fact that it’s powerful is both good news and bad news.
The bad news is that it’s powerful enough to derail you. if it’s left alone, it can loop in on itself and the anxiety you feel can keep escalating.
The good news is that if it’s powerful enough to derail you, it’s also powerful enough to support you.
The exposure to ongoing stress–like that we experience when running a business–means your body is receiving constant threat messages. It mobilizes you to respond to these threats in many ways, including running away and/or fighting.
When this mobilization energy is pent up in the body, as I mentioned, it can loop back on itself and escalate. But when you discharge it, that helps regulate your nervous system. There is no longer a build-up of energy and tension feeding into the mind and alerting it to danger. But also, having discharged the energy, the body tells the mind, “You have survived. The danger has passed.” and the body and mind can relax, allowing your CEO-self to come back online so you can return your focus to the tasks at hand.
Movement in this case doesn’t necessarily mean exercise–unless exercise is your jam, in which case, have at it!
You can walk briskly to the bathroom. You can cue up your favourite song and have a chair dance. You can stretch and breathe as you lift your arms up and down. There are many ways you can engage in movement that is enjoyable and the enjoyment will also help calm your anxiety.
(Music is a mood shifter as well. Try using music as a mood induction tool to experience a shift toward a more relaxed state in your nervous system to help manage anxiety.)
Work with your thoughts to manage anxiety
Many of my clients become overwhelmed with worry thoughts because they see them as the truth. They certainly carry a lot of emotion and urgency and “feel” as if they are true.
If worry thoughts persist, they can contribute significantly to ongoing anxiety and depression.
Some worry thoughts have a basis in reality. The function of worry is to help us be prepared and keep us safe. But some worry thoughts only make things worse.
With these tools from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) you can distinguish between types of worry thoughts. You can identify the ones that are realistic as well as the ones that aren’t. You can then either take action to mitigate the threat, and calm and manage entrepreneur anxiety that way, or work with the unrealistic ones to defuse them as a strategy to calm and manage anxiety.
Worry thoughts are part of what are called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are distorted thinking patterns that are often at the root of worry thoughts and can contribute greatly to entrepreneur anxiety.
The 10 most common cognitive distortions that create worry and anxiety
This is when you make one event the basis for a conclusion that you then apply across the board.
For example, you may make a mistake at work and then conclude that you are useless at your job.
2. Black and White thinking
This cognitive distortion happens when you habitually think in extremes.
Maybe you believe that all the people in your life are either angelic or evil. This is problematic, because most of the time people and situations exist somewhere in the grey in-between.
Many people with anxiety assume the worst when they are faced with the unknown. While this is adaptive, and is designed to help you be prepared so you can be safe, catastrophizing makes managing entrepreneur anxiety difficult because it creates problems where there may not be any.
An example of catastrophizing could be worrying that your child has been in an accident because they are 5 minutes late for their curfew.
This is one of the most common cognitive distortions and it happens when you take things personally when they aren’t connected to you at all.
You are most likely engaging in personalization if you blame yourself for a situation that is completely out of your control.
5. Mental Filtering
This is when you have the tendency to ignore the positives and focus exclusively on the negatives. Mental filtering is also known as the negativity bias.
Interpreting circumstances through a negative filter make managing entrepreneur anxiety more difficult and can also lead to depression.
6. Mind Reading
If you assume you know what another person is thinking you are engaging in mind reading.
It can be difficult to distinguish between empathy and mind reading so it is imperative that you consider all the facts before concluding that you know how another person is feeling or thinking.
Even when empathizing, it’s more about guessing and inviting the other person to confirm than it is about knowing what they’re thinking or feeling, and so it is also with mind reading.
It’s helpful to check with the other person, by saying something like, “I’m telling myself you are thinking [fill in the blank] and I want to check with you to see if that’s accurate, or maybe there is something else on your mind. Can you let me know?”
7. “Should” statements
If you find yourself thinking in “shoulds” when it comes to what to do or say you are likely engaging in this cognitive distortion.
8. Discounting the positive
This is similar to mental filtering in that it involves a negative bias in thinking.
Discounting the positives does not ignore them but explains them away as a fluke or luck instead of thinking it is due to your skill or hard work. This can make you feel helpless over your life and reduces motivation.
This is when you reduce yourself or other people to a single – usually negative – descriptor or characteristic.
This labeling can make you to either berate yourself (which can lead to depression and low self-confidence and esteem) or misunderstand or underestimate others (causing interpersonal issues).
10. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when you believe that your emotions are the truth and that the way you feel about a situation is a good indicator of reality, when this is not always the case. Emotions are important sources of information and they are only part of the story.
This is a very common cognitive distortion and is used by many with or without depression or anxiety.
How to work with cognitive distortions to calm worry and manage entrepreneur anxiety
CBT uses cognitive restructuring to diffuse cognitive distortions. Here are three cognitive restructuring techniques that you can use on a regular basis to help calm worry thoughts and reduce overall anxiety.
Use Socratic questioning to overcome worry and manage anxiety
Once you have identified the cognitive distortion, this CBT technique is straightforward. The cognitive distortion is addressed through asking a series of questions.
This is a technique used by many therapists, but it is most effective when you can start to ask the Socratic questions of yourself. These include:
- Is this thought realistic?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or feelings?
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
- Am I viewing this situation as black and white?
- Do the facts support this thought or am I having it out of habit?
This is most effective as a journaling activity. Spend a few minutes on each question. Write free-form as the thoughts come, without self-censoring. More often than not, you will discover evidence to suggest that your worry thought is unfounded and a product of one of the above cognitive distortions.
Once you identify a thought as a worry thought or a cognitive distortion, you may find that it loses its power over you, and you can say to yourself, “That’s a worry thought. My nervous system is just trying to keep me safe. Thank you, worried thought. I’ve got this now.” Then refocus on the task at hand.
Decatastrophize to manage anxiety and worry thoughts
Using this technique you would ask yourself “What if?” or “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Often times by playing out the scenario. the worry thought or cognitive distortion can be diffused when you realize that even the worst case scenario is manageable.
This is a great way to lower entrepreneur anxiety in many stressful situations.
It helps to use this tactic in journaling or in talking it out with a trusted friend.
Thought records to get curious instead of worried
This is a common technique–Maggie Patterson describes how she uses this tool in Staying Sane–that involves being curious about your worry thoughts, identifying the cognitive distortion and looking at the whole picture.
The first step is to write out a description of the situation. Then you identify the most troubling thought that arose from the situation. Next you record what emotions arose and actions that you took as a result of the thought.
After going through the process, you identify an alternate thought that should be more positive and realistic than the original problematic thought.
Here is a link to a thought record that you can download and use to combat your worry thoughts and help manage your entrepreneur anxiety.
If you struggle with worry thoughts and want support for working with them so you can calm your entrepreneur anxiety, book a free call to explore working together here.