Daily stress is an inherent fact of doing business for women entrepreneurs.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: the long days, the conflicting demands, the back-to-back meetings… no time off, no down time, no time to eat or even pee.
From my experience supporting women entrepreneurs, I have identified five of the main causes of stress among women entrepreneurs:
Decision-making fatigue is real for women entrepreneurs
Every decision requires cognitive processing power to take in, sort and synthesize new information, then come up with solutions, decide on one and take action.
Furthermore, we entrepreneurs are often called to do this on the fly, with the available information changing moment-to-moment. The frequency at which we have to do this, and the condensed time frames circumstances often require, place heavy demands on our minds, bodies and spirits.
Conflicting demands on your time
As a woman entrepreneur, it often seems as though there isn’t enough time in the day. Running a small business requires you to wear many hats: CEO, CFO, marketing, HR (employee or contractor management)… and let’s not forget customer service.
Finding time to work on the business when you’re drowning working in the business is stressful.
Each of these domains has their own endless to-do list, and tasks can easily pile up. The weight of these tasks and the pressure to get them done (so you don’t literally go broke and starve) places significant demands on your nervous system, and thus on your mind, body and spirit.
And then, for some us, there’s also the mom and/or spouse guilt.
Mom guilt (or spouse guilt) for women entrepreneurs balancing work & family
Mom guilt is the guilt created by the pervasive negative self-talk that arises from unrealistic social standards: “I’m not doing enough as a mother.” “I’m not doing school / sports / crafts /parenting right.” “What if this messes up my kid in the future? What if I’m making the wrong decision?”
Because you’re a woman entrepreneur, you can add to “regular” mom guilt the apparently conflicting demands between mothering, spousing and running a business.
If you have a spouse or partner, there can be conflicts balancing work as an entrepreneur and your relationship.
Now you’ve got, “I’m a bad mother/spouse because my time and attention is always split between them and the business.”
As I’m sure you know from experience, these kinds of worried or self-critical thoughts cause their own stress in the mind and body.
Getting (and keeping) clients
The flow of clients and revenue into your business is what makes or breaks it. Furthermore, getting clients is not an exact science. Results are not directly tied to your efforts and there are many skills to master, of which sales is only one. There is never one thing that, if we just did it, will guarantee a client.
Once you have a full roster of clients, there is the emotional and cognitive work associated with continuing to serve and wow them… and also to set and maintain good boundaries.
At least one client is bound to involve headaches… the one who keeps you up at night with worry or floods your inbox with complaints or demands. There are always hiccups in any relationship, and this is as true with client relationships as with any others. When relationships are strained, and difficult conversations are on the horizon, this is stressful.
Anxiety from VUCA
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. These are all features of the life of an entrepreneur, and now of life under COVID. For entrepreneurs, it’s a double whammy.
The human brain and nervous system crave predictability. When you know more or less what to expect, you relax a little. There is less thinking required and less creative problem-solving to do. You have a sense of being in control and you can just get on with things.
On the other hand, chaos, unpredictability and the unknown are often the norm for women entrepreneurs. From day to day, we often can’t predict what will come up. Research has identified the unknown as a significant stressor.
These days, for women entrepreneurs, pandemic conditions pile onto the stresses of the natural unpredictability of life, the world and business. We don’t know how the virus will behave, what or when restrictions will be added or eased, and how that will affect our families, friends and businesses. It’s impossible to plan long term.
These stressors are very common among women entrepreneurs; there’s nothing wrong with you
If not addressed, the effects of these stressors will cause you to break down and burn out.
I invite you to consider that when (not if, because given these working conditions, it’s inevitable) you start to feel like you’re breaking down or burning out, this is actually a kind of good news.
It means there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, it means there’s actually something right: your organism is working as it should to give you signals that it needs care.
As an entrepreneur, any number of unexpected difficulties can arise.
I don’t initially perform well under stress.
My first reaction is definitely to freak out.
When my bookkeeper–upon whom I rely very heavily because I have dyscalculia–told me they weren’t going to be supporting my accounting software anymore, and were therefore “firing me” as a client, it stressed me out.
I felt overwhelmed. I put my head on my desk and cried.
That was definitely a stress response from my nervous system.
It needed to happen.
It’s a natural impulse to freak out when things go wrong or get stressful.
But then you’re in the throes of intense emotions (called an amygdala hijack), with only those emotions (and memories of other times you felt this way) to light the way forward. This is a threat response.
Threat responses to stress don’t serve us well in business.
Threat responses cause your CEO-self (the pre-frontal cortex) to stop communicating with the rest of you.
Performing well under stress
The good news is that, in the face of the kinds of challenges you face as an entrepreneur, there are a number of ways to respond to stress. You can transform your freak-out reaction, benefit from your body’s challenge-response and perform well under stress.
A few years ago, I lost access to all credit in my business. (It’s a long story. In case you’re concerned or curious, I’m financially fine now.)
I sat down to pay my bills at the end of the month, opened my online banking, and discovered my line of credit had been closed.
Can you imagine how stressful that was? Can you relate in any way?
How I performed well under stress
When I lost access to credit, my intuitive experience of the stress transformation process helped me perform well under stress.
That day, I knew I had to find a way to cope and get through it. I was running a business with associates who depended on me for their livelihoods, and my livelihood also depended on the success of my business.
At first, I felt really down. I experienced a lot of stressful thoughts. I was saying to myself things like, “Why does bad shit have to happen to me? Am I born under an unlucky star or what??”
Memories of all the adversity I have been through in my life flowed through my mind.
Then, I noticed a feeling of gratitude that I was in my 50s and not my late 20s (the first time the shit really hit the fan in my adult life).
Next came a feeling of gratitude that I had a history of adversity to look back on. (I know, it sounds weird, right? But that’s how I felt.)
As I remembered these situations and their outcomes, I saw how, every time, things eventually worked out for me.
They didn’t work out the way I had hoped or planned or even how I wanted them to.
The outcome was never what I could have imagined. I certainly never wished for whatever bad thing was happening.
Yet, every time, it eventually turned out that I was OK.
I decided to tell myself the story that everything works out for me.
I set my phone to play an alarm at 7 am every morning. It showed the words “Everything always works out for me.” Coincidentally, the tune I chose fit with the words and I could sing along.
Sometimes the tune stayed with me like an earworm does, and I would find myself humming it off and on throughout the day.
It turned out that alarm stayed set for a total of three years because I used this process again when COVID hit… and again when I saw that it was time to close my group practice, all times I needed to perform well under stress.
Here are the steps I used, broken down for you.
You can perform well under stress with these three steps
When the shit hits the fan, the very first step is to acknowledge the emotional activation.
You can say to yourself, “Yikes! I’m freaking out.” or “Wow, I’m feeling anxious right now.”
Naming your emotions encourages cortical facilitation. In other words, your CEO-self, with all its vital problem-solving skills that you need so desperately when the shit hits the fan, comes back online.
When you’re stressed, telling your biz bestie, coach or therapist about your experience and naming your emotions as you do so would help with this even more.
Enumerate the strengths, skills or talents that you used to get through other difficult times.
You can mine your past experiences of adversity and stress for gold.
When things go wrong, often memories of all the other stressful times when things have gone wrong can come rushing into your awareness.
This is actually good.
The information about what you did then that helped, and who helped you are, the gold nuggets contained within these memories of stressful times.
Connect with gratitude, for the help you received at the time if you received help, and for your innate coping skills–your superpowers–that supported you through challenge and adversity.
Perhaps the feelings of gratitude might also open you to an awareness that there are many people out there in the world pulling for you.
Sometimes you can connect with a sense of powers greater than you–people, nature, a Divine One, the universe, economic forces–that are at play in your life and business in a positive way.
You might like to take time to savour this sense of connectedness, with other humans, other mammals, or other forces, divine or otherwise.
When I lost access to all credit in my business, I used my intuitive knowledge and experience to help myself cope. It’s only after that fact that I can lay out the steps I took.
I recently discovered that the effectiveness of these three steps is backed by research, as documented in an excellent book by Kelly McGonigal The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
As an entrepreneur, it’s not enough to simply feel better. But feeling better enables your CEO-self to come back online. This is called cortical facilitation.
When your CEO-self is communicating with the rest of you, you can sort, take in and synthesize information, make decisions and take action.
The last step in this process is to identify the very next action step.
You can use your knowledge of what has helped before, identified in the Enumerate step, to inform your actions.
It might be asking for help–talking to a biz bestie, calling your coach, or consulting with someone–or it might be a concrete step toward solving the problem.
Making a plan to implement the three principles of stress resilience might be a longer-term action that can help.
Three principles for stress resilience
In order for your nervous system to recover and stabilize, you need to
- discharge the stress-energy that’s built up in the body,
- soothe your mind, and
- nourish your spirit.
Stress relief and resilience is built on small, repeated actions that soothe, discharge and nourish you.
Because of the way the human brain is structured, when it’s in alarm mode, logic and language don’t work well.
You know what this is like. Telling yourself to relax doesn’t help you relax. Telling your mind to shut up doesn’t stop the endless looping of thoughts. Saying to yourself “This is really no big deal, what’s your problem?” doesn’t help to put the problem into its proper perspective.
The body-mind responds to experience, so what works well are actual, lived experiences of relaxation, a calm mind, and a proper perspective, among other things.
When under stress, the body-mind has mobilized to run. It literally thinks like a rabbit facing a bear, except you’re not a rabbit and there’s no bear from which you can run. But the body-mind still needs to discharge its “running” energy.
In order to discharge, there needs to be movement–of both physical energy as well as emotions.
For some people, moving the body will mean an aerobic workout; for others it could simply be a walk. The trick is finding your way of moving that helps you feel better. It’s NOT exercise if you hate exercise or it’s a chore on your to-do list.
Moving your emotions can mean letting them out on paper by journalling or through art, or to a friend, to a therapist, or your clergy. It might be having a good yell while you punch the heck out of a pillow. It can also mean having a good laugh or a good cry. (A friend of mine likes to watch a sad movie when she needs to cry because it gets the tears out without sinking into all the stressful things in her life.)
The body-mind becomes more attuned to danger signals when it’s under stress. It can be like the fire alarm is on a hair-trigger, or sometimes even like it’s stuck in the ‘on’ position. Stress-inducing phenomena are everywhere (including in your thoughts), and your body-mind is constantly barraged by alarm messages. To de-activate the alarm, the body-mind needs to be soothed.
Soothing the body-mind means offering it opportunities that make it, metaphorically speaking (and maybe quite literally, too) heave a sigh. For some people, this might mean a hot bath, but for others, it might mean watching a funny movie or having a massage, or even having a good cry. In order to apply this principle effectively, you must find your way of sending yourself soothing messages.
The body-mind’s stress reaction has depleted it. It has used all its resources to sound the alarm and mobilize itself, so it needs to be nourished.
Nourishing the body-mind means offering it experiences that mentally, emotionally and physically recharge your batteries. Afterwards, you feel renewed and refreshed (although not necessarily rested). Nourishing experiences often involve what’s called a ‘flow state’.
If you can remember a time when you were a kid, so fully absorbed in what you were doing that you lost track of time–maybe you played sports or were an artist of some kind–then you have experienced being “in the zone” or in a flow state, where you were focussed and concentrated, in an enjoyable way, on the activity in which you were engaged. Those are the kinds of experiences that nourish the body-mind.
Inspirational activities are also nourishing. For some people that may mean reading inspirational literature, scriptures or poetry. For others it might be listening to or maybe even singing a specific song. Some people find inspiration in a Yoga class or a religious service.
An important aspect of mitigating the effects of stress is to strive for a balance between stressors and “it’s OK messages.”
For all three of these principles, consider how you can do more of the small things you are already doing.
If you’re ready to do more, invite you to think of old activities you could pick up, or maybe new ones you’ve always longed to do. Don’t limit yourself to the examples above. Experiment with a variety of activities and see how they make you feel.
Four keys to keep in mind
In applying the three principles of discharge, soothe and nourish, it is important to remember that, in order to counteract months, years or lifetimes of stress, engaging in one activity one time will not be sufficient to experience results.
The discharge, soothe and nourish “medications” need to be administered regularly, and the more frequently the better.
In order to be able to do these things frequently, it helps if they are simple, in other words, small and doable. In fact, frequency is more important than duration.
Therefore, for example, five minutes every day is more effective than 35 minutes once a week. You can ask yourself, “What is a teeny weeny, itty bitty, doable step I can take?” and try that one thing every day.
Most importantly, engaging in the activities you have identified to discharge, soothe and nourish your body-mind can’t feel like punishment.
For example, if you’re saying to yourself “Working out is like banging my head against a wall: it feels so good when I stop.” that’s not likely to be a helpful activity.
If it feels like just one more chore on your endless and stressful to-do list, you have my permission to let it go! When activities feel like punishment and aren’t enjoyable, then they’re adding to your body-mind’s stress reaction, not counteracting it.
Finally, in order to enable the body-mind to receive the benefits of the activities in which you are engaging, it’s important to put all your attention on the activity itself.
If you’re having a cup of tea, Appreciate the hot water as it pours into your cup. Watch the tea steep. Feel the heat of the cup in your hands and the warmth approaching your face and you lift the cup toward your lips. Inhale the scent and savour that before you drink.
This key is a bit like the precautions you get when taking medication. For example, when you take an antacid, it interferes with the absorption of other medications. Stress and lack of attention interrupt the body-mind’s ability to absorb the benefits of stress reduction practices.
When you pay attention, you reap the benefits.
Can stress be good for you?
Stress management is something everyone talks about.
We women entrepreneurs are always looking for new stress management techniques, because wearing all the hats and doing all the things can be uber-stressful.
We all know stress is supposed to be bad for you. Everywhere you look you see the message repeated: stress causes heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes and diabetes.
Stress isn’t a pleasant experience, either.
It keeps you up at night. It makes your thoughts race. It gives you heart palpitations, sweaty palms and panic attacks.
It makes you snap at people and cry at the drop of a hat.
It’s never a good feeling when you’re overwhelmed and can’t mobilize the resources you need to respond to the demands you’re facing.
What is stress?
Stress is what we commonly call the combination of the body’s emotional and physiological reactions to perceived threat, in other words, its reaction to anything that throws it off balance.
When stressed out, the body-mind goes into a kind of alarm mode. This is adaptive; it enables the body-mind to respond and then repair itself.
What’s the matter with Stress?
Because it is adaptive, the body-mind’s stress reaction itself is not a problem, but chronic stress—being in a constant alarm state without a rest-and-digest cycle— is a problem.
Without the rest-and-digest cycle, your body is constantly mobilizing to provide exceptional resources. This drains the body and nervous system, and causes dysregulation.
You know what this is like: you feel like you’re on your last nerve; every little irritant seems like a big deal; your fuse is short; your mind races and you can’t shut it off; you have trouble sleeping.
If your body never gets to rest and digest so that it can assimilate fuel and nutrients as well as emotional experiences and thereby repair itself, you get depleted. Then, as you start running on empty, you begin to experience more and more symptoms that just won’t go away.
Are you stressed out?
Chronic stress affects all the systems in the body-mind.
To begin with, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and activates all the systems listed below, and you will experience related symptoms.
- Cardiovascular: heart pounding or beating fast; flushing or blushing; cold hands and/or feet, or sweaty palms.
- Respiratory: rapid, shallow breathing
- Gastrointestinal: indigestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and/or constipation
- Endocrine: the hormones released will make you feel jittery, jumpy, nervous,
- Musculoskeletal: muscle tension, headaches, muscle aches, chest pain
- Mind: racing thoughts; can’t relax; can’t shut down; worry; anger; irritability; short fuse; can’t enjoy the things you used to.
Maybe you don’t need to reduce your stress
Maybe all you need is to change the way you think about stress.
The way you think about your business challenges can de-stress you.
For women entrepreneurs, making deliberate choices about how we think is part of the healthy mindset we need to be stronger so we can succeed in business and in life.
Fight-flight and stress management
The idea of the fight-flight response, stress management, and stress as bad news has been around since the 1930s, thanks to Hans Selye.
The fight-flight response mobilizes the body’s stress response in a way that inhibits effective thinking and decision-making, and makes it hard to deal with negative thoughts and emotions.
We all know the feeling: we see red (and nothing else), or else we run around like chickens with our heads cut off.
As women entrepreneurs, we go through these kinds of experiences on a regular basis. Living in the fight-flight response all the time isn’t good for a healthy mindset.
But we do need the body’s stress response. It’s what gets us up off the couch to look for the remote when we want to change channels. It’s what makes you run around the office looking for your cell that rare time it rings.
You don’t need to manage stress
The issue is not with stress itself. The problem is how we think about it and what we do with it.
Did you know there is also a challenge response?
The challenge response mobilizes the sympathetic nervous system, just like the fight-flight response does. But a different ratio of stress hormones are released.
The challenge response to stress facilitates decision-making, supports clear, effective and sustained thinking processes, and enables you to handle negative emotions well.
You can see how, if you’re focussed, and feeling confident and in control, you’re likely to perform better.
Activating the challenge response puts us in the zone.
You might recognize your challenge response in the experience of being in the zone. The nervous system is aroused, you are mobilized and engaged, your mind is focussed on the task at hand and things are going well.
It’s a paradigm shift to think of adverse events in your business as challenges, rather than threats.
And it’s a practice. It’s not enough to say, “Ok, from now on stress is good for me.”
This is where self-talk plays an important role.
What you say to yourself matters
When you freak out, do you say things to yourself like:
- “This is really bad news.”
- “What a disaster.”
- “I just can’t catch a break.”
- “I should have known better.”
I’m sure, if you’ve studied self-growth in any way, you know this kind of thinking isn’t helpful. All the stress management books say we should avoid catastrophic thinking and self-criticism.
But what can you do about it?
First, it’s important to recognize and validate what’s happening.
- “Yikes! This is tough.”
- “Wow. This is hitting me hard.”
- “Ouf. I’m struggling right now.”
Validation helps calm the emotions.
(Maybe you can add in a stretch or a walk to the bathroom, or a cup of tea, before taking the next step.)
When you feel your heart rate rising, and your palms getting sweaty, to activate the challenge response and foster a healthy mindset, you can say things to yourself like:
- “I’m preparing to face a challenge.”
- “My body is mobilizing itself because I care about this.”
- “I have faced lots of challenges before and it turned out OK.”
- “I know this is hard and I trust in my capacity to handle it.”
Then add in some curiosity:
- “I wonder where there is a way I can take action here.”
- “I wonder which of my strengths I can use in this situation.”
Maybe pause with your tea and jot down a few notes.
With practice, this can take a little as a moment or two, although initially it might take up to 10 minutes.
Some people like to have biz BFFs with whom they have ongoing text conversations. That would be a good place to hold this kind of conversation with yourself, asking your BFF to be a compassionate witness.
This is not a job for the inner critic
When using self-talk for stress management, it’s important to note that tone of voice and attitude matter a great deal. Supporting yourself is not a job for the inner critic.
If you’re finding it tough, maybe your imagination can come in handy. It might help to channel or envision a dear friend or family member to say it to you instead. Or ask your BFF to text back the supportive responses.
There is now a great deal of research that demonstrates it’s not stress itself, but how we think about and then respond to it, that determines its impact on our health and mindset.
As entrepreneurs we face challenges and threats all day long.
Finding a way to tell yourself an empowering story about yourself as a person with the ability to face a challenge supports the healthy mindset that can help you make it through the day more effectively, and with less emotional wear and tear.
Have you experienced stressful events in your business lately? Would you like support to access your challenge response so you can perform better under stress? Learn how to work with me.
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