He walked into my room, this enthusiastic man who was at the brink of success, a co-founder of a startup that his investors hope will be their unicorn. Life seemed perfect, on paper, but he could not shake off this nagging feeling – am I doing enough – what if I fail – what if I am not good enough – what if this does not work. These thoughts plagued his mind, disrupted his clarity, took away his sleep, and worst of all made him doubt himself.
CEO’s, founders, and entrepreneurs constantly live on the edge, Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions refers to this with an analogy: a man riding a lion. “People look at him and think, this guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” but ” the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”. With this semi-permanent emotional toll, how can one’s mental health not be affected?
Depression, anxiety and stress are common amongst CEO’s, founders, and entrepreneurs and till recently it was seldom discussed but with the growing conversation on the importance of mental health high-level executives now recognize the benefits of self-care, it also has a direct impact on the success of one’s organization and themselves.
Depression and anxiety have overlapping symptoms, first noted in our appetite (increase or decrease), sleep (increase or decrease) and productivity (difficulty to focus, and remain motivated). However, what is frequently noted in depression is that the person feels helpless, hopeless, and worthless. Depression differs from sadness, in that this becomes a constant feeling state, which one finds difficult to overcome. Their willingness to work drops, the enjoyment they once felt no longer exists, they tend to have frequent crying spells, and may even complain of body ache. Anxiety is often noted with the lack of clarity of thought, physical complaints like palpitations, frequent sighing, dryness in the mouth, and/ or frequent micturition. Their cognitive functioning is affected; they find it difficult to recall events/ details and focus. Stress a type of anxiety is good – it keeps us engaged, thinking, and productive, some of us get our best work done when we are stressed. Nevertheless, when there is excess stress, distress it is then that our productivity drops, clarity of thought is affected, the ability to effectively plan is impaired, and fatigue sets in. Usually, depression and anxiety co-exist, each triggering symptoms in the other, almost like a vicious circle that is difficult to break out of.
There is no one single factor that gives rise to these symptoms it is often a combination of multiple things and situations. However, the commonly noted ones with CEO’s, founders, and entrepreneurs are expectations from self, perceived expectations of themselves from their clients and team members, things not going according to plan, a setback, or unrealistic goals. Keeping an eye out for maladaptive self-defeating thought patterns and the above-mentioned symptoms help early identification.
In my experience, I feel strengthening the basics is a great way to take care of one’s mental health. Being an entrepreneur, CEO, or a founder requires one to adapt their lifestyle, and thinking style to the constantly changing demands. Some proven effective strategies are…
Timeout – carve time out for yourself. Spend a few minutes every day doing something you love for yourself and note it. This helps you take care of your emotional needs and reminds you that there are a lot of things going right in your life. It is important to have a separate social life, this means your idea of socializing does not only mean going out for drinks with work colleagues. Take time out to nurture old friendships, make new ones, and do something you love just for fun!
Exercise – this releases endorphins that help us feel happier, manage anxiety better, and cope with stress effectively. Research also states that exercise helps with clarity of thought, and improves our ability to learn. Try exercising outdoors; connecting with nature is a natural relaxant for most.
SMART goals – this often spoken about goal setting technique is effective. You need to have specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound goals. SMART goals need to have a 5 year, 3 years, 1 year, 6 months, and 1-month vision. This is subject to change depending on situations. However, having a plan ensures you remain on your chosen path. One must spend 30minutes a week reflecting on their work, progress, and areas of improvement and then only plan for the week ahead.
Mindfulness – mindfulness is a type of meditation –it means focusing only one thing at a given time, the here and now. When doing a task, only focus on it. Do not let the thoughts of the past or worries of the future bog you down. Truly committing to the moment, by focusing on it increases productivity, efficiency, and creativity. It also reduces feelings of sadness, and worry. A great way to practice mindfulness is by engaging your senses (visual, tactical, olfactory, taste, and auditory) in the given task.
Talk to someone – I’m a big advocate of talk therapy. Regularly spend time talking to someone about how you“feel” even if things are going great. Dedicating time to freely express allows us to reflect, know what we are doing right, where we need to improve, how we need to improve and where we would like our life to go. Very often just voicing out our thoughts, allows us to unleash the wisdom within.
Routine – create a fixed routine. Having a fixed routine takes away the pressure of decision-making on smaller tasks like choosing what clothes to wear, what or when to eat and exercise. A routine saves energy resources that can be reallocated towards making other important decisions thereby increase one’s clarity of thought and reducing fatigue ability.
The life of an entrepreneur, CEO and founder is not easy. Their roles are challenging, and it is up to them to take accountability for their own mental health because of their health directly impacts not just themselves, their organization, but also the lives of people who consume their products. They are heroes people are fashioning their lives around, and they must handle this responsibility with (self) care.
WRITTEN BY PRIYANKA VARMA
Priyanka Varma is a clinical psychologist, counsellor and psychotherapist. She currently consults at The Thought Co, Holy Family Hospital, Global Hospitals, and MindCraft. Her true love is homemade chocolate cake, and when she is not daydreaming about it, she pursues her research on Internet addiction.