The smartest business owners—or at least the most resilient—know a thing or two about anxiety. They know how to deal with it, how to work around it and, ideally, how to shrink it down to manageable levels. It’s a critical skill for any entrepreneur. Talent and ideas may trigger a great new business, but it’s intellectual control and good habits that sustain a company’s success and help it to grow and prosper.
Most of us aren’t born with the ability to combat all the obstacles thrown in our path. Instead, we must deliberately work on honing the skills we need to keep marching forward. For entrepreneurs, this can be a lonely, anxiety-ridden road.
With that in mind, here are some tactics for keeping the stress at bay.
1. Accept it.
The first way to handle anxiety is to realize it’s never, ever, ever going to go away. It’s part and parcel of running a business. It’s not a sign of failure or a signal of doom. For at least the first few shaky months and even years of your company’s life, experiencing deep anxiety about everything from financing to staffing to your market share is natural. Even the cockiest, boldest entrepreneurs have felt their share of bone-shattering stress.
Consider Superman. Kryptonite could — and did — bring him to his knees on many occasions. But its existence never made him stray from his mission of saving lives and stopping crime. Once he accepted Kryptonite was something detrimental but ultimately unavoidable in his universe, he could focus on coping strategies. He wore a lead suit, which blocked the weakening effects. He stayed away from areas he knew Kryptonite could be found.
Model yourself after Superman. Anxiety is something you are definitely going to encounter. When you accept that fact, you can work on developing your own nerves of steel.
2. Use it.
Accepting anxiety is a large part of the battle, but it won’t win the war. That takes some preparatory thinking and planning.
One way to de-claw anxiety is to repurpose it. When left unchecked, anxiety can be incredibly damaging, not just to your business and productivity but also to your relationships and personal health. But if you choose to view anxiety as something that motivates you into action, then you are intentionally transforming it from a weakness to a strength. The next time you feel anxiety, simply ask yourself “What can I start doing right now to make this discomfort go away?”
You’d be surprised how beating back anxiety can make you eke out a few more hours of work on a day when you’d planned to kick off early.
3. Exaggerate it.
Another tactic that can shrink anxiety: Take the situation you’re stressing about to its worst conclusion.
Maggie Johnson, a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow, emphasizes the adaptive and positive reasons why we experience anxiety and stress. The body’s autonomic stress system evolved to protect us from threat or harm. In certain situations, it’s literally life-saving — such as when we slam on the brakes to avoid a car collision — but in others, such as an investor pitch or an important meeting, it’s not as helpful.
When her clients begin to feel worried or anxious about something, Dr. Johnson points out a commonly known cognitive distortion called “catastrophizing,” the mind’s natural tendency to perceive a situation as far worse than it really is. She asks her clients to imagine the worst-case scenario. Once they’ve done that, she has them reappraise how bad the situation would be if the worst-case scenario did come to pass, and if it merits the anxiety they are already feeling.
Nine times out of 10, the worst-case scenario remains a scenario. So the next time you feel the first creeping tendrils of anxiety, take a breath and rise to the challenge. Purposefully face the situation and think through, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Repeat this question until you’ve identified what’s at the core of the anxiety and arrived at a more realistic outcome. You’ll find that more often than not, your stress is misplaced or overly exaggerated.
4. Deter it.
Having a solid work ethic is important, but it’s not everything. To achieve entrepreneurial success, it’s vital you find balance in other aspects of your life. Putting all your eggs into one business basket is one surefire way to burn out and fail.
Think about your health as the “oxygen” in this ecosystem—it’s that important. The smartest entrepreneurs know that one of the best ways to protect against work-related stress is to exercise and eat right. (I’m a believer in the power of local, organic, fruit- and vegetable-packed smoothies.)
It’s also important to pay attention to your surroundings. A clean, clutter-free living space can go a long way toward preventing intellectual and emotional stress from piling up. Invest the time to clean up your workspace and it will pay dividends in the form of a new Zen-like, productivity-boosting atmosphere.
Perhaps the only thing more important than knowing what steps to take to develop your nerves of steel…is knowing when to develop them.
And the answer is now. Anxiety and stress can pop up at any time and derail you badly. Prevent that from happening by using quiet, stress-free time to develop these skills and new habits. Your business’ survival could depend on it.