How to thrive, not just survive the startup journey

I love the startup ecosystem. I love being around and working with the big thinkers, the renegades, the revolutionaries and the modern inventors this industry attracts. It’s risky and often lawless but it’s also connected and self-regulated. It’s my home and I share it with some incredible neighbours, many whom I have the privilege of working with.

But I also know the dark side of the entrepreneurial world. In my roles as a startup coach, mentor and advisor I see it all too often. It’s the ever-present anxiety, doubt, stress and uncertainty about what you’re doing and often, who you are. This is the crippling part we don’t talk about but it’s truly the biggest challenge of the whole game. With today being World Mental Health Day, it seems only fitting to bring the dark side to the front of the conversation. To ask, what can we do to thrive not just survive the startup journey?

Stress: Thriving or Surviving?

There is no doubt, being an entrepreneur is stressful. A recent study between Stanford University, Berkeley University and the University of San Francisco, led by Psychologist Dr. Michael A Freeman, revealed that 72% of entrepreneurs studied reported known stress. It’s no wonder, as on top of trying to do something no one has ever done before, entrepreneurs also have lower initial earnings, lower earnings growth, lower long-term earnings and greater work stress overall as compared to corporate employees.

Dr. Freeman’s study also reveal that entrepreneurs, compared to traditional workers are:

  • 30% more likely to develop depression
  • 29% more likely to develop anxiety and/or ADHD
  • 12% more likely to develop substance abuse/dependency
  • 11% more likely to develop bipolar disorder.

These are some pretty heavy statistics. But what should our response be? Usually it’s to blame and deny. Deny that anything is wrong and hope like hell no one sees the cracks appearing. Or Blame. Blame others, the situation, the industry, and even stress itself. Neither of these are realistic or healthy strategies. This game requires the most elite mental health and conditioning if you’re going to survive it.

Dr Hans Seyle, the Hungarian/Canadian endocrinologist who first termed ‘stressed out’, advised: “We should not try to avoid stress any more than we should shun food, love, sleep or exercise.” We need stress as much as we need these things for optimal physical and mental health. Stress is a necessary part of being human and it’s not about to go away. What we don’t need, is so much of it that it becomes toxic. And how we do that is by learning how to manage stress.

Dr Seyle, believed that by adopting the right attitude to stress you could “…convert a negative stress into a positive one.” Good news right? But how do we do this? How can we use stress to thrive not just survive? Before we get there, let’s look at what stress actually is to the body and the brain.

What is Stress Anyway?

There are two main types of stress, acute and chronic. Acute stress is your immediate reaction to stressors in the day — your fight or flight responses. Chronic stress, is the day-in, day out general life stress. Acute stress is quickly created, and quickly dissolves. Chronic stress, releases but then hangs around.

1. Acute Stress

When acute stress (extreme excitement) occurs, your epinephrine stress hormone (also known as adrenaline) and your norepinephrine stress hormones are produced. This powerful pair, sharpens your mind, helps motivate you and pushes you to the optimal level of behaviour and cognitive performance. These guys help you think and move fast, and in the right situations, they can save your life. Not all bad hey?

2. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is where cortisol (a different stress hormone) streams all day long, spiking and then remaining in your system. Too much cortisol gives you the tired but wired feeling. The problem with cortisol is that too much of it has a seriously negative effect on the Brain and the Central Nervous System(CNS) including stopping the brain cell regeneration process and actually shrinking your brain.

Chronic stress has also been linked to: weight gain, mood swings, poor memory retention, poor sleep and a weakened immune system. More seriously, chronic stress is known to increase the chances of developing; heart disease, cancerAlzheimer’s disease and Dementia. Chronic stress also increases the likelihood of developing mental illnesses including; anxiety and panic disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism. Chronic stress is bad news — but not all bad news.

Chronic stress is the warning sign that we are out of line. That we are not balanced. It’s our brain and body firing warning shots, and saying, “Hey slow down, you’re on the road to burnout.” The best part is that you don’t just wake up with chronic stress, and it is curable. At any point in time, we can reduce our stress by what we do and how we react. This is both from moment to moment but also by committing to lasting change.

3 Tips to manage Startup Stress

There are a number of ways we can minimise stress, but you’re in startup land, which generally means you needed to know either; 3 years ago, 3 months ago, 3 weeks ago or 3 days ago. Time is a killer in this world, so however we start to reduce stress it has to be quick, effective and impactful. Below are three quick stress management strategies you can implement today reduce your stress to thrive not just survive.

1. Stop glorifying the hustle

We so rarely talk about the chronic stress and strain that being in a startup has on every other element of life. But even when we do talk about it, not many people have practical, reassuring or helpful strategies to deal with, and manage this type of stress. And so, we brush it off and say: “It’s just the startup hustle.” This my friends, is the least most helpful answer and if you take anything away from the article, take away this — please STOP glorifying the hustle.

Stop using ‘the hustle’ as a socially acceptable justification for unhealthy working habits — the crazy hours, lack of downtime, poor work cultures and complete absence of self-care and team care. Being wired and ‘on’ all the time is unhealthy and it is not the hustle. Hustle is focussed, meaningful and mission-driven. With focus and meaning comes balance and care, not imbalance and disregard. The more we glorify these elements by throwing in; ‘’s just the hustle or you just have hustle’ at the causes of stress and the warning signs of fatigue the worst we make it for ourselves, our team and our industry. The more we push people towards burnout.

Let’s agree to stop this now and start a different approach today. Look at what you tell yourself and your team? Are you using ‘hustle’ as a response to justify unhealthy working habits? Ask your team and see what they say. If you get responses you don’t like — do something about it. Work with your team to set healthy boundaries which encourage balance, downtime and ‘life time.’ This could be the very thing that helps you thrive not just survive your startup journey.

2. Feel — you’re allowed to

This is a big one. Let me be very clear. You are allowed to feel. Feelings are not good or bad — they just are. Just like data, it’s not the data that is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — it’s what is done with it that characterises its traits. The biggest cause of self-doubt, uncertainty and thereby stress comes when we deny how we feel, because we believe we shouldn’t feel that way. We shame ourselves in a conversation no one else can hear. We tell ourselves those emotions are stupid or foolish. We make ourselves a failure in a false test where there is no grade.

So, what do we do? Glad you asked — follow the steps below:

1. Recognise it & label it

Feel and process the emotion. It is coming up for a reason. To process, simply allow the emotion(s) non-judgementally and privately witness it (there is no one else in your mind). Know that this emotion is either coming up because you want it to, or because it is a reminder to focus on an area which isn’t functioning as you would like it to. Give this emotion 1–3 adjectives (angry, happy, proud, confused etc…) without judgement. Labelling emotions, dampens the stress response from the limbic system in the brain, which will help calm you down and reduce your brain’s stress responses and thereby, its affects.

2. Change it & reframe it

Now you know what emotion(s) you’re dealing with — you have two choices. If it’s positive emotion and something you’re proud of, acknowledge it. Give yourself an internal reward — any type of acknowledgment you please. If you’re not happy with this emotion, change it. We might not always be able to control what comes up — but we can control what we do about it.

The ability for us to change and rewire our brain- neuroplasticity — also applies to our thoughts. If we don’t want to feel a certain way we can work to change it. Next time an emotional response you don’t want comes up, try asking yourself any of the following reframing questions below. Reframing a situation, can help reduce stress and generate positive, not negative emotional responses to a situation, despite nothing about the situation actuallychanging.

1. How could I think about this situation in a positive way?

2. What are the benefits of this situation?

3. If I had nothing to lose how would I approach this situation?

4. What perspective could I take that would help me feel more positive about the situation?

3. Just do it — run your race

The only race you ever have to run is your own. The only way you don’t win is when you try and run someone else’s. Live in your head, focus on you. Control the only thing you can — you. You have no idea what others are thinking or feeling. Chances are those ‘other founders’ you think about, who you think don’t seemed stressed are likely just as stressed and worried as you, they just don’t show it like you. You will never know what their journey is like, and you never need to. Just as you are the only thinker in your mind, they are the only thinker in theirs. When you focus on you, you’re not stressed — you’re confident. And you should be, because winning at your own game is the only guaranteed success strategy.

3. Move, sleep, eat, repeat

This is going to sound really basic, but getting enough exercise, sleep and eating well all significantly decrease your stress, increase your productivity and overall health. Here’s some quick facts of why.

Moving more — increasing oxygen to the brain (via movement and exercise) helps with executive functioning and emotional regulation, making it easier to dampen your stress and emotionally regulate your responses to stress. Walking (and any exercise) also releases endorphins (the happy hormones) which improves the prioritizing functions of the brain. After exercise, even a light walk, you are more focussed, less distracted and thereby more productive. Regular exercise ends up saving you time, and thereby money in the long run.

Sleeping more — getting enough sleep, 7–9 hours a night is vital for a healthy mind and a healthy body. Sleep is a restoring, processing and repairing time for your brain. Your brain is incredibly active at this time, and in some cases more than when you’re awake. Sleep is still work and what you need for the working day, it is not the absence of work. Getting enough sleep helps you better manage stress and actually reduces your stress levels. Investing in more sleep is investing into tomorrow’s output.

Eating well — Eating wholefoods, which have a low Glycemic Index (GI), like whole-grains, proteins and low-fat dairy can help you combat stress and remain more even tempered throughout the day. Additionally, foods which are high in GI increase feelings of stress. The high GI foods which increase the feelings of stress are; sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, foods with additives and foods high in saturated fat. Avoiding these bad boys in times of stress and replacing them with low GI options is a quick and easy solution to help reduce your stress levels. Food is the fuel which allows you to perform, so if you want a high performing company choose the right fuel.

I know it’s hard to make time for these things and build a company. But here’s a basic home truth — if you don’t have your health you don’t have anything.Seriously guys, nothing works if your body and mind break down. As you have seen above, chronic stress can be fatal, no matter your age or gender. So it’s best to start preventing and/or combatting stress as soon as you can.

Let’s not run the risk of letting stress run us. Instead of reading this article and then closing your browser to go back to answering emails, slack messages, updating your Trello board, whatever, commit to taking action. For the next 4 weeks try any of these stress reducing options:

1. Get in 30 minutes of any type of exercise 3 times a week

2. Sleep for 7–9 hours a night

3. Eat more whole foods that are low in GI and reduce your intake of high GI food — you can find a list of these type of foods here.

If you can do one of these three things, I guarantee you, you will feel more energised and less stressed.

Ultimately, we are never going to eliminate all the stress of being a founder or working in a startup, but hopefully you now realise you don’t have to. All stress, when managed properly brings focussed, committed and motived working. What we need, (and what this article seeks to offer) is a healthier, balanced and sustainable approach to talking about and dealing with startup stress.

When we integrate any stress reducing strategies on an individual, organisational or industry wide level we start to move stress from the negative to the necessary.We stop blaming and denying. We start owning and changing. Mostly importantly, we stop glorifying the hustle and start glorifying our health — the one thing that we actually can’t do any of this without.

Shelley Laslett