How to Manage Stress as a Startup Founder

Woman sitting at laptop in a yoga pose.

Stress has a pretty bad reputation. We hear the word and immediately assume a negative connotation, but really, stress can be both helpful and harmful. It’s all about how you manage it. As a startup founder, there’s no doubt you’re going to be experiencing stress in your business journey. It just goes with the territory. By learning some techniques to harness and mitigate that stress, though, you can make it work for you rather than against you.

Tips for Managing Stress as a Startup Founder

Stress, and the physical and mental characteristics that go with it, is actually a survival mechanism. It’s our body’s natural way of reacting to perceived danger. In the short term, it’s motivating and will get you moving when you need to. In the long term, and in excessive loads, chronic stress can be debilitating and even life-threatening. We’ve assembled a guide to manage your stress as a startup founder. 

1. Catch It Early

This involves some self-awareness and understanding of what negative stress looks like for you. Almost everyone experiences stress differently, and we all have varying levels at which it becomes unmanageable. The key to keeping stress at manageable and positive levels is to recognize when it starts impacting you negatively and take steps to mitigate that immediately. 

Early warning signs for you may be physical or personality-based. Perhaps you start getting headaches, digestive issues, breakouts, or sore muscles. For some, early stress indicators mean that certain parts of their personalities become more or less prominent. Introverts might suddenly find themselves craving the mind-numbing buzz of a crowded room, while extroverts may struggle to interact with others in a way that would usually be quite natural.

2. Identify the Biggest Contributors

When we’re feeling stressed about our business, there is almost always more than one contributor. The key to keeping your stress levels manageable is to identify what the main pain point is and focus your energy on resolving that. 

Often, just the act of sitting down and hashing out where exactly your stress is coming from can be immensely helpful. It can also have some surprising results, especially when you start to realize which parts of your business are really concerning you. Sometimes, the biggest contributor to your stress levels as a startup founder may not actually be your most pressing problem. You might find that a staffing issue is far more concerning to you than your struggle to secure investment, for instance, because, on a personal level, you know that your people management skills aren’t great. So really, this process of identification can be helpful not just in managing stress but also in identifying the skills you need to work on as a business owner.

3. Working Around Stressors That Aren’t Solvable

We’re all human, and as much as we try not to let our home issues impact our work lives, when you’re building a business, there is always going to be some crossover. This becomes especially problematic when we are dealing with issues in our personal lives that aren’t necessarily “solvable.” Perhaps someone you love is ill, or your relationship is ending. These are things that we have to live through, unfortunately, and cannot really be fixed to remove the source of stress. 

When such instances are combined with the day-to-day pressures of building a startup, stress levels can build up very quickly. To avoid this, try to develop techniques that help reduce overall stress levels. Meditation, breathing exercises, increased physical activity, and spending time with loved ones can all help to reduce stress levels when specific stressors cannot immediately be targeted.

4. Focus on Building Healthy Habits Early On

It can be easy to convince ourselves that we are “just” going to work long hours and prioritize our business over our health and happiness in the first few crucial months of our startup’s journey. The truth is, though, that those first few months are paving the path for how you will continue going forward. You’re building habits and setting a standard that you will be required to live up to. If that standard is 20-hour working days and no self-care, you’ll soon find yourself in a vicious circle. 

One of the easiest ways to manage the negative impact of stress in your life is to ensure you create an environment conducive to stress management early on in your startup journey.

5. Anticipate Hills and Valleys

If we go into our startup journey expecting there to be nothing but success and no difficulties, we’re setting ourselves up for self-imposed stress. Life and business are a series of hills and valleys, and as a startup founder, you have to prepare yourself for this upfront. 

If you don’t, when conditions become less than ideal, stress levels may threaten to overwhelm you. A good way to prepare yourself for some of the more difficult times and build resilience is to list out the difficulties you’ve overcome in the past and then play the “what if” game. Make a list of all the possible valleys you may experience on your startup journey — team issues, product failures, lack of investment — imagine it all. Once you have those possibilities out in the open, if and when they do eventually happen, they’ll hardly seem as intimidating as they may once have been.

6. Separate Your Business Success From Your Value as a Human Being

This one is pretty deep, but it’s really necessary to talk about it. Far too often, we attach the success of our business to our value as people: if my business is successful, I am a successful person. Unfortunately, if we accept this as true, then the failure of our business also becomes our personal failure. This type of thinking only serves to elevate stress levels when we see our startups not achieving what we’d envisioned, very often, due to circumstances completely outside of our control. 

Your business is an activity that you, as a person, are carrying out. It is not who you are. It’s just a project. You can build another. By accepting this and distancing your personal value from the performance of the startup you’ve founded, you’ll automatically feel your stress levels decreasing.

7. Practice Reaching Out

A problem shared is a problem halved and that goes for stress levels too. As you build your startup, don’t just focus on creating a great team or a network of contacts for deals — also focus on creating a support network of friends, colleagues, and mentors that you can go to when overwhelming feelings set in.

Of course, it’s not necessary for this support network to solve any of your problems or even give you advice. Listening is the key. Sometimes it really does just help to know that you aren’t alone. Connecting with other startup founders can also be very helpful in this respect, as no one else will really be able to understand what you’re going through more than someone who is actually living the same experience. 

Frequently Asked Questions

I have chronic anxiety. Should I avoid starting a business altogether?

Living with chronic anxiety can be difficult, but it certainly shouldn’t stop you from living your life. In fact, purposefully avoiding making advances in your life because of your diagnosis may be even more anxiety-inducing. The key is to take it slow and choose a business venture with long-term prospects that is not going to put too much pressure on you at once. Selecting an industry you know well will also help to avoid imposter syndrome adding to the mix. 

How important is self-awareness for startup founders dealing with stress?

Self-awareness is not just important, it is absolutely vital to ensure that you are not overwhelming yourself. Remain curious about what is happening in your own head and body, check in with yourself regularly, and respond to your mind and body’s cries for help when they come up. By doing this, you can catch unhelpful emotions and negative thoughts before they take hold. 

How do I avoid others adding to my stress levels as a startup founder?

Choose your circle wisely. This means not just your friends and mentors but also the team you choose to work with. Choose your team not just for the skills they have but also for their values and ethics. If they have a similar value system to you, it’s more likely they will behave in a way that is less triggering and more aligned with what you need to feel secure as a startup founder. 

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