The startup grind: why starting a business is stressful and can even be depressing

founder-stress

Imagine 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?” This is how Toby Thomas, the CEO of EnSite Solutions, describes entrepreneurship.

We constantly idolize and celebrate those who succeed in the entrepreneurial world, but seldom do we ask ourselves: How did they get there? The answer is that most of the time they’ve gone through a lot of hard work, stress, and even depression. But why is building a company such a difficult task?  You can find 10 reasons below: 

1. Founder mentality – The majority of founders are smart, driven, and skilled people whose experience and knowledge could land them a highly rewarding job – but still, they wake up every morning and decide they want to pursue the entrepreneurial journey, mainly because they are certain that what they want to do can change the world for the better. 

According to a study by Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to have mental health conditions like depression, ADHD, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and suicidal thoughts.

But some people call it the downside of being up. The same traits that make founders more likely to suffer from mental health conditions are the ones that help them as entrepreneurs – boosting creativity, empathy, adaptiveness, humor, risk-taking, multi-tasking, and crisis-management.

2. The “I am my company syndrome” – Founders often blur the line between themselves and their ventures, so they tend to take anything that happens in the company personally, even when there’s a big team working together. Many lose themselves in building their ventures – becoming detached from their own needs, disconnected from real life and experiencing the emotional roller coaster of the company as a personal journey. 

Experts recommend cultivating an identity apart from your company. This means building other parts of your life like raising a family, working as a volunteer in a charity organization, playing music, or bricolage. It’s important to feel successful in areas unrelated to work.

3. Fear of Failure – The startup world is filled with stories of failure; it’s talked about as if it’s a necessary part of the entrepreneurial journey. Many of the success stories we see today like the ones of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and many others are filled with failures. Nevertheless, founders rarely understand that and naturally develop a fear of failure. Telling your family, friends, investors, or even co-founders that the venture in which you have invested so much time, money, and passion has failed certainly generates unpleasant feelings, mainly because we feel as if our effort was not worth it, the mistakes we made were avoidable and that we are to blame for the outcomes. However worrying about this too much can lead to a pattern of negative thinking, which will destroy your potential for improvement and the possibility of learning from your mistakes.

No matter what happens, it’s important not to let your fears take over and get in the way of your sleep. While we understand that a million tasks need to be done before sunrise, and sleeping is for some of us a waste of time – our brains need sleep to recover, especially after a long day of work. When you start sleeping enough and resting properly you’ll notice the difference, so do your startup a favor and go to sleep.

4. Financial Risk – In addition to the financial risks that founders and their investors take on, they are the first to go without a paycheck and usually pour a significant portion of their resources into their ventures. This creates enormous financial stress and anxiety, in a scenario where business failure can also lead to financial ruin. While this situation can, if properly managed, be motivating, the threshold for it to become negative is easily surpassed and we as founders put ourselves at emotional and financial risk. Founders who have surpassed that threshold can live under a lot of stress and be unable to focus on what the business needs, bringing their worst fears to reality.

5. Anxiety – Feelings of anxiety tend to feed off of what matters most to us, so naturally they will affect our professional path. Not knowing when a consistent income will arrive or when the business will become profitable can lead to feelings of anxiety. Many founders struggle to function normally because they are constantly worried about their ventures. The desire to succeed can cause them to second guess their decisions and overthink worst-case scenarios. Just like stress, anxiety can develop into a negative behavior pattern that eventually becomes a burden – taking a toll on our emotions and wasting time, energy, and resources that we need to manage our business.

These feelings are nothing new; humanity has faced them for a long time, and we’ve also spent a lot of time studying how to deal with them. One of the most powerful practices to manage them is to regularly practice relaxing activities like yoga and meditation. If you’re interested in meditation, check out this list of 10 apps for meditation and relaxation.

6. Uncertainty – The uncertainty of life can leave a deep pit in our stomachs and weigh down on our shoulders. All the fears we project into the future – the what-ifs, the whens, and the hows – morph into doubts and insecurities. Many times our brains invent unrealistic outcomes for these situations, because of the need to create an illusion of certainty to manage anxiety around our lives.

For founders, the ability to envision the future and anticipate job security is sometimes more difficult to obtain, this is because instability usually happens in the first months of a new business. You’ll have sudden surges of consumer interest followed by droughts, you’ll have unexpected necessary expenses appear, major team members leave the company, and even if you think you are prepared for everything, you’re not.

7. Isolation – When founders start a business they tend to have a million tasks they need to complete in order to achieve their vision. This often causes them to spend less time with family, friends and significant others, and many are also required to relocate. As company stress builds up, we are inclined to double the amount of work we take on as a natural response to an emergency. This behavior tends to further affect us by muting our supportive relationships and reducing our ability to cope with pressure. Isolation can also appear in other forms as we might feel unsupported or isolated in taking a nontraditional professional path.

Remember that you’re not alone in this journey; there are founders just like you all around the world facing problems everyday. Online you can find a lot of communities and forums where you can ask questions, read other experiences, and understand how other founders managed to resolve their problems, and find inspiration and support.

8. Imposter Syndrome – Founders often suffer a form of fear that they will be exposed as frauds, as if they don’t belong there or that they’re not fully capable of achieving their goals. Despite evidence of their competence, when we suffer from Imposter Syndrome we remain convinced that we are frauds and do not deserve what we have achieved. This leads to us mistakenly thinking that our success is attributed to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking we are more intelligent than we perceive ourselves to be. In a similar way that we can misattribute our success to luck, we can take too much blame for any failures. This generates feelings of shame and disconnection, and discourages us from seeking help, which can lead to depression.

9. Burnout or Overloading – Founders can easily fall into a in a never-not working mentality – forgoing opportunities for rest, fun, and connection, and causing us to become sleep deprived, over-caffeinated and emotionally disengaged. The pressure can be overwhelming, as can be managing the emotions that come with it. It is a skill we must develop throughout the journey, because the same way a rubber band breaks when its extended, we can break ourselves when those behaviours and feelings are not properly managed. Burnout feels as if you had just completed three triathlons and can’t get up from the exhaustion mentally and physically.

If you’re experiencing distress, situations that are out of your control, or you just feel that your life is being negatively affected by your business, it’s extremely important to ask for help; don’t hesitate to seek out a mental health professional.

10. Health Concerns – All these feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and depression can easily make founders avoid thoughts of sticking to a healthy diet or exercising daily and make priorities for the wellness of the company to be on top of their self-care and personal wellness. New entrepreneurs often neglect their health by eating too much or too little, failing to exercise and less than what they need.

Taking care of your body is your first line of defense against emotional distress; the connection between the mind and the body is strong and reciprocal. When you have a nasty cold you feel unmotivated, distracted, and irritable – your body drags your mood down. In a similar manner when you suffer from one or more of the described feelings, your body can begin to break down, and it can take a severe toll on our health.

Building a company brings with it a lot of hardships to endure, problems to solve, feelings to manage, behaviours to avoid, risks to mitigate, and other things that are not listed here. But don’t worry – overcoming them is not an impossible task. It’s highly recommended that you identify and understand them before they take a negative impact on your life.

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