Stress, Startups and Survival
Why startup stress is different from “normal” stress and what to do about it.
Conan O’Brien once said: “They tell you what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. What they forget to tell you is that it almost fucking kills you.”
We’ve all been challenged at different points in our lives. Experienced crisis, tragedy, loss, and suffering to some degree. And our stress response to these events, while uncomfortable, is normal. You’re supposed to feel sad, angry, fearful or helpless when life hits you with a ton of bricks. Our bodies are equipped for these acute bursts of stress. We can handle it.
What we’re not equipped for is the chronic stress that inevitability accompanies startup life. Building a company is hard. Brutal at times. And while it might ultimately make you stronger, if it isn’t managed correctly it will almost fucking kill you.
The kind of stress that comes with entrepreneurship is different — it effects you psychologically, emotionally and physically. And there is usually an element of financial stress, which can linger for years after perceived stressors are long gone.
Why Startup Stress Is Different
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body secretes a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. While this comes in handy when we’re being chased by a bear, cortisol isn’t meant to be flowing at a consistently high level from your MVP through to your Series A and beyond.
Chronically high levels of cortisol can have a major impact on your mental and physical states. This type of stress will slowly but surely tear apart your body, your social life and your emotional well being.
The Psychological Effect
Despite going to sleep a little after midnight, it’s 4 am and you’re wide awake. Your mind is racing and no matter what you do you can’t shake that underlying sense of urgency. You’re not moving fast enough, you’re not working hard enough. Five minutes later, you’re in front of your laptop analyzing funnels, evaluating your next build, reviewing your investor pitch or customer acquisition strategy.
Sound familiar? This used to happen to me 3 or 4 nights a week. I thought I was either going crazy or simply wasn’t able to “handle it” — until I realized this was a common occurrence among startup founders.
When you combine the high risk of failure (3 out of 4 venture backed startups will fail) with the emotional roller coaster that is startup life, you end up with a scary psychological scenario.
A recent article by Jessica Bruder sheds light on the physiological price of entrepreneurship, and so much of it resonated not only with my own experiences, but with what I’ve observed in other founders (turned friends) over the years. There is a stark dichotomy between how entrepreneurs are perceived and what its really like;
Successful entrepreneurs achieve hero status in our culture. We idolize the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Elon Musks. And we celebrate the blazingly fast growth of the Inc. 500 companies. But many of those entrepreneurs … harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair—times when it seemed everything might crumble.
Until recently, the mental toll of entrepreneurship didn’t appear much in public discourse. Showing any sign of weakness was simply not an option. Even now, most of us subscribe to “impression management” — fake it till you make it. A sometimes necessary, but potentially destructive exercise.
But no matter how much you “fake it” the truth remains that many of the traits that are inherent to entrepreneurs, also makes us susceptible to depression, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, loss of motivation and in extreme cases suicide.
In trying to push through the ups and downs, the end result is a highly obsessed person whose entire identity and well-being is defined by the health of their startup.
Don’t get me wrong, I think you need to be a little obsessive (or maybe I’m just trying to validate my own obsession) but I also believe that tying your self-worth to your net-worth is inherently problematic.
The Physiological Effect
Understanding the physical side effects of the chronic stress associated with running a startup are just as important as understanding the psychological — and in many cases, taking care of yourself physically can mitigate the impact of the mental and emotional roller coaster.
In my “pre-startup” life, I ran a chain of martial arts studios. I taught Jiu-Jitsu and Kickboxing professionally. I consulted clients on nutrition and weight loss — I was acutely aware of the mind-body connection.
What most people don’t realize is that you think with your body. Decision making, analytical skills, energy and creativity are all compromised when your physical body is compromised by either lack of proper nutrition, lack of sleep, or not enough “brain breaks”.
And if you think your body is thriving on coffee, pizza and less than four hours of sleep you’re wrong. If this is the only way you know how to live, then you have never experienced the powerful impact a healthy, vibrant body has on your quality of life.
Your mind and your body are not entirely disparate. When one gets hit the other suffers.
Not only are your cognitive abilities weakened when your physical health isn’t optimized, your sensitivity to stress increases. This means that the next time something happens — a potential investor pulls out, you lose a customer, you argue with your co-founder — you are more susceptible to mood swings, over-reactions, anxiety and depression.
Rinse and repeat a couple of times and you’ll eventually find yourself under your desk curled into the fetal position.
Steps to Survive and Thrive
In most cases, there isn’t an immediate fix to whatever startup stressors you’re dealing with, but in order to survive and thrive you need coping mechanisms.
You can’t control your investors (or customers, or co-founder) but you do have control over your physical well being.
Start with your body, specifically focussing on getting the physical effects of stress under control, namely lowering cortisol (that pesky stress hormone we talked about earlier).
This is by far the most important and impactful thing you can do for your health. If there was one thing you had to pick from this list — this is it. If you have a hard time sleeping, get help here and here.
Sounds a little hokey, but taking a few minutes to focus on your breath can help lower stress levels almost immediately.There’s a good stress-reducing breathing protocol in this post. (Scroll to about half way through the page, its a long post — good but long.)
Real food. Nutrient dense food. This means loading up on veggies, fruits, fats and proteins while minimizing excess sugar, processed foods and (dare I suggest?) any gluten in your diet. You don’t have to do everything at once. Just start small and change one thing each week. Maybe this means cutting out soda or eating a healthy breakfast.
Exercise (but not too much)
The law of diminishing returns applies when it comes to exercise and stress. You need much less than you think to reduce stress, and if you overdo high intensity exercise, you’ll increase your cortisol, doing more harm then good. That said, if you aren’t doing anything, just 15 to 20 minutes a day will help.
This is something I struggled with initially. Some days I still have a hard time settling my mind, but the benefits I experience when I do meditate are noticeable. I’m more focused and centred. Here’s a guide to getting started with meditation by the team at Lift.
Talk to Someone
Historically, I haven’t been the most communicative person when it came to how I was feeling (and I’ve had several good friends call me on this). But if you’re close to founder burnout,you have to find a support system, ideally a combination of entrepreneurs who understand what you’re going through and close friends or family who can provide unwavering love and support.
As a side note, if you’re a female founder — make sure you talk to other women if your goal is to reduce stress. In a recent podcast, Dr. Sara Gottfried references a study that shows when women talk to their girlfriends, stress levels go down.
Interestingly, speaking to male friends about the same subject doesn’t have the same effect.
For many founders, things are going to ramp up quickly as we move into fall and stressors start to pile on. Even if you’re not feeling overwhelmed yet, consider the above preventative — a foundation that is in place so when your stress levels start to scale, you can handle it.
Take care of yourself.