Stress and the Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship can be a very stressful proposition. We’re trying to build our businesses and encounter countless challenges along the way. Cutthroat competition, product design issues, labor shortages, cash flow problems, slow sales, shipping snafus, government regulations, incredibly tight deadlines, lack of sleep and a host of other struggles. A lot of this is simply unavoidable and part of the growth and scaling process. How we deal with stress under duress is the name of the game.

Here are several questions we can ask ourselves. Is stress negative and draining? Do we view stress with fear and trepidation? Is stress something that we must survive? Or do we embrace stress and use it to “lean in” and thrive? You may think that thriving in stress is counterintuitive. But it is not.

It’s a fact that there are many opportunities for situations to become stressful. However, just because a situation is stressful doesn’t mean that we have to buy-in and take on the stress for ourselves. I know – this is certainly easier said than done. We start by observing how we normally react when confronted with potentially stressful circumstances. Some people withdraw and climb into a shell. Others might be combative and hypersensitive. Still others may wear their heart on their sleeve and present a woe-is-me portrait. Finally, there are those who may show panic and confusion. As entrepreneurial leaders we cannot afford to display any of these tendencies.

How we react outwardly is important to our team. If we are snippy and curt with the people around us, they will sense that something is wrong. If we show fear they will smell fear and know that something is wrong. By maintaining an optimistic and cheery demeanor at all times, we can ensure the mental health of our enterprise. I realize that this is pretty hard to do if we really aren’t feeling all that confident in the situation. It’s very difficult to fake it successfully. What to do?

On April 17, 2018, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 bound from New York to Dallas suffered a massive engine failure that resulted in the loss of cabin pressure and the life of a passenger. Captain Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor remained calm under fire and safely landed the aircraft. They didn’t panic and followed their training to the letter. Once back on terra firma, Captain Shults personally spoke to each passenger as they deplaned. What was their secret? They eliminated the emotion and worked the problem.

When we’re overwhelmed, stress can build exponentially. This is the time to heed the old saying – eat the elephant one bite at a time. We break down whatever massive undertaking that is causing the stress into manageable tasks. I am a compulsive list-maker. When a mountain looms in front of me I try and avoid looking at it in its totality. Instead, I develop a series of individual tasks and check them off my list as I finish them. I know this may sound like a mental game but it works for me and it might work for you too.

The next idea may seem like a bit of a stretch, but actually can achieve the concept of leaning in and thriving. When faced with a sticky situation we look for the silver lining and ask the question, “How can I turn this into something positive?” Accomplishing this takes a lot of practice. It involves rising above the chaos and stress to take a clinical look at the landscape and find a way to succeed. I remember talking to a friend who had a major client that was terminating the relationship. Many entrepreneurs would have wrung their hands in despair. My friend immediately reached out to the primary competitor of the departing client and told him that he was now available to work with the competitor. This new relationship was worth twice the amount of business for my friend than before.

There are many other stress-busting techniques – and there may be times when we need to utilize all of them at our disposal. We should make certain we don’t become one-dimensional. Having other interests besides work provides outlets for our stress and frustration. This may include physical activities, hobbies, civic or charitable work to name a few. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises are excellent ways to remain centered and relaxed. It’s important to practice them continuously and not just when we are in distress. Finally, I’m a big proponent of creating and saying positive affirmations. Positive affirmations pattern our minds away from negativity and fear. For example, saying something like, “I am totally relaxed and ready to claim my good!” may be a great way to start. I know it may sound corny, but I’m living proof that it works. Saying a positive affirmation in groups of ten at least 100 times a day will lay the foundation. Doing it for a week or two adds the cement.

We all have moments where stress can build to overwhelming levels. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating if we choose to embrace it; lean into it, and thrive.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 100 – Congratulations – You Own a Gold Mine!

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

WUONPS

Have you ever found yourself in what I call a “wired-up overwhelmed near-panic spiral – WUONPS?” You wake up at 3:30 AM with this gnawing feeling – you’re not worried about anything in particular, but that feeling is there. You can’t go back to sleep so you get up and make some coffee. You surf the internet while drinking three cups of coffee. Then you hit the drive-through at Starbucks on the way to work and get a Triple Frappasomething with an extra double shot of cappuccino. It’s been consumed before you reach the first stoplight. By the time you arrive at the office the feeling is welling up. With few more cups of coffee, a glance at 75 new e-mails and a minor crisis dropped in your lap, you’ve now reached the pinnacle of WUONPS. Oh, and it’s only 8:11 AM. What to do?

The first step is to recognize the state that we’re in. The quicker we can do this the faster we can move toward resolution. When we push on without stepping back our feelings cascade and we end up in a spiral. In aviation parlance, we’re now in full-fledged crash and burn mode. When we recognize that we’re headed into WUONPS we need to stop what we’re doing IMMEDIATELY. Then we need to go and find a quiet place for decompression.

Once in our quiet place it’s important to sit with our feet flat on the floor and hands in our lap with our eyes closed. We take a deep breath and let it out slowly. We do it again and again. Focusing on our breathing is a sure-fire method of calming ourselves. Deep breathing delivers increased amounts of oxygen to the brain. Livestrong.com says this: “Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out neurohormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, which secretes the hormones that regulate all activities throughout the body.” Scientific explanation or not, this process definitely works.

Once we have begun to “unwire” through deep breathing, we might undertake the ROY G BIV exercise. ROY G BIV is an acronym for the seven colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. In our mind’s eye we see each of the colors of the rainbow traveling from the center of the earth through the bottom of our feet, up our leg, across our midsection, down the other leg and back to the center of the earth. We do this slowly and intentionally with each color of the rainbow. The purpose of ROY G BIV is to ground ourselves. I know that when I’ve been in a state of WUONPS, I have a weird free-floating out-of-control feeling. ROY G BIV eliminates this feeling.

After spending ten or fifteen minutes deep breathing and grounding ourselves we are now ready to move back into the day. But first we should review our goals and objectives for the day. We spend a few moments with our “To Do” list and make sure we are clear on what we intend to accomplish for the rest of the day. Then we move forward with a new purpose and a new attitude. And . . . we avoid any additional caffeine for the rest of the day. We can also eliminate WUONPS altogether if we exercise regularly (daily for me); limit our consumption of caffeine, and maintain a daily practice of meditation or quiet time.

Recognizing WUONPS is critical. Breaking the spiral with deep breathing and ROY G BIV is paramount. Recommitting to the day with a clear understanding of what we intend to accomplish puts us back on the calm and productive path we desire.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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At the End of the Rainbow

Question: You blogged recently about fear and I understand that it’s necessary to deal with fear on a long-term basis. But what can I do about moments of sheer panic?

Answer: Entrepreneurs frequently find themselves in situations where there is an opportunity to panic. It could be a situation where we must speak publicly. Or it might be an e-mail from our largest customer telling us that they are taking their business elsewhere. And it could be a personal situation – that phone call from the hospital telling us that a loved one has been injured. Of course we want in the worst way to avoid feelings of panic. We will try our darnedest to refrain from showing anyone else that we are in distress. But regardless, the feeling is there and at the time, it is the worst feeling in the world. Which brings us back to the original question – what do we do when we feel the wave of panic?

Just take a breath. Seriously. Taking slow deep breaths is the first order of business. Focus on breathing from the diaphragm. We’ve all heard this but may forget to do it when it’s most important. Getting oxygen to the brain is critical to helping us sort things out and think clearly. Next, move into a grounding exercise that has been powerful for me. Have you ever heard of ROY G. BIV? Here’s how old Roy works. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands unclenched in your lap. Close your eyes and visualize the most brilliant colors of the rainbow – one at a time. Start with the color red, and see it slowly traveling from the center of the earth and running up your left leg; across your harrow point (just below your navel); then running down your right leg and back to the center of the earth. Follow this with each of the remaining colors orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – hence the acronym ROY G. BIV.

Earlier this year I injured my left knee and left shoulder and had two successive MRIs. The MRI for the knee was no big deal but the shoulder was a different story. Though the machine was “open” it certainly didn’t feel that way for me. I made the mistake of realizing how close to my face this massive imaging machine was positioned and felt an enormous wave of panic. I felt like I was wedged between two giant rocks in a cave. This wasn’t simply a case of butterflies but real, honest-to-goodness terror. I did my breathing and that helped. I went through the Roy G. Biv exercise which also helped. But I knew that I was stuck in this machine for another 35 minutes and resolved that I would NOT succumb to the panic and call off the procedure. Instead, I replayed in my mind each day of a wonderful vacation trip that we had taken a few weeks earlier. I visualized my wife, my children and my grandson. It probably took at least 15 minutes for my heart to slow down to the point that it didn’t feel like it was going to explode. But I made it through the procedure and conquered the panic.

By remaining centered, we can manage our minds and bodies if and when panic occurs. Focus. Breathe. Relax. Visualize.