Four Ways To Manage Entrepreneurial Stress

By Cynthia Mitchell

Stress plagues entrepreneurs. Workload, deadlines, funding and expectations create an ideal environment for stress to bubble up and while the media glamorizes entrepreneurs to near rock star status, the adulation that comes with the job makes introspection difficult.  Failures and vulnerabilities are often inadmissible. Stress, in its different forms, is a relentless attribute of the executive office.

Positive stress, known as eustress is typically short-term.  This kind of stress can feel exciting. It’s perceived to be within our coping abilities. Some examples of eustress are launching a new company or product,  pitching and closing an investor or a big client.  Eustress enhances performance. because it creates a motivating force and often elevates cognitive and physical abilities.

Negative stress, however, known as distress can be damaging. Distress can be short term or long term. The feeling of distress can range from unpleasant to debilitating.  It’s perceived outside of our coping abilities causing concern and anxiety. Distress decreases performance and can often lead to mental and physical problems. Some examples are job insecurity, excessive demands, and inadequate authority to carry out responsibilities.  The corrosive effects of distress can be damaging for both entrepreneur and the venture.

Here are a few suggestions to conquer negative stress:

1.  Take Back Control
Perhaps the deepest need people have is for a sense of control.  When we feel out-of-control, we experience a powerful and uncomfortable tension between the need for control and the evidence of inadequate control.   For instance, holding a leadership role boosts one’s sense of control,  a psychological resource known to have a stress-buffering effect. Possessing control or having a perception of control over a stressor alters its physiological consequences, reducing the release of cortisol. Adverse health effects of job strain are buffered by having a sense of control in one’s job.  But, there are situations that spin an entrepreneur out-of-control — such as low startup salaries,  toxic relationships, investors who usurp control, insufficient funding, or rapidly changing situations that topple business expectations.  So, how do you regain a sense of control when everything seems to be heading out-of-control?

•  Breathe: There’s a reason airlines tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first: you’re not much use to others when you can’t get your breath. So pause, get some space and allow yourself to think.  Take as much time as you need in order to pick the reins up and put the control back into your hands

•  Be courageous.  Courage is neither blind fearlessness nor cowardice.  It is, as conveyed by Aristotle, a mean lying between these excesses. Elliot D. Cohen, a  principal founder of philosophical counseling in the U.S. says “ It means having the courage to accept yourself as inherently flawed; as part of a universe that offers no guarantees, and as a being that lives imperfectly in this imperfect universe”

•  Remember your rights.  No matter the pressure, it’s your right to ask for what you want and need; to change your mind; to make mistakes and not have to be perfect; to follow your own values and standards; to say “no”  to anything that interferes with your wellbeing or values;  to determine your own priorities; to not be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings or problems; to expect honesty and integrity from others; to be treated with dignity and respect;  to say “I don’t know “ and to not give excuses when you fail to meet expectations

2.  Plan For Uncertainty
Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic.  There’s pressure to set unreasonable deadlines and to over- promise to please investors, clients, employees, and family.  Leaders, however, can’t accurately predict and manage the future, but they can have some probabilistic and uncertain handle on it.  The truth is uncertainty is the norm and conveying that expectation to stakeholders buffers their expectations.   Make plans, but keep them agile and pivot or optimize as you learn.  Build in contingencies for the unexpected. Limit promises and unnecessary obligations.

3.  Develop Healthy Responses
Be aware of your less than optimal go-to strategies for coping with stress, such as excessive work, consumption of fast food, alcohol, drugs or isolating from friends and family.  Take steps to respond to stress with conscious choices that nourish your mind, body, and soul.   Exercise is a great stress buster,  so are prayer and meditation.  Get plenty of sleep.  Eat well.  Turn off all the screens.  Keep up with relationships and choose to make work and life coexist in harmony.  Remember to nourish and to be nourished by your family and friends, since this has the greatest impact for anchoring healthy responses.   Creating a holistic life ultimately seeds more productivity, more creativity, and a greater capacity to overcome mental and physical fatigue.  Care for your own mental, physical and spiritual needs as an essential investment in your venture.

4.  Talk
Being stoic is not part of the job.  Seek out a trustworthy confidant — someone with whom you can be raw, without expectations or judgment.  Consider joining a CEO peer group, hiring an executive coach or a life coach,  speak to a pastor or clergy, or talk with a therapist.  While entrepreneurs tend not to want to worry family, investors or co-workers, a frank conversation will help to engage others to bear the stress with you.  When more shoulders support the weight of the venture, the lesser the burden and the greater chance for success.  Your own vulnerability and openness will foster a similar culture within your company,  giving you deeper insight into how you can best lead and support your team.

In a career where mental functions drive creativity, innovation and performance, entrepreneurs would do well to create an environment that supports and nourishes mental wellness not only for themselves but also for their companies.  By acknowledging the existence and impact of stress, leaders can develop strategies that buffer and even eliminate its negative effects.

About The Author
Cynthia Mitchell is a serial entrepreneur, consultant and speaker specializing in start-ups.  With more than 30 years experience in media, technology and education, Cynthia has worked with leading brands including Time Warner, ABC/Cap Cities, Maclean Hunter, Times Mirror, Meredith Corporation, Mutual of Omaha and Kaiser Permanente among many others. With a customer-centric ethos, Cynthia’s depth of expertise across business disciplines is an exemplary and unique skill set for new ventures. Contact Cynthia at

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