Coping with Startup Stress – How to Build an Emotional Bomb Shelter
Nothing will test the strength of your emotions quite like building a startup. Every day, you will be bombarded with emotional bombs that cause you to bounce from the highest highs to the lowest lows, often in the space of a few hours or days.
This can put a massive strain on your emotional (and physical) health. This post is about developing resilience to these emotional bombs and employing powerful techniques to build a mindset that lets you overcome the stress you will face on a daily basis.
What is Stress?
There are many definitions of stress, but for the purpose of this article, I'm going to roll with my own definition:
Emotional stress is resistance to a current situation or to an imagined future.
What does this mean?
Well, if you think about the times when you've been stressed in life, it's certain that you were faced with a situation that was unpleasant to you and that you did not want to accept into your experience. Your mental resistance to the unwelcomed event caused the stress.
My Own Emotional Rollercoaster
Two years ago I was preparing to graduate from my Masters and I found myself pitching for a six figure investment sum for Get Invited along with my Co-founder David, in a room packed with over 40 investors and highly experienced entrepreneurs.
This made pitching on Dragons Den look like an afternoon in a sweet shop.
We had plenty of experience building products, but knew little about building a business so naturally we were completely torn to shreds in a brutal display of public humiliation.
It was incredibly tough for both of us. I remember going home that evening emotionally distraught and disillusioned, feeling like it was all over at the first hurdle and we were stupid for even attempting to think we could build a company.
We both had to muster a great deal of strength to return the next day and face the panel of investors again. Much to our surprise, we left with an offer for double the amount that we were asking for.
So, in the space of 24 hours, we'd experienced both the crippling anxiety of self-doubt and impending failure to the joy of deciding how we were going to spend almost a quarter of a million pounds building Get Invited.
Despite the positive outcome, this was a very stressful experience. Such extreme highs and lows in a condensed period of time can wreak havoc on your emotional system, and this was just the beginning.
The past 24 months have been an intense rollercoaster of emotional bombs as we: launched Get Invited; got our first customers; lost customers; took it to the USA; achieved $1 million of sales; lost members of our team; dealt with product bugs and a whole slew of other events.
I've had countless sleepless nights; severe stress-related stomach pains; and I've been awake at 3am vomitting on several occasions, so I know only too well about the physical dangers of stress too.
The hardest part of all this is dealing with the stress internally while maintaining external composure and putting a smile on my face, pretending everything is great when there are times when it really isn't.
This all sounds very negative, what's the flip side?
Well, despite the emotional bombs being dropped becoming more severe and destructive over time, I no longer crumble under the pressure. I'm not the terrified student I was two years ago freaking out during an investor pitch.
I'm generally unphased by most day-to-day events now (I certainly haven't always been) and when something catestrophic does happen, I can process it much quicker and bounce back in a relatively short space of time, without spending months as a stressed-out zombie.
Here's the techniques I've learnt over the last few years that will get you through any stressful situation and help you build your own emotional bomb shelter.
1. Accept & Let Go
Earlier, I gave a definition of stress as being mental resistance to a current or future event. With this understanding, the first step in dealing with stress is to reverse this.
What is the opposite of resistance? Acceptance.
Sometimes, unwelcome events are going to enter into your experience and you will have no control over them, but you do have a choice:
- You can mentally resist events
- You can accept events and let them happen
No amount of mental willpower can stop or change many of lifes events, so even trying is madness.
If someone is going to sue you, then someone is going to sue you. You're not going to change their mind through sheer mental resistance and determination. All you're going to do is cause yourself a great deal of stress.
Instead, take a step back and accept that you're going to be sued and just let it happen. The unwelcome event is still going to take place, but at least you won't be an emotional wreck because of it.
And guess what? You'll probably have a better outcome if you're in a stress-free state of mind and able to think clearly.
I recently spent over 9 months in a state of fear and worry about a particular impending problem, which caused me a great deal of stress. In my mind, this was the worst thing that was going to happen in my career to date and I could see no way through it.
Then one day, I made the decision to accept that it was going to happen and there was little I could do about it. The moment I did this, the stress dissolved, my thinking became clearer and then I began working on a plan to get through it.
It turns out, it wasn't the worst thing ever and while it was an unpleasant experience, I was able to deal with it and came out the other side.
Life is an eternally flowing river of events (good and bad) that are going to happen regardless of your actions. You're in the river and you can either choose flow with it, or you try and fight it but you will only drown trying.
2. Don't Listen to Other People
"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him"
If you embark on any journey that is outside of society's norms, and this includes building your own business, then you are going to walk a very lonely path.
You will have few supporters and an army of people working against you. It's a sad truth, but other people will not want to see you become successful.
People are going to put you down.
They're going to tell you that your idea sucks.
They're going to personally attack you.
They're going to use you.
They'll support you when things are good and they'll abandon you the minute you're facing challenges.
They will screw you over, and they will take pleasure in it.
This is probably one of the toughest challenges in your journey because it happens almost every day. I've been in many meetings where I've been slated, told that our product is terrible and even personally attacked and put down. It is incredibly stressful to begin with.
Now? I couldn't really care what people say or think and I certainly don't let it stress me out.
Always remember: when someone puts you down. The problem is in them, not you.
This is not to say that you'll be unffected by what people say, you will; but you can learn to discharge negativity quickly, and you must – otherwise you'll end up carrying it into subsequent situations and other people will pick up on it.
If you're selling your product or vision, it's essential that you come across as positive, passionate and enthusiastic, even if you've just been torn to shreds ten minutes before.
You can't expect everyone to share your vision or like your idea but you shouldn't take crap from people either – if someone isn't positively contributing to you or your business, then extinguish the situation as soon as possible and don't take it to heart.
This of course, is much easier said than done.
4. Develop Self-Awareness
One of the most powerful skills you can possess is self-awareness; know your own mind and body and do whatever you need to do to maintain proper physical and emotional balance.
For example: I consider myself to be a borderline introvert/extrovert. I know that after lots of heavy social interactions, I need alone time to recharge and rebalance myself.
This sounds really simple, but it took me 27 years to properly understand this and what I need to do to maintain the balance. I now know how much time I need to recharge each day and I always ensure that I allow myself this time, otherwise I become enervated and my productivity drops.
Learn about yourself through critical self-reflection and adjust your lifestyle to ensure that you're operating at your peak emotional and physical health.
5. Establish Your Inner Circle
No matter how resilient you become, there will always be occasions when you need to vent or turn to other people for support. The entrepreneurial journey can be tough and lonely at times and other people generally have little to no experience or empathy for the problems you're facing.
It's important that you surround yourself with the right people who can offer help and support when required. Choose people who believe in you and your vision and who are genuinely supportive of you and who will be there to help whenever you need it (it's much harder to find these people than you might expect).
Your inner circle can consist of your co-founders, investors, other entrepreneurs who share your problems and also close, supportive friends.
6. Practice Mindfulness
One thing that has helped me significally is to practice mindfulness and meditation.
What this boils down to, is becoming aware of your own thoughts and emotions and learning to control them.
"The mind is a beautiful servant, but a terrible master."
Most people aren't even aware of their thinking and spend their life on a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions that they seemingly have no control over. When you gain control of your mind, you become much more resilient and you can deal with events in your life and business with much greater composure.
You can also direct your thoughts constructively to focus on positive events and outcomes, rather than being at the mercy of the negativity that the mind loves to indulge.
7. Live in The Present Moment
When you have developed your self-awareness and you begin practicing mindfulness, you will begin to realise that you spend 98% of your life in a world inside your own head that is not representative of reality.
Your most likely spend most of your time:
- Analysisng the past
- Escaping into or worrying about the future
You're constantly thinking about what you need to do when you get home, tomorrow, next week or next year. You're always looking forward to the weekend or your next holiday.
You're completely missing the point of life by living like this and it only causes you stress and worry. The past and future don't exist, they are abstract mental concepts that distract you from what's happening right now.
Instead, practice directing all of your energy and attention to what you're doing in the present moment instead of projecting your thoughts into the future and worrying about what you need to do tomorrow or the person you offended last week.
Go for a walk and stop thinking about what you'll do when you get home, enjoy your surroundings and enjoy the experience in the moment.
Apply this same principle to your work and you'll be much more productive and focused.
You'll also live a happier life with fewer problems because most of your problems are events created by your mind in the imaginary future.
Consider this – what problems do you have right now in this moment? Not problems tomorrow or next week, but problems you're faced with right now? Probably very few, because when you're in the moment - your problems are not causing you stress because you're focused on dealing with them.
Example: You're giving a pitch in two weeks. You spend every day worrying about it and playing a mental video of the entire event over and over again in your imagination.
When the day comes around and the moment you start delivering your pitch, it's suddenly no longer a problem because your mind is now totally focused in the present moment. You're focused on delivering your pitch, not playing mental projections of it all going wrong.
The worry and stress was never real, it was only your imagination.
This takes a lot of self-awareness and practice, but you can use this technique to rid yourself of many of your perceived problems.
Emotional bombs will be dropped on you almost every day in life and if you don't learn to defend yourself against them, it will have a hugely detrimental effect on your performance as well as your emotional and physical health. Once you learn how to manage them, you'll become a successful and resilient business warrior, unphased by whatever life throws at you.