As an entrepreneur, you’re no stranger to the effects of stress. It creeps up as you’re growing your business while also trying to manage the day-to-day—sometimes single-handedly. Stress can be a powerful motivator. But what happens when it’s left unchecked?
Ahead, discover how to identify the causes of stress in your life, learn stress management strategies, and gain tips for maintaining a low-stress and healthy lifestyle.
What causes stress?
According to the Cannon-Bard theory, more commonly known as “fight or flight,” the primary function of stress is self-preservation. When your brain senses danger, it produces a physical and emotional response.
Sometimes this has a positive effect on brain chemistry. In other cases, our fight-or-flight response activates when we aren’t in real danger. Stress is defined as the reaction we have to stressors. This reaction can be characterized by physical signs like increased heart rate and faster breathing.
Stressors can be split into two categories:
- External stressors. These are events or situations often out of your control, and imposed by your environment and changes within it.
- Internal stressors. These include thoughts or behaviors, and habits usually within your control, like time management or sleep patterns.
How stress affects you mentally and physically
Low levels of situational stress can be motivational and even empowering. This type of stress, referred to as acute stress, is generally not worrisome and can even be useful.
An external stressor may be a fast-approaching deadline to release a new product or launch a marketing campaign. In this example, a stress response may be temporarily triggered, heightening your senses and providing a boost of energy needed to make it to the finish line.
The Yerkes-Dodson law states that managed levels of acute stress can actually lead to increased performance because of its effect on increasing interest and attention for a specific task.
The effects of too much “bad” stress
Humans, however, are not designed to live in a constant state of stress. Chronic stress, often referred to as “bad stress,” can happen as a result of sustained exposure to a stressor like a toxic workplace environment or financial strain.
Chronic stress can negatively impact one’s life, both physically and mentally. Studies have shown that ongoing stress can wreak havoc on the body’s immune system and damage organs. Those who don’t find healthy ways to cope with stress may also see an impact on mental health—prolonged stress can lead to depression and anxiety.
9 healthy ways to deal with stress
Knowing how to use stress to your advantage is a skill that entrepreneurs can hone over time. You can become an expert at time management and use good stress as a boost during the crunch. But this relies on keeping bad stress at bay. Here’s how to manage stress using daily habits and making tweaks to your mindset.
1. Prioritize what’s important
Stress often results from piling demands that divide your attention. Prioritize these demands, then tackle them one at a time in the order that both meets your goals and brings satisfaction.
When prioritizing tasks, ask yourself two questions:
- What is the importance of this task? Does it help me meet my personal and professional goals? Is it in line with my personal values? Does it contribute to my overall wellbeing?
- How urgent is it? Will procrastinating this task have negative consequences for myself or others?
The answer to these questions will help you categorize your demands into four buckets. This principle can be summed up in Eisenhower’s matrix (sometimes called the importance/urgency matrix), a framework coined by author Steven Covey, based on a quote from a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Productivity app Todoist simplified this method with a simple visual:
Using this framework can help you sort your to-do list and focus on what matters to you, while shelving, delegating, or outright ignoring the rest.
For example,“driving my kids to swimming lessons” might fall into the important/urgent box because building strong relationships with family is a personal value and the swimming lessons happen on a defined and rigid schedule.
2. Learn to say no
While learning to say no can be challenging, especially for opportunity-seeking entrepreneurs, the popular expression, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no,” isn’t always the best guideline. You might not be a “hell yes” if the opportunity is scary and unfamiliar, but taking a chance on it might be unexpectedly positive.
In her book The Year of Yes, author and filmmaker Shonda Rhimes experimented with saying yes when she would instinctively have said no. But there can be a downside to being a “yes person.” Overcommitting can lead to unhappiness and unmet promises as stress creeps in and your schedule swells. Learn to say no strategically by running each ask through the Eisenhower matrix.
Saying no can be hard, especially for entrepreneur types, but it will open up space to focus on the yeses that are meaningful.
3. Get physical
The thought of adding exercise to your schedule shouldn’t cause even more stress. That’s why it’s important to pick a workout that you enjoy. Activities as simple as walking the dog or doing 15 minutes of desk yoga can have a positive impact.
Otherwise, pick up a new interest by trying group exercise or team sports. The built-in social interaction combats loneliness—another liability to mental health.
4. Take time to unplug
Technology enables you to juggle multiple projects, stay in touch, and manage an entire business from your phone. But in a world that expects an instant reply, dependency on your devices could be impacting stress levels.
- Turn off non-essential phone notifications
- Try an app like Be Focused to eliminate digital clutter for short periods
- Disconnect from devices and meet friends in person
5. Automate and outsource
Entrepreneurs can find it difficult to relinquish control, especially those who have built their dream solo. But learning to delegate can free up time to focus on what matters. Once you’ve categorized the tasks and stressors in your life into the Eisenhower matrix, the urgent–not important category is a great place to start.
Automation involves using tools to complete simple tasks based on inputs. This can be anything from a device that waters your garden when the weather is sunny to a social scheduling tool that trickles out brand campaign posts on a set schedule.
Outsourcing can mean hiring a virtual assistant to manage personal admin tasks, or working with a marketing agency to offload your brand campaigns.
6. Breathe deeply
Science has explored the link between intentional deep breathing and stress response. As deep breathing “encourages full oxygen exchange,” it helps to slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure.
Deep breathing can be added to your daily habits in 10- to 20-minute intervals. If you prefer a guided approach, try a meditation app or group yoga class (virtual or in-person) that focuses on breath and mindfulness.
7. Practice self-awareness and know your limits
Your body is constantly sending you signals (or physical symptoms of stress) as warning signs. Back pain, stomach issues, or headaches may pop up as reactions to chronic stress. Listen to your body. These signs should not be ignored, lest they lead to more serious health issues.
Actively check in with yourself, the way you would with a car’s annual maintenance. Is everything running smoothly? If not, it’s time to say no, unplug, and take measures to reduce and prevent stress.
8. Engage in meaningful pursuits
For many entrepreneurs, starting a business was a deliberate act to spend more time on something meaningful. That may mean leaving a dead-end day job to pursue a hobby business or start a nonprofit around a cause close to the heart. When your work is meaningful, the stress associated with it might feel more manageable.
If work stress is piling up, however, and your job isn’t checking all the boxes, seek activities that stimulate your brain, work an underused creative muscle, or have feel-good impacts.
Creative pursuits can actually lower cortisol levels, a hormone noted as a marker of stress. If your work is usually in front of a screen, spend your free time disconnecting and trying a craft or hands-on activity that works out a new part of your brain.
9. Ask for help
Sometimes stress can reach a level that is beyond personal intervention. When it becomes unmanageable using the techniques described here, reach out to a friend or family member, join a support group, or seek the advice of a professional mental health expert. If you feel overwhelmed, isolation can compound the impacts of stress.
Manage stress for mental and physical health
Stress isn’t all bad. In small, manageable doses, it can be an entrepreneur’s friend. But too much stress can be detrimental to physical health, mental wellbeing, and your business. Stave off serious illness and protect your life’s work by being in tune with your body and emotions.
Adding a few of these stress management techniques to your daily routine is preventative maintenance to keep you on track to smash your goals.
Additional research by Braveen Kumar
Feature image by Keenan Beasley
by Dayna Winter