Ways to overcome High-Functioning Anxiety as a Business Owner
I came across something when scrolling through my Facebook feed last Tuesday morning, and I've honestly never had a listicle feel so relevant to my life before. I mean I've read near on a thousand Buzzfeed articles on Why Jason Momoa is Husband Goals, but even they don't come close to this. Probably because I will never be married to Jason Momoa *sigh*, but I suffer from the things listed in this article on a daily basis and the likelihood is you do/will too.
Let's talk about anxiety
Warning: this post is going to get real, so look away now if that's not your thing.
I make no secret of the fact that I suffer anxiety. And although it may seem like *every* internet person out there suffers anxiety, that's because it is astoundingly common. A recent study showed that over 21% of British women and 18% of British men over the age of 16 suffer at least one form of anxiety disorder, and that's just one nation.
Anxiety shows its face in many different forms; in my case, it's anxiety disorder, panic disorder, minor OCD and, in the past, agoraphobia. Whilst it is something I've grown to become accustomed to, it doesn't make it any easier when it strikes.
My first experience of an anxiety and panic attack occurred in mid-2015. It was my final year at university studying full-time, I was working at my day job nearly 30 hours a week and trying to launch my business, byLucinda. It was a particularly busy Saturday on the shop floor at work, I had three assignments due the next week and only one day off work before that. I remember the distinct feeling that I was suffocating in the air surrounding me. Sure, there were about 10 customers crowded around me, but even without any physical touch to my person, I felt like I was being pushed from every angle into that spot where I was standing. My eyes began to cloud over and I started to hyperventilate. My colleague saw me through the crowds and quickly ushered me out to the back where I sat hunched in the corner for a further 30 minutes uncontrollably shaking and crying. It was fucking horrible.
After that first attack, they happened systematically every week for about two months as if the store was a trigger. I loved my job. I had been there over 18 months at this point, I worked with some of my best friends in the world and even my boyfriend and every day was filled with banter and laughing. But regardless of that, when I walked through the back door and onto the shop floor a switch flipped in my head telling me 'you can't handle this' and 'you're going to have another breakdown'. My managers assisted in getting me help and I was even signed off for a week by my doctor to try and re-centre where my head was at. With a few weeks spent off the floor and some counselling I was feeling better and the attacks dropped to around one a month until I left to run byLucinda full-time in April 2016.
Running a business when you have anxiety
During the time when my attacks were most prominent, I became a hermit crab. I would do anything to avoid going out or leaving the house. Even a drink in the bar below my apartment with a best friend became something I would actively avoid. A huge motivator for quitting the day job and going full-time with byLucinda was the idea of working from home in my safe place. Soon enough, being at home all the time made me feel more in control and confident about going outside.
I was on a high for a few months after making the full move to self-employed, but I felt something lurking in the back of my mind. I began noticing I could barely get any client work done if there was anything out of place, untidy or dirty in my apartment. My office is in the living room which is open plan with the kitchen, so it's pretty much all I could see. I remember once spending 3 hours cleaning the oven so I could respond to 3 emails. What I'm trying to say is, running a business as a person with high-functioning anxiety comes with unique struggles - and I'm going to run you through some things you may feel along the way. Note: high-functioning essentially means your disorder doesn't debilitate you, and you are otherwise still able to live a semi-'normal' *for want of a better phrase* life.
Some days you simply won't be 'highly-functioning'
There was a period when I was advised I may have a mix of anxiety and minor depression. This is extremely common in creative types and the result is as follows: your workload makes you feel overwhelmed. Unrealistically so. An average to-do list feels like climbing Mount Everest, and as a result, the depression forces you to close down like a turtle going into its shell. There were days when the thought of my task list filled me with panic, but instead of getting up and getting on with whittling it down, I could hardly bring myself to get out of bed and get dressed.
After trying to fight it and often ending up even worse later in the day (some days it led to a panic attack) I learned to give the demons their bragging rights that day. I wouldn't lie motionless in bed feeling sorry for myself, but I would take it as a day off and work a Saturday that week. I would read, watch Netflix, drink tea and nap and by late afternoon I would feel substantially better. I know what you're thinking - if the task list at hand makes you panic, how could you relax? Well, by promising myself an additional working day that weekend, I didn't feel so much like a slacker. I'm very lucky to have wonderful clients who understand anxiety disorders, and know that sometimes it's beyond my control.
You feel like you need to be working all the time
For someone who considers themselves relatively lazy, this is probably an aspect of high-functioning anxiety I feel the most. Overcoming this is an ongoing struggle for me and one I'm very close to conquering. It is the feeling that if you stop working for a second, you feel antsy, uneasy and fidgety like you should be doing something. As I've said before I am a homebody through and through, so for me it's rarely linked to wanting to go out, it's more the overwhelming feeling of needing to work, clean, cook, do laundry, re-arrange furniture, water my plants or something else along those lines. My brain never stops from the second I wake up to the second I lay my head to sleep. Even if it is 9 pm and we're watching a movie on the sofa I feel unsettled and anxious. It's an ongoing joke with our friends that whenever they come over, my desk is re-arranged or the living room has been moved around - that's in merit to this aspect of anxiety!
Having my Grandmother fall extremely ill last July and eventually pass away a month later made me re-evaluate everything. Suddenly, work wasn't the be-all and end-all of my days. And every day for 5 weeks I took 3-4 hours out of the afternoon to go and sit by her hospital bed. I didn't feel antsy or guilty for a second because she was all that was important during that time. My clients were fucking amazing during this time and gave me all the time I needed. They understood without explanation that tasks would take a backseat and although I managed to stay semi on top of things in the mornings and evenings, if something was late then that was why. Now I'm not saying for a second the only way to fix this feeling is to have a relative pass away! What I would advise is to take up prompt journaling with books like The 52 Lists Project, 52 Lists for Happiness or the 5 Minute Journal to help you appreciate the important things in life, and focus on what brings you joy. Reflect on your successes, accept your failures, and live with gratitude. That was a huge turning point for me.
Download the cheatsheet
You will encounter imposter syndrome. a lot.
This is a nasty, real thing that most entrepreneurs feel, whether they admit it or not. If you suffer anxious thoughts, prepare to feel it more often. Imposter Syndrome is the term coined for the feelings that you aren't actually good at what you do, you aren't meant to be doing what you're doing, you should quit, you're a failure, you aren't good enough, other people are better than you and constantly comparing yourself to others.
I run a free course on successfully going full-time self-employed, I was booked out for the year within a month of going full-time, I am so obviously doing something right and am good at what I do, yet these thoughts never fail to cloud my self-esteem every few weeks. Usually, it falls in-line with PMS, but sometimes just out of the blue, it knocks me sideways. The endless comparison to others in my field, doubting myself and my abilities was extremely self-destructive and often ended back at my first point about not being 'highly functioning' at all.
I keep a folder in my inbox specifically for extra lovely emails. Whether they are old enquiry emails admiring my website or testimonials from past and present clients, re-reading these makes me remember that I am good at what I do. Of all the people I compare myself to, these people chose to work with me and I made an impact on their lives. I also circle back to my word of the year - this year it is 'Bloom' to indicate that I see 2017 as a year of growth and self-discovery. I need to keep reminding myself that my business is still only a year old and that I'm not supposed to know it all just yet. I'd also advise prompted journals for things like this too!
People may not 'get it', and that's okay
Possibly the biggest factor of high-functioning anxiety is exactly that - you function regardless. A lot of the time, people won't necessarily see how you're actually feeling, and this can result in confusion or sometimes anger on their part if you have to ditch social plans last minute or you're acting a bit 'off'. You can be laughing and joking having a great time in a burger joint with your family one minute, and the next minute be crying on your mother-in-law's shoulder. Trust me. This actually happened to me last September. The smallest things can end your world and it's just something you need to get a hold of.
Surround yourself with people you trust enough to open up to and be vulnerable around. My boyfriend and I can be having a great night watching our favourite Netflix show with some wine and suddenly I can go into my shell and just want to cry and worry about something. Instead of getting annoyed at a mood swing, he will cuddle me in and reassure me that it's okay. Those are the people you need.
A cluttered inbox/voicemail can make you feel suffocated
I'm somewhat renowned for having a nearly empty inbox at all times and whilst that is due to the fact that I am an organisational freak in general, it's also to aid the angst that comes with a busy inbox. I aim to have less than 10 emails in my collective inbox at any one time. This inbox houses 3 email accounts. I have clients who have >10,000 in each one. Why 10 emails? Because that's as many as Mac Mail can fit in a window pane without subsequently needing to scroll through the inbox capacity, it's that simple!
When it falls by the wayside and becomes busy, I can't focus. I end up not replying to things because I can't bring myself to enter an untidy space, even if it is a virtual one. When I say 'it becomes busy' I'm talking 15-20 emails. It takes that little. This plays partly into agoraphobia too, if you consider returning a phone call or email as venturing out into the world and speaking to another person. That may be a bit of a reach, but on a low day, it feels so real. I'll even avoid life admin things like calling my WiFi company to change a direct debit, the thought of an admin call just drains me.
Incorporate replying to correspondence into your schedule so it becomes a part of your day. I tell myself I will respond to emails/delete junk mail from overnight at 9 am in the morning and around 4 pm in the afternoon. That way, it isn't something I worry about all day. I head in, I take care of it, I leave it alone. For more constant contact on little tasks I chat with clients over text or Facebook; as it's more conversational, it doesn't feel as suffocating.
Alternatively, you could set yourself goals or treats for after you've cleared that voicemail number or responded to those unopened emails. "I'll take my lunch break once I've done this." or "If I respond to these 3 emails, I'll take a 15-minute meditation break." or even "I can hit 'continue watching' on Netflix once I've returned that call." If you can see light at the end of the tunnel, it becomes part of the journey as opposed to the ultimate destination.