Identifying and Managing Stress as an Entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, creativity and innovation play a huge rule in running a small business or building a startup. Companies and startups which leverage these capabilities tend to enhance productivity, create a new marketplace and further improve the problem-solving process. This leverage separates companies from the competition and gives them an efficient edge in the marketplace.

Since strong entrepreneurship values growth, startups and other small business are both inherently creative and innovative. They are able to adapt and respond to the changing market needs, giving them an advantage over other established and larger organizations. Therefore, small business leaders not only start companies, but also sustain them with their constant innovation and creativity.

However, this combination of innovation and creativity can lead to a highly stressful environment for many entrepreneurs and small business leaders, who constantly feel the pressure to generate new ideas and implement different strategies. Identifying and managing stress is vital in handling day-to-day operations and growing a successful enterprise. How can entrepreneurs recognize stress and combat it in the future?

Stress Defined

The American Institute of Stress defines stress as “… the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.” As David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, says, “Even a small amount of stress is noisy in the brain.”

While managing a business can be rewarding and exciting, the responsibilities which come with it can also be overwhelming. Addressing various business needs can cause entrepreneurs a tremendous amount of strain. A few factors which can cause stress include:

  • Financials—One of the top concerns facing small business leaders is access to capital. Cash flow matters in keeping the business running smoothly and successfully, from compensating employees to paying bills.
  • Customer Interactions—Since entrepreneurs often serve as the face of the business, a single poor interaction or delayed delivery of services could hurt the entire company’s reputation. Therefore, stress can often result from building anticipation with customers.
  • Decision-Making—Handling a company comes with a huge deal of decision-making, including how and when to expand, finding the right team and even dealing with consequences from varying business demands. This responsibility causes decision fatigue which can highly affect both one’s well-being and the success of the business.
  • Daily Commitments—The entrepreneur’s role comes with various tasks to deal with on a day-to-day basis. This can make time management difficult, making it nearly impossible and extremely stressful to keep up with all responsibilities.
  • Team Management—With scarce resources and limited time, finding and retaining the right team is essential to sharing responsibilities and growing a business. Any delay or mismanagement of the team causes a halt on operations, which creates pressure for business leaders.
  • Pitching—Entrepreneurs and small business leaders often need to pitch their business ideas to potential clients, partners, investors and financiers who could bring in new businesses or new opportunities. This pressure to succeed and fear of failure can put entrepreneurs under an exuberant amount of stress.
  • Unpredictable Factors—Other unknown factors such as a new competitor, natural disasters or economic turnaround can also severely affect a business. No matter how prepared you feel, situations like these are unpredictable and unavoidable, and can often add extra stress to an entrepreneur’s plate.

Defining and identifying potentially stressful situations in your own life puts you ahead of the game in stress management as an entrepreneur. Rather than responding to stress post-manifestation, it gives you the opportunity to prepare for stress beforehand. These potentially stressful situations can have positive or negative impacts, and can result in extreme worry and anxiety if not handled through different techniques.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

In 2012, Bank of America conducted a survey on stress among small business owners, and found that handling the business was twice as stressful as maintaining a healthy relationship with a partner, nearly three times as stressful as raising children and more than four times more stressful than managing their personal finances. That’s a whole lot of weight on entrepreneurs’ shoulders.

However, although stress is often considered a significant problem, it’s not always a bad thing. Some psychologists suggest there are two types of stress: eu-stressors and dis-stressors, which can positively or negatively contribute to an individual’s creativity in the workplace.

Also known as a challenge stressor or beneficial stress, eu-stressors help us achieve our goals. These stressors deepen a person’s learning by enhancing their focus and contributing to their personal growth. This type of stress motivates us to take risks, step beyond our comfort zones and improve our ability to perform under pressure. For example, if an athlete has a big game the next day, he or she may feel some stress leading up to it. This is good stress, and causes the athlete to perform better. These stressors boost a person’s ability to generate fresh ideas.

There is a possibility for good stress to turn into bad stress if we experience too much of it. Unlike eu-stressors, dis-stressors hinder or obstruct creativity and prevent tasks from being completed. These types of stressors are often caused by job insecurity, workplace politics and negative personal relationships. So, if that athlete started feeling overwhelmingly stressed, it might end up causing him or her to collapse and perform badly. Situations like these are when stress can result in worry or anxiety, which can have severe consequences.

If and when good stress evolves into bad stress, it can then develop into worry. While stress may be circumstantial—for example, a big presentation coming up soon—worry is not. Worry takes root far deeper in our psyche, and can affect us no matter what our current circumstances are. Like Dr. Heidi Hanna, Executive Director of the American Institute of Stress, says, “Stress can turn into worry when we allow ourselves to drift off into concerns that aren’t related to the present moment.” Worry comes in response to stress, and reveals itself as the physical manifestation of bad stress. So, while some stress drives our creativity and too much stress demotivates us, our response to stress—worry—is what ultimately creates the very negative health side effects.

Stress in the Body

Stress effects on the body

Under stressful situations, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Elevated stress levels can affect your body in many ways. The American Psychological Association shows stress can affect muscles, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep, stomach, nervous system and reproductive systems. In short, elevated stress levels take a physical toll on your body, damaging the immune system and increasing the likeliness of a cold and flu, heart diseases, memory loss and even depression.

If these increased levels of cortisol are not reduced, they could result in one’s own deteriorated health, which ultimately hinders creativity and innovation. When heightened cortisol levels combine with worry, they create an unhealthy concoction with detrimental effects on a leader and his or her company.

Stress Management

Not all bad stress is damaging; a shift in one’s perspective can change a few bad stressors into good stress. In general, our bodies fail to distinguish between eustress and distress. When triggered physically or emotionally, both stressors release cortisol to focus energy on lowering stress levels. So, if we can eliminate bad stress or potentially turn it into good, we can avoid health consequences and improve our performance.

Stress performance chart

More than 40 percent of U.S. workers report workplace stress having a long-term impact on their ability to be creative and innovative. However, there are a few suggestions which can help manage stress and reduce cortisol levels in the body:

  • Positive Thinking—Positive thinking is often considered an effective way to handle and reduce stress. This comes by appreciating yourself and others. When we practice positive thinking in our daily habits, it shifts our overall attitude to be more optimistic. This can keep stress from turning to worry or anxiety.
  • Breathing—Breathing can help bring back focus by calming the mind and controlling stress levels. Practicing breathing even a few minutes a day can make a significant difference in positivity, reducing stress and lowering anxiety. Slow and deep breathing physically forces a slower heart rate. This means breathing and mindfulness is one of the only ways we physically combat the results of stress on our body.
  • Meditation/Prayer -Mindfulness in the form of meditation or prayer can help bring back lost focus by calming the mind and controlling stress levels. These types of activities help us center on what’s important and focus on what’s real. Decreased anxiety, improved cardiovascular health, better sleep, and a greater capacity for relaxation are additional benefits. Researchers have found praying for others decreases our vulnerability to physical health effects associated with stress.
  • Alertness—Stressful and changing situations are not always under our control. However, preparing and being alert to face business challenges wherever they are can also help to control stress levels.
  • Routine Shift—Non-work activities such as getting away for the weekend with friends or family can help balance our professional and personal lives. Thus, cultivating a new routine helps to keep thoughts away from work-related stress.
  • Music—Music soothes the mind and increases productivity levels. Various studies have found evidence for the positive effects of music and its influence on stress management.
  • Healthy Habits—Developing healthy habits such as drinking water, having a regular sleep schedule, exercising, eating a balanced diet and planning ahead can also help reduce stress. Checklists make it possible to prioritize tasks and handle responsibilities better throughout the day.
  • Organizational Climate—Establishing a solid organizational culture encourages teamwork and provides the freedom and support to make and execute decisions. This alone can have a positive effect on the innovation and creativity within an organization.

Stress Moving Forward

In leadership, the innovation and creativity necessary for your business undoubtedly brings about stress. Life without any stress would be uninspiring and boring, as good stress makes us feel motivated and engaged. However, succumbing to bad stress can easily lead to worry, anxiety and heightened health concerns. Identifying and managing stress is a vital component of leading a success small business. As an entrepreneur, the important work of moving the world forward comes in eliminating bad stress, balancing out stress levels and embracing creativity and innovation through shifting perspectives. Only then can you survive in the stressful environment that is entrepreneurship.

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