I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that being a business owner isn’t always an easy ride. While it can be enormously rewarding, as a career choice it’s not for everyone. Managing capital, winning business and retaining customers, staying ahead of the competition and looking after your staff – not to mention having the fate of your business in your own hands and never knowing what’s around the corner – are just some of the things that might keep you awake at night. Especially if you have significant funds of your own invested…. Being able to recognise stress and manage it well is going to be a key skill.
A small amount of stress isn’t actually a bad thing. It’s good for instilling a sense of urgency, keeping you on your toes and primed for action. But too much stress is counterproductive – and extreme stress can tip us over into very dangerous territory indeed. It can threaten our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing; damage our performance and erode our relationships. Stress is something we all need to understand and watch out for.
What Is ‘Too Much Stress’?
“Stress occurs when an individual perceives that the demands of an external situation are beyond his or her ability to cope” (Lazarus, 1966). In other words, stress happens when we experience the demands of a situation as greater than our ability to manage it. Lazarus spearheaded the early research into stress, and while some of his findings have been superseded by more recent work, his basic definition still holds value: that our experience of stress is often less to do with the challenge itself, and more to do with how we perceive, interpret and feel about it. Of course this can be future-focused too: maybe we fear the unknown, and worry about our ability to cope with future challenges – or perhaps we’ve been here before and it didn’t go well, and we’re anxious about history repeating itself. The feeling of losing control which tends to be at the heart of our ‘stress response’ can be particularly difficult if you are someone who fundamentally likes to be in control – not an uncommon trait in business owners.
So What Can You Do?
There are a number of things you can start doing right now to improve your ability to manage stress:
Look After Your Health And Fitness
It sounds like a cliché but the stress relieving benefits of a good diet, hydration, sufficient sleep and exercise are well documented: a healthy lifestyle boosts our energy levels and physical fitness, which in turn support our general resilience to the stressful things life throws at us. A good diet nourishes our bodies and brains. Exercise improves our strength and fitness levels, and has a well-documented ‘feel good’ chemical impact on our brains, which gives a powerful knock-on boost to our mental resilience. Find an exercise you enjoy and try to fit it into your weekly schedule. Something simple like a brisk 20 minute walk every day is a good place to start. For more on exercise and stress, see www.stress.org.uk.
Reduce Reliance On Artificial ‘Stress Relievers’
Such as coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate – these are short term fixes which instead of providing the answer simply offer a temporary high followed by an inevitable crash. All are potentially habit-forming and can be hard to break. If you can reduce your reliance on caffeine, sugar and nicotine, you’ll break the cycle, feel healthier and sleep better.
Step Back, Focus On The Priorities And Organise Yourself
It’s rare to feel there’s enough time to do everything, but be honest: even if there were 50 hours in a day, would you really get it all done? Probably not, as it’s not human nature. So take a big step back and look at everything, taking a broad, long view. Then be realistic about making the best use of the time you have, remember the 80:20 rule, list out everything you need to do and then prioritise ruthlessly. It may seem like everything is equally important, but in reality that’s unlikely to be the case. Challenge yourself to keep things in perspective. Make sure you’re putting your energy into the things that really count, and put plans in place to help you focus on your priorities and see things through to completion. Identify any personal time wasters: do you get sucked into detail you could realistically delegate elsewhere? Are you easily distracted? Do you secretly enjoy fire-fighting? Do you procrastinate before making a start on important tasks? Make sure you’re spending most of your time on your strategically important goals.
Focusing on priorities includes ring fencing time with your family: you need some recovery time away from your work, and they need quality time with you all to themselves. Switch off your mobile and reconnect with the important people in your life. I have known too many leaders lose sight of this.
Reframe Issues: Be Mindful
Traditional stress management models tended to be based around the premise that ‘stress is created by external events’ and managing stress means avoiding the things we find stressful, or learning to cope with them better. While these theories have their place, they are complemented by the latest thinking on stress which suggests we might have more control over things than we think: stress is a real physical reaction to a perceived future, and primarily comes from making things more important in our minds than they necessarily are, so we can help ourselves by proactively managing our interpretations, thoughts and feelings about things. In other words, external events don’t create stress – it is how we choose to respond to them that determines our experience and feelings. You’ve probably heard of ‘mindfulness’ – a rapidly growing field, which can really help us here. The theory suggests that at any given moment, our experience and feelings come from our own awareness and thoughts, nowhere else. And focusing in on the sensory experience of the present moment can be a powerful stress-busting strategy in itself. More information about mindfulness can be found here www.nhs.uk and here www.freemindfulness.org.
We may never be able to eliminate stress from our lives, indeed a small amount can be a good thing. But too much can be very dangerous. So be alert to what your potential stress triggers are, and identify what work or lifestyle changes you might make to improve your personal resilience.
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Photo Credit: Studio Stresses: Michael by Michael Clesle