What sits behind the creation of the weare3sixty mission and community is a personal story. A story I sometimes build-up the confidence to share on stage in order to help inspire other founders to support each other. This time I’ve mustered up the energy to put it in writing (inspired by Mind.org’s theme of Speaking out for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021).
My entrepreneurial adventures started early – from face-painting at kid’s parties to jewellery making in my teens, the trend was clear – culminating in my first proper business in interior design (before self-design was commercialised) which helped me through uni and beyond. Out of uni, came brand marketing and innovation roles in global blue-chip companies – where I learned everything I could to get ready for starting up my own thing again. It was in my blood, and when the time came I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have found, in my co-founder Vits, a trusted compatriot to share the startup adventures with.
After the success of our first SaaS venture together the one thing we knew for sure was that we were inevitably going to do more together. So we ended up acting like a bit of a startup studio – testing various ideas, and bringing a few to market as MVPs with our established team. A new Mar-tech product was the one that passed validation first, which is where the mental health journey starts.
When you join the story in Autumn 2016, our marketing software is being used by Vodafone, Expedia, and Samsung to name a few. We have a team of 21 across two countries; had recently been awarded a Cannes Lion Innovation award; and we’re exhibiting at a huge industry conference for free having been named one of the world’s most exciting Madtech startups. Despite the usual limited startup resources, the whole team had pulled together to do sales and I’d even done my panel slot on stage without a hitch – so day one ended well.
Until 2am in the morning
At 2am in the morning, I’m woken up with searing pains in my chest. I was 36 – I was fit – in fact as a rower I’d won a medal at Henley that summer. “How can this be happening” I thought? But that searing pain was not stopping.
Much to my embarrassment now, that night an ambulance was called.
In fact, we ended up with two outside our house and a living room full of paramedics drinking tea while I’m hooked up to their mobile ECG machine keeping track of my heart (thank goodness it was a quiet night).
As the symptoms subsided, everything calmed and they went on their merry way with everyone rather non-the-wiser. I didn’t know it at the time – but that was the first sign that my mental health was seriously under threat from my working style in my startup.
Isn’t it all just normal?
Like most founders – I was no stranger to hard work – but there is a uniqueness to this ‘job’. First off, it’s not exactly a job is it? That drive to make a difference, to achieve more, to be more, creates a relentless pace to the average day. That achievement-focused gene just had me ticking things off the to-do list and moving on to the next thing – I was more likely to finish the day frustrated about the one thing I didn’t finish, than celebrating the 15 things I did! Resting was for when we’d exited again – I was far too wrapped up in enjoying the mad rollercoaster to realise that it might be desperately impacting our health.
Looking back I can only imagine what it was like for my partner (now husband) to see the upbeat, characterful person he fell in love with slip further and further away over this time, to be replaced by an overly sensitive, anxious and short-fused individual. What saddens me is that we didn’t know these were the strongest signals my mental health was suffering, and it scares me to think that a lesser man could have given up.
Unpicking mental and physical health
There had been no diagnosis of a physical issue that night (and no-one mentioned mental health) so I just carried on as normal.
It took another 17 months before we finally understood that it had been a severe panic attack that had caused that night. But by the time we joined the dots back to that night, it had got so bad that I could be calmly walking the dog in the park – or sat down reading a book – and all of a sudden, my heart would be racing, feeling like it’s beating outside of my chest, and I’d be gasping for breath – even though there Was. No. Panic.
These attacks came when I was totally calm, yet my body was acting like I needed to sprint away from danger. I’d basically rewired my brain to think that anything slightly negative (even a thought) was a force-10 catastrophe. This can happen when you run on cortisol all day, every day like I did, driven by performance anxiety and a relentless pace of operating.
I thought there was no harm in that buzzing, wired feeling all day. I loved what I was doing after all – but now I understand we’re not wired to work like that. Running on adrenaline or cortisol, means your digestion doesn’t work properly; it means you can’t sleep properly; you can’t even make good decisions because the energy of your body has been pushed away from your brain to your legs to run away from that ‘danger’.
Operate like that for too long and you rewire your brain and that’s how you end up with panic attacks in the park. Months after my diagnosis with a type of post-traumatic stress, I finally opened up about these struggles, and sure enough Vits had been struggling with chronic insomnia for months too. Despite our strong relationship – we’d both been suffering in silence.
Your breathing can save the day
It is pointless sharing this story if there is now ‘so what?’ in my opinion. There is a happy ending of course, because this experience started the wheels turning on the creation of weare3Sixty and has led to hundreds of founders being trained to support each other in monthly group-coaching FounderCircles and hundreds more have joined our founder performance training.
But if you’re reading this and see some of yourself in the story – what can you do now? The answer is to breathe.
Breathwork is what saved me and stopped those unprompted panic attacks. Without it I couldn’t have got myself back on track (or been capable of doing some therapy work to understand why I drive so hard). I’m the first to admit, I was a real cynic at first – I was “far too busy” to bother with anything like meditation, mindfulness or breathwork (which wasn’t even a well-known thing then). Even when I was prescribed it, I remained so… until it worked.
Meditation and mindfulness are intensely personal. By contrast, Breathwork is physiological – it works on us all. Intentional breathwork is the only scientifically proven method that enables you to consciously switch your nervous system, and you carry this amazing tool with you all the time.
There is whole world of breathwork techniques – you can find calm in a hectic day, get energised to perform, and everything in between – but for this story we’re focused on the former, because running on cortisol all day every day doesn’t lead to sustainable founder performance. So try this… Take just 2 minutes to breath deeply into your belly at key points during the day (I do it before I switch tasks), notice where you’re pent up and tense and breath into that place. This will help rebalance your hormone levels, proactively switching the nervous system away from the fight/flight reaction, getting rid of that pesky cortisol. Build this into your day as a habit and not only will you come back rebalanced, more focused and stronger for the next task, but you’re also looking after your long-term health too.
If you’re interested in learning more about any of this, just get in touch.