FounderFuel: Keeping anxiety in check as a founder

I’m sitting there at my desk, trying my best to focus on the task at hand, and yet my mind is spiralling out of control after reading the email I’ve just received.

“That’s really going to impact us”

            “What if…

                        “And then…

                                    “It’s going to be a disaster …

The response is so much more physical than we rationally give it credit for too. As the thoughts spiral out of control, my chest becomes tight, my stomach clenched… it feels like the space around me is getting smaller and smaller, pressing down on my shoulders.

This is my experience of anxiety as a founder. After years of working with hundreds in the FounderFamily, I now know how common it is, in fact 51% recognise signs of anxiety. And it’s hardly surprising. Putting yourself out there as a founder makes doubts and anxieties (at least occasionally) completely inevitable. We all need to remember…

“There’s an emotional journey for doing anything great”

The job has no playbook, making it exhilarating and nail-biting in equal measure (often both in the same hour!). That can wreak havoc on our nervous system, and even on the best of days, it’s easy for those founder-wobbles to build into full-blown anxieties that don’t go away. Whether you have a propensity for anxious thoughts, or just get hit at the most challenging times, the tools below are here to help you get back on track.

Understanding anxiety

The jury remains out on whether anxiety is genetic or environmental (nature or nurture). It’s thought there is likely a genetic leaning, but experiences can ignite anxiety in those that do have that leaning and those that don’t. I had no idea I suffered until I pushed myself to the brink in 2016. Now, after a lot of work, I’m a different person to who I was then, but I can still see how easily the anxious disposition sneaks in. In short, it feels like I am now more sensitive to anxious thoughts than I was pre-2016, and the neuroscience backs this up. Neural pathways are stamped down in the mind, like stamping down a path through a cornfield. The more often the path is followed, the easier it becomes. Anxious thoughts are therefore the ‘easier’ path for the brain and therefore the default. Fortunately this very same science can help us tackle it effectively too.

Appreciating the thoughts, feelings, behaviours connection

Cognitive-Behavioural theory within psychology suggests that our thoughts, feelings, physiological reactions and our behaviours are all connected. A helpful way to look at this is through the appraisal, or interpretation, of events (the Appraisal model):

Here’s an example of a simple everyday team interaction that could be misunderstood:

And an example of how our concerns can escalate with external stakeholders like investors:

What these examples show is how there are alternative appraisals of the same event (such a helpful tool as a leader!) and some can be helpful, some not. When anxiety is kicking in, those appraisals are often what I would call unhelpful. Left to spiral and you might get into Ruminating (repetitive dwelling on negative feelings) and Catastrophising (spiralling to the worst possible outcome).

Catastrophising is a recurring theme for many founders – I suspect because we are often navigating a multitude of different scenarios in the uncertainty that is running a startup (If X happens we’ll do Y… if A happens we’ll do B.. etc) and that cumulative uncertainty can make us sensitive to catastrophising. It is, like much anxiety, borne out of fear, and if you find yourself in an anxious spiral regularly, it is worth understanding these fears with an accredited professional. In my case, my fears are around not doing enough, not being enough, and ultimately, that I will mess up. Somehow, I just don’t trust in myself. The behaviours that result from that are over-preparing and fearful in-action. 

Our body holds the score

Awareness is our first step – without it we can’t intervene with those thoughts – so our first task is to tune into when those anxious thoughts are getting stuck in. How you notice it is likely to be different to the next person. The first signs for you could be:

  • Cognitive, such as spiralling, catastrophizing or ruminating thoughts, where normally you’d be able to move forward.
  • Physical / physiological, such as tense jaw, stomach, shoulders or neck; migraines and headaches, or breathing changes
  • Emotional, such as irritability, lack of patience/compassion, anger or teariness
  • Behavioural, which might be finding it hard to focus, jumping between tasks or finding it impossible to get started (procrastinating)

Taking back control of the mind

When anxiety kicks in, or anxious thoughts take over, it often feels that there is a whirlwind of inter-connected thoughts spiralling uncontrollably in the mind. They always have a negative slant – sometimes even a doomsday outlook – and it feels utterly overwhelming to attempt to see through the consequential feelings that build as a result.

This tool is designed for you to be able to clear this fog of thoughts, so that you can make sense of the feelings and move forwards more productively. In Cognitive Behaviour Coaching it is called the Dual Systems Approach but having introduced it to so many of our founders, I have seen it used as an invaluable DIY tool. The purpose of this tool is to help make sense of the messy thoughts holding you back on something. Once you have that, you can move on to dealing with the thoughts more helpfully.

FounderFamily members can get the download for this tool here.

First, capture the challenge you’re having. This could be a more practical problem such as “I can’t get going on this pitch deck” or something more obviously caused by anxious thoughts, such as “The stakes are really high right now, I’m really feeling the pressure”.

Then put pen to paper listing out challenges that are practical in nature and those that are more psychological in nature. When trying the exercise, avoid getting caught up in the details of each category – instead, approach it as a way of teasing out all the threads of thought that are spiralling in your mind. If it is practical in nature (“I don’t know where to start”) put it in the practical column, if it isn’t (“I am worried I’ll do it wrong”) it’s for the psychological column.

These two examples bring it to life:

Once you’ve got your list it becomes far easier to tackle the practical barriers one by one and to reassess each of the psychological barriers in a more helpful way.

Next month we’ll look at a couple more tools to do just that.

FounderFamily members can access the Scaleup Session recording that we did on keeping anxiety in check as a founder here

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.


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