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FounderFuel: Take control of founder stress and get your edge back

What is the first sign that you’re feeling under pressure or stressed?

Is it a physical sign? Maybe you get a stiff neck, tight tummy, or you struggle to sleep?

Cognitive? Such as struggling to focus (and if you’re like me, getting frustrated about it)?

Emotional? Like snapping or being impatient with those around you at work or at home?

Understanding what your early warning signs are is the first step to unlocking a more effective week. Bold statement I know – but the science backs it up.

(And to be clear, nowhere in this article am I going to say take more holidays and meditate).

Talking about stress with any founder is tough. The pace and fervent nature of the ‘job’ (if you can even call it that) makes ‘stress’ a natural by-product, and much of the pace and challenge is even motivating (perhaps even slightly addictive?). The issue is, it’s become accepted as needed in the startup hustle culture, and that helps no-one – least of all your sustainable performance. I’d argue it’s needed at times and we can perform so much better if we choose when to use it and when not to. This idea of choice can be very empowering and it unlocks greater performance.

One of the biggest barriers to founders making a practical change around stress is guilt. At a recent CEO retreat for a US VC we had founders from seed to Series C and it’s fair to say that for most in the room, it was tough giving themselves permission to be there at the start (more on tackling this founder guilt here). So it’s good to articulate why managing stress matters. I don’t mean because of the long-term negative health impact of prolonged stress – we’ve all known that for years, but present bias means that it is deprioritised versus the business. I mean the why for the business – right now.

Understanding the why

Take a moment to consider you at your best – when you’re in your flow state, when you’re seeing the bigger picture, inspiring those around you and doing your best work. When you’re here – what would your team:

  • See?
  • Hear?
  • Feel?

Having discussed this with hundreds of founders now, most would say they spend around 10-15% of their average week in this ‘best’ state here. Our mission then, is to double it by understanding and harnessing stress more.

Now consider you when you are stressed – when you can’t focus, feel under pressure and emotionally volatile. When you’re here – what would your team:

  • See?
  • Hear?
  • Feel?

Compare your lists. I’ve found such depth and variety in the different answers to these two questions, yet one thing unites them all – doubling the amount of time in the ‘best’ state has a tangible business impact, because of the compound effect across your team.

Understanding the physiology

To unlock greater performance and double the time in that ‘best’ you state, we need to start spotting those early stress warning signs. This then enables us to manage our physiology proactively with an understanding of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). This of the ANS as a bit like your operating system. We all know about fight-or-flight in response to danger, triggered by the hormone adrenaline. What is less well-known is its counterpart – and this is what we need for stress management. Over simplifying for brevity, it’s helpful to think of your ANS as having two components:

  • The Sympathetic nervous system (ironically named, as you’ll see) which functions like the accelerator in a car. It triggers that fight-flight-freeze response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.
  • The Parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake, it regulates the system and promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed, returning the body to a ‘normal’ state.

For those interested in more, the Sympathetic nervous system (NS) is triggered by a perception of danger by a part of the brain called the amygdala (which we explored previously for holding your nerve and emotion-regulation as a leader). Though we don’t encounter many life-threatening dangers in modern life, it is still doing its danger-hunting job – and in a situation that means a lot to us (like running our own company) danger could be as much as a negative client email.

The business impact of the sympathetic nervous system

Running on adrenaline or cortisol and operating in the Sympathetic nervous system (NS) state has a profound and involuntary impact on your bodily functions: your breathing becomes shallow, blood pressure increases, heart rate elevates and becomes less variable, even our eyes and focus change, along with the constriction of key blood vessels – essentially controlling what needs energy for the emergency. This all makes sense for sprinting away from danger, but not much use for that email.

The impact on these involuntary changes is what is stealing away our abilities as a leader:

  • We can’t rest properly, because sleep is affected (68% of founders have regular sleep issues)
  • We can’t refuel because the digestion is deprioritised (IBS is a common founder complaint)
  • We can’t even make good decisions because all the energy has gone from our prefrontal cortex (the rational part of the brain) to our legs to run away from that danger – which underpins the lack of focus and procrastination so commonly described by founders.

The latter is now also being linked to leaders choosing short-term tactics over more effective longer-term strategy and repeated issues with decision fatigue. It’s a far cry from the ‘best’ you picture.

One empowering change for your day-to-day routine

I’d forgive you for feeling disempowered at this point – as founders we experience stress acutely and all these changes are involuntary! Yet understanding the different operating systems actually empowers us to take back control. It IS possible to trigger the Parasympathetic NS and shift from the stressed Sympathetic NS – returning us to a better state of mind to lead, decide, and do our best. The answer is in your breath.

Your breath is the one thing that you can consciously control that impacts your nervous system: The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, is part of the Parasympathetic NS, and certain breathing stimulates it, putting us back in the driving seat over stress.

Most founders don’t have time (or inclination) to take a seat for ten minutes a day to learn and practise a breathwork technique. Lucky then, that this one doesn’t even need a video demo.

  • Take two short inhales through the nose
  • Do one long exhale through the mouth
  • Repeat two or three times

This is the “physiological sigh” – discovered in the 1930s, but popularised more recently by Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, who describes it as “the fastest way to de-stress in real time”.

If you’re interested in the science, our lungs have little sacks of air, called alveoli. In stress, our breathing becomes shallower and these sacks collapse. As a result, oxygen levels start to go down and carbon dioxide levels go up in the bloodstream – further triggering the stress response. The double inhale of the physiological sigh appears to pop the air sacks open again, enabling you to offload carbon dioxide in the long exhaled sigh out.

As founders, we need a way to navigate the pressures without it taking more time! So here’s an action plan for you: tune into your early warning signs and intervene with a physiological sigh. Pepper your days with these 10 second breathing micro breaks (after a task, between meetings, when making tea) and you’ll reset the system – giving you the best chance to rejoin your work in a physiologically fit way to perform at your best. It’s the new fast-acting tool for your FounderFuel toolkit.

 

Other helpful articles around this topic:

Keeping it together when you’re feeling the pinch

Give yourself permission to take a break

Redefining REcovery to PREcovery to fuel you as a founder

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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