Do you ever experience a feeling of “worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome?”
This describes me at some point of every single day. It’s the dictionary definition of anxiety, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million others are way too familiar with how anxiety feels and impacts them daily.
Anxiety is tough for anyone to deal with, but it can become extremely detrimental when you’re working for yourself and have a small business to run.
Small business owners need to face “imminent events” and “something with an uncertain outcome” almost every minute of the day.
When your anxiety starts ramping up in response to these events and situations, focusing on being productive, doing great work, and delivering value becomes a real challenge — especially because feelings of anxiety tend to compound.
An underlying current of unease quickly develops into an aggressive cycle of worry, nervousness, stress, fear, and a general sense of impending doom. The more anxious you feel, the less capable of handling your work and business you feel — and your productivity likely drops.
That can cause you to miss deadlines, drop the ball with clients, or miss out on opportunities to network and expand your business. Which can heighten your existing feelings of worry, nervousness, stress, and fear.
And the cycle continues downward from there.
But if you experience anxiety, you know all this already. The good news is that you can proactively deal with anxiety and make choices to mitigate it.
Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Run the Show
That being said, I’m not a medical professional nor any kind of expert on mental illness or clinical disorders.
Reading an article on one person’s thoughts, ideas, and experiences with anxiety (or anything, good or bad, for that matter) may not provide an adequate solution for what you’re dealing with that’s specific and personal to you.
I sat down to share my perspective on dealing with anxiety (especially when you need to deal with anxiety as a small business owner) because I had to wrestle with it before I got out of the house this morning. And I won today’s match.
By “won,” I don’t mean I felt anxious this morning and no longer feel anxious right now. I mean that I was self-aware enough to stop and recognize what that feeling was. Once I did, I could make a choice not to let it take over and run my whole day.
The experience made me stop and reflect on how very different today would have gone in the past, before I learned to tell anxiety to get itself out of the driver’s seat. And it also made me want to share some of the ways I learned to do just that, in case anyone else found it helpful in dealing with their own anxiety.
You Deal with Anxiety Because You Don’t Eliminate It
That brings me to another critical caveat to add to the one about me not being a medical professional or any kind of expert on clinical disorders: I say “deal with” or “manage” anxiety deliberately.
Why? Because there is no getting rid of it. I don’t believe, as human beings, we can get to a point where we can say, “I do not have feelings of worry, of nervousness, of unease.”
It’s the same as with fear: as a human, you can’t literally be fearless. We all experience fear. Many of us experience anxiety.
In either case, it’s not about ridding ourselves of these feelings. It’s about learning how to deal with them, and making conscious, deliberate choices about how we react when we feel that way.
Stoic and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it this way:
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
So how can you better deal with anxiety as a small business owner? Well, the answer truly lies in the above quote. At the end of the day, you make a choice.
You can claim your power to decide and choose how you’ll feel and act accordingly. Or you can choose to let anxiety run wild.
I choose to claim my power (and with it, responsibility for myself). I have to choose it over and over and over again, but I choose it nonetheless.
And today, I wanted to share what I’ve learned along the path of becoming a more grounded, productive, and happy person who no longer lets anxiety dictate how my days go.
1. Acknowledge It
You can’t make progress with anything if you don’t first stop and acknowledge how you feel.
You might be dealing with serious anxiety if you:
- Constantly worry over things you can’t control, from the small and trivial to the large and consequential.
- Can’t sleep or experience racing thoughts that keep you up at night.
- Have to consciously remind yourself to breathe.
- Experience fear consistently, especially if it’s irrational or illogical (and you know it’s irrational or illogical).
- Get stressed about events in your schedule for the week, or struggle to stay focused on today because you’re worried about events happening in a few days.
- Have physical manifestations of anxious feelings, like tension, an upset stomach, clammy hands or sweating even in a climate-controlled room, racing heart, trouble breathing deeply, or dizziness.
- Engage in compulsive behaviors or rituals.
Take a moment and think about how you feel, physically and mentally. Don’t make those feelings right or wrong. Simply acknowledge their presence.
Saying “I have anxiety” may sound silly, dramatic, weak, ridiculous, or downright uncomfortable for you. It may also feel untrue and irresponsible if you don’t have some sort of clinical diagnosis in hand.
Acknowledging feelings of anxiety does not mean you need to parade around the neighborhood or your next networking event, telling everyone about your newfound “condition.”
It just means looking inward and telling yourself the truth if you frequently feel worried, stressed, nervous, or uneasy. It’s as simple as saying, “I feel ____.”
2. Name It
It’s really helpful to get specific to fill in that blank. What, exactly, do you feel?
You may not know immediately. This is where working on self-awareness can come in handy. You can increase your own awareness of your physical, mental, and emotional states by trying some of the following:
- Being physically active. It doesn’t matter what kind of workout you do or if your activity is a simple walk. Just do something to move your body.
- Focusing on doing one thing at a time. Don’t multitask at work, don’t watch TV while you eat, don’t try to do something else on your commute other than getting yourself to your destination. Another way to put this: be present.
- Look into personal development or improvement courses and proactively work to learn more about yourself and your patterns of thought and behavior.
When you can name your anxiety (or any other negative feeling that doesn’t serve you), you immediately put some amount of distance between You and the Feeling.
3. Separate Yourself from Your Thoughts and Feelings
That distance is a critical step in going from feeling run over by your anxiety to dealing with it and retaining control over your day.
There may not be much separation at first, but any amount helps you to realize that You are your Self. Your Self is not the Feeling.
They are two separate, distinct things. When you can see that, you give yourself the power to choose how you react to each thought and feeling you experience.
Here’s a question that helps illustrate this concept: Would you let a microwave run your life?
Of course not. A microwave is not you. It’s a wholly separate thing from your Self and you have considerable control over an object like a microwave.
The same is true of things like anxiety. Anxiety is a wholly separate thing from your Self. You don’t have to let it run your life. You can exercise control over it.
3. Learn to Recognize It and Choose How You Want to React to It
Here’s where you can put acknowledging your feelings and giving them a specific name to work. The next time those feelings rise up, stop and identify them.
Whenever my own feelings of anxiety start creeping in, I try to literally stop what I’m doing and tune in. I try to not only name the feeling in the most specific way possible, but I also look at why I might be feeling that way.
Understanding the cause of the feeling helps me understand how I can best react to it. That gives me the power to decide what to do, instead of just panicking and letting the anxiety take over.
Here’s the quick example of the questions (and answers) I often go through when IDing and choosing how I react to anxiety:\
How do I feel right now?
- I feel like there’s something hanging over my head that I haven’t seen yet. I’ve just noticed that it’s there and I’m afraid to look up and see what it is.
- I feel like there’s something bad that’s going to happen, and I can’t remember what it is.
- I feel like I’m in safe space, but there’s something circling the outside of that space.
- I feel a low-lying undercurrent of panic, or I feel uneasy, like something bad or unpleasant is about to happen.
Why do I feel this way?
- Because I’m stressed about the amount of work I need to do. Because I’m nervous about doing good-enough work for clients. Because I’m facing something I don’t know how to do.
- Because I have a lot of calls and meetings today.
- Because there are events I’m nervous about this week.
- I don’t know why I feel like this.
What do I need to feel better?
- I need to sit and breathe deeply. I need to meditate. I need to do yoga. I need to do some physical exercise. I need to go for a walk.
- I need to write down everything that’s in my head right now and get it out so I can reclaim some mental space
- I need to organize my task list and notes so I have a better understanding of what’s going on and what needs to be done.
- I need to reach out to a friend and just say hello
- I need to make plans to spend time with a friend.
- I need to call a specific person and talk with them and just share.
- I need a break or I need to spend some time alone. I need a nap.
Depending on the feeling and why I think I experience it, my answer to “what do I need to feel better” will vary. But the most important thing is to ask that question and then shut up and listen for the answer.
That sounds a little strange, but if you can give yourself this space, you’ll find your subconscious will usually volunteer the right answer.
Ask yourself what you need and then sit quietly. When your mind offers an answer, give it a try.
4. Structure Your Day in a Way That Minimizes Anxious Thoughts
As someone who owns a small business, you can exercise some control over how you structure and run your day. Take advantage and create a day that doesn’t contribute to your stress levels.
Again, this requires some self-awareness. You need to understand what triggers your feelings before you can take action to avoid stressful situations when you can.
Here’s what I do to minimize my likelihood of running into anxiety during my workday, so I can remain grounded, peaceful, and happy.
As you might notice, these are mostly things I do in the morning before I start any work. Creating a morning routine can set you up really well for the day ahead!
- Plan out most of my meals for the week. This is such a simple thing, but knowing what I’m going to eat drastically reduces the decisions I need to make throughout the week. That leaves more mental energy for the things that really matter.
- Get up at 5am and go for a run or head to the gym. Doing my workout first thing in the morning means I don’t have to worry about fitting it into the rest of my day.
- Be present during my commutes to and from the office. I don’t listen to music or podcasts and unless it’s below 20 degrees or a torrential downpour, I walk and just pay attention to what’s around me. (Walking might not be possible for you. If you work at home, I suggest a morning walk before you start working and an afternoon walk when you’re done.)
- Write 1 to 3 pages in a journal when I get to my office but before I do any work. This is an opportunity to reflect on my mental state for the day, and to get out any buzzy thoughts that feel distracting or worry-inducing.
- Write things out by hand anytime during the day when I feel overwhelmed.
- Practice gratitude and say thanks.
- Do yoga and meditate in the evening. Even if it’s just 15 minutes of yoga plus 10 minutes of meditation, it makes a difference.
I also do some specific things to better manage the content within my workday:
- I give myself time to do the actual work my clients require. Meetings are important, but for me, they’re not nearly as important as deliverables. I prioritize time to work on and complete client projects and assignments over calls — which means I block out large chunks of my calendar to devote to the work itself.
- I batch my tasks to reduce context switching. I also try to avoid multitasking.
- I close down my email while working on big projects that require focus.
- I try and get the “worst” tasks over first. If they’re hanging over me all day, it’s hard to avoid anxiety. Knocking them out quickly means nothing to worry about throughout the day.
5. Give Yourself a Break, Get Out of Your Head, and Breathe
When you feel anxiety closing in, don’t tell yourself you’ll fight through it and plow ahead. Remember, you want to stop to acknowledge it and call it out by name.
Sometimes, simply doing that will be enough to have the feeling subside. But if you still feel overwhelmed, head outside. Go for a walk. Give yourself some sort of break where you can get out of your own head.
The meditation app I love and use, Headspace, explains the “getting out of your head” idea like cars in traffic. Remember how you are not your thoughts? How you and your thoughts are two distinct things?
If so, you can imagine yourself sitting on the side of a road watching cars go by. You are you — and the cars are your thoughts. You have the choice and the power to decide if you’ll just watch them go by.. or if you’ll get up and run into the traffic trying to grab one.
Getting out of your head means not running into thought traffic, but letting it go instead. That’s hard to do if you’re sitting still, twiddling your thumbs, and trying to just be quiet.
It’s easier if you get into your body instead, which is why going for a walk is excellent. It’s simple, gentle, physical movement that can give you something tangible to focus on instead of getting lost in your own thoughts.
If walking is impossible, focus on breathing right where you are. Breathe deeply and slowly. When you struggle to focus just on breathing, nothing else, try counting your breathe. Count “1” on your inhale and then “2” for the exhale, and count up to 10 — then start over at 1.
Keep doing this until you feel a little calmer, so you can get back to your day.
6. Ask for Help
It takes a village, friends. The sooner you look for support, the easier dealing with anxiety (and anything you’ve got to face down in life) becomes.
Help can take many different forms and there is no one answer or solution.
For me, “getting help” meant taking personal development courses, reading meaningful books and writing on mindfulness and enlightenment, hiring a life coach and working with her for 6 months, and learning how to reach out to a few trusted people in my life and sharing with them when I feel stressed.
A lot of this stuff felt very fluffy and woo-woo. Hiring a life coach is something I scoffed at for years before I ended up doing it myself — and it transformed my life and my very self.
It’s what I needed to do. It was right for my path. What you need to do might look completely different. Help might include support groups outside of just friends and family. It might mean
Don’t be afraid to reach out and open up. Explore solutions and try new things until you find something that works (because the first thing you try may not be the answer for you).
7. Cut Yourself Some Slack
All of this is hard. All of this takes work. But if you practice (and keep trying until you find what works for you), I believe you can reach a point where you can deal with your anxiety instead of letting it deal with you.
As you practice, you’ll struggle. You’ll have bad days. You’ll have times where you just need to cancel your appointments so you can go home and crawl into bed.
That’s okay. Let go of the need to control everything and ease back on the perfectionism.
You don’t need to nail it every single day. And mistakes are fine, not fatal.
A year into the future, you probably won’t even remember a bad morning or a tough week you had right now. What you will see when you look back is a trend over time. You’ll see one of three things: you didn’t change, you regressed, or you made progress.
Make your goal to see progress that gradually trends up when you pull back and look at the big picture.