Co-founder Mazuma
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Managing anxiety when you run your own practice

On World Mental Health Day, the co-founder of Mazuma Accountants Lucy Cohen discusses her own experience coping with anxiety and how she deals with the negative side of it while fully embracing the positive.

10th Oct 2019
Co-founder Mazuma
Columnist
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Vectors Women Coping With Mental Health
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It was a Saturday morning in September when I was wrenched from my sleep by a familiar feeling. The best way I can describe it is a kind of “whump”. It’s that feeling where your stomach drops like you’ve received some bad news, or you’re rattling down the first big dip of a roller coaster.

Except that I wasn’t on a rollercoaster and I hadn’t been given any bad news. I was safe in my bed on a Saturday morning when I realised that it was back. My anxiety had returned.

When I talk about my anxiety people are quite often shocked that I’m a sufferer. I don’t present as a nervous or anxious person in the stereotypical sense. I have absolutely no qualms about public speaking or networking. I’ll happily eat in a restaurant alone.

If you’ve ever met me then you’ll know that I’m pretty extroverted and not scared to meet and talk to new people. So when I tell people that I have anxiety I quite often hear “Oh really? You’d never have known!”

You see, that’s the problem. Anxiety doesn’t just look like one set of behaviours. You can’t tell if someone has a mental health issue just by interacting with them. So many people suffer in silence because they simply don’t recognise that what they are going through can be addressed.

Living with anxiety is a constant challenge

To give a bit of background, I’ve been an anxiety sufferer to various degrees all my life - something I only realised relatively recently. As a child, I would become fixated on negative news stories or certain diseases.

As an adult I find myself disappearing down the rabbit hole of Google in a desperate attempt to convince myself that the new freckle I just found definitely isn’t skin cancer. Much of the time there is a nagging feeling in the back of my brain that something bad is about to happen. Living with anxiety is a constant challenge. 

Thankfully in recent years, the stigma has lifted somewhat and that allows me to talk more openly about my experiences. Declaring that I have a therapist isn’t a big deal anymore, whereas it wasn’t quite so commonplace when I was a teenager.

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Anxiety as a business owner

So with all that in mind, why on earth did I decide running a business would be a good idea for me? Especially as someone who is so prone to worry and perfectionism.

It’s a phenomenon that interests me: the number of business owners I know that have anxious tendencies.

In running a business you expose yourself to more stress than the average office worker. It’s not the day-to-day activities that cause the stress per se. it’s the facts that lurk in the background that accumulate to cause problems.

When you run a business the buck stops with you. Obviously that places a huge amount of responsibility on your shoulders. Because of that, you’re a little bit more inclined to answer emails in the evening or at weekends.

You’re probably acutely aware of how much money is in the business bank account. You’re juggling your diary and commitments with the amount of actual work that needs to get done all while you’re simultaneously working both on the business and in it. Yep, running a business is famously stressful.

So why do it if you’re an anxiety sufferer? And why are there so many of us out there?

Anxiety is truly a blessing and a curse

Many people with anxiety like to be in control of things. And for all of the stress that it brings, running a business is the ultimate form of control for many. You get to dictate your own working hours and terms. Well, that’s the idea anyway!

That nervous fizz that courses through my body has helped me achieve huge outputs of work

Of course in real life that’s much harder to achieve and we all find ourselves at the behest of a last-minute client or factors outside our control. In those moments, running a business doesn’t feel like such a smart move. Regardless of that though, we still do have ultimate control over our finances and choices – much more so than someone who is employed.

Anxiety can also provide a sort of productive energy. This is a common trait that I have heard other anxiety sufferers talk about, especially those who run businesses.

I have done some of my best work when I have been at the apex of a period of anxiety. That nervous fizz that courses through my body has helped me achieve huge outputs of work that have often been crucial in pushing my business forward. The pitch deck that secured us growth capital was done while I was in an anxious period (that makes it sound like I’m some sort of renaissance artist!). Business plans for growth or grants have been clattered out onto my keyboard in the middle of the night while my brain whirs. 

In short and to coin a cliché: my anxiety is truly a blessing and a curse.

Symptoms

And while the upside can sometimes be a gift, let’s not forget that the negative side can be absolutely crippling. Symptoms are more often than not, physical as well as mental. On the mental side you’ve got:

  • Restlessness
  • A sense of dread
  • Feeling constantly “on edge”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability

And on the physical side you can suffer any or all of the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle aches and tension
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach ache
  • Feeling sick
  • Headache
  • Pins and needles
  • Insomnia

How to deal with anxiety

So if, like me, you are prone to periods of anxiety, how do you deal with the negative side of it while fully embracing the positive?

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First of all, accept it as part of who you are and remember that everybody feels anxiety sometimes and in many different ways.

Accepting this part of you will allow you to choose what to do with it. You may want to work on a treatment to try to get rid of your anxiety completely, or you may just need some ad hoc coping strategies.  

I accept that I’ll never be free of anxiety, and actually I don’t want to be, not when it allows me to be so productive and creative. Like most things in life, you have to take the rough with the smooth. For me, anxiety is just another one of those things.

My therapist often tells me to think of my anxiety as energy and do something useful with it. When the fight or flight feeling kicks in, run towards a problem and solve it until you’re tired out. 

Secondly, know your triggers. For me, there are a few sure-fire things that will set off my anxiety and risk me descending into a full-blown panic attack. Being tired is a key one: if I haven’t slept well then the following day I’m at high risk. Busy restaurants also cause me problems; it must be something to do with the sensory overload of the noise, heat and smells that can trigger a panic attack.

It’s really disappointing to have a delicious meal placed in front of you only to be unable to eat it because anxiety has switched your digestive system off. Now that I know the triggers I can take steps to avoid it happening.

Third up is seeking help. The stigma is slowly disappearing and there’s lots of help out there from forums and websites to more formal therapy sessions and medication. Even just talking about your anxiety with friends or family can help alleviate some of its more difficult symptoms.

Be kind to yourself if anxiety strikes and know that not everyone can do what you’re doing.

Try different things and see what works for you. In my case it’s a combination of talking therapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to control my most damaging thought patterns) and using an app like Headspace to help me be more present. I also have a prescription for beta blockers for panic attacks. Speak to your GP and see what sort of treatment would work best for you.

Fourthly, be kind to yourself and know that you’re not alone. If you don’t feel up to a social engagement then you don’t have to go. I recently felt terrible for cancelling attending a christening because I was having a panic attack. When I told my friend he said he understood entirely, his wife suffers the same thing. It’s amazing how people share their experience with you when you offer yours.

Harness the energy

In deciding to run a business you’ve signed up to a load of sacrifice and hardship as well as some of the most rewarding experiences you can have in your career. You’re already a hero for making that leap, so be kind to yourself if anxiety strikes and know that not everyone can do what you’re doing.

Finally, remember that no matter how stressful things get or how drastically anxiety can affect you, there is nothing so far in this life that you haven’t survived. Harness that energy.

Replies (12)

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By CMPACDGDB
11th Oct 2019 10:24

Yep; me too!

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By Ben Alligin
11th Oct 2019 11:07

Can I suggest you go and get a puppy. Going for a walk 2 or 3 times a day gives you a break from the madness.

Also dogs are just so pleased to see you, any anxiety just disappears when you see that wagging tail. Best therapy I know of.

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Replying to Ben Alligin:
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By Tom 7000
11th Oct 2019 14:48

If you get a puppy, can I take it for a walk?

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By JGACCA
11th Oct 2019 11:21

Thank you for the great read Lucy!

I'll show this article to my Wife this evening - hopefully we can both take on board your advice and overcome our anxiety issues one day at a time.

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By indomitable
11th Oct 2019 12:38

Of course I have great sympathy for anyone suffering from anxiety, however I do not think this is the forum to share these views. I thought this was an accounting forum.

If you are suffering from anxiety that effects your daily life you need go seek out a professional

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/

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Replying to indomitable:
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By Thomas654654
13th Oct 2019 12:37

This is not a very supportive comment to someone in our community who is sharing something others may be interested in or want to discuss. If you don't like the subject you don't have to read it let alone comment on it

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Replying to Thomas654654:
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By B Roberts
16th Oct 2019 11:10

Thomas654654 wrote:

This is not a very supportive comment to someone in our community who is sharing something others may be interested in or want to discuss. If you don't like the subject you don't have to read it let alone comment on it

And by the same token, if you don't like their comment you don't have to read it let alone comment on it.

If the comment was rude or offensive, then I could understand your objection.

I don't really understand this new social media phenomenon whereby it seems that only people in agreement with your position are allowed to comment.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
11th Oct 2019 12:59

Everyone suffers from anxiety. It's natural. You can't be completely free of it. It's a question of recognising when it's becoming an issue and taking over your life, and learning coping mechanisms to minimise those effects, and recognising that your level of anxiety isn't normal and you might need some form of treatment.

Professional golfers suffer from anxiety every time they step up on the first tee of a competition, they spend a lot of time learning to cope and how to recognise it and how to deal with it.

If it gets to the stage of severely affecting your eating, sleeping etc I'd suggest that isn't anxiety, that is a different mental illness combined with stress and you need to seek help to learn how to deal with it. It can also be something wrong with your system and if properly diagnosed and the right drugs proscribed that can go a long way towards dealing with the symptoms.

There are many different levels of anxiety and asking for help is usually the best step in dealing with it.

I deal with two people in my life who as part of a myriad of other issues also suffered from forms of severe anxiety, both have received treatment (over a long period of time) and drugs (about 5 goes before we found the one that works) and cope well with most challenges now.

One of the other posters suggested a puppy- doesn't work for everyone as some people get even more ill worrying about looking after the dog. Getting a dog can work for some disorders, such as eating disorders as it can shift the focus as well as giving the lesson that the dog needs to eat properly to be healthy. No one cure works for everyone.

It's worth remembering that most of us will have been mentally ill or will be at some point in our lives and articles like this help to highlight these issues which is only a good thing.

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By michael2012
11th Oct 2019 14:46

Great article, Accountants are human beings to. We all suffer from the stresses of running our own businesses at times. It's good to know that it doesn't just affect you especially when you run a business by yourself.

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By Rick J
11th Oct 2019 16:34

Brilliant article Lucy. If I had written an article on the same subject myself, it would have been pretty much word for word the same as you have written.

I run a small sole practice, for just the same reasons as you mention for running your own show. Mainly a lack of always feeling you always under the control and whim of a boss. (Although now I'm under the control of about a hundred bosses - the clients!) And freedom, even though that sometimes means the freedom of having no-one to stop you working 18 hours straight over the last weekend in January.

If you are an ICAEW member, you may not be aware that ICAEW has a Support Member service, whereby CAs can phone up one of around 70 SMs around the country, to talk over any sort of problem they have with their business or, in fact, life in general. (Big overlap there quite often.) These SMs are all working accountants, so with proper "hands on" experience of the problems that can occur in the life of a CA an all receive training via ICAEW before they become an SM. They are specifically exempted from the requirement to report misconduct, so callers can be candid about themselves or their clients. (This doesn't extend to criminal breaches - if the caller says he's just shot his client, you have to tell someone!)

I'm one the Support Members myself, and have been since their inception in 1995. However, despite being a usually confident and outgoing person, I came close to having a nervous breakdown about five years ago as a result of a combination of a pending Quality Assurance visit, and the simultaneous discovery that a client had been dipping into his client account. And me - a Support member? Physician heal thyself!

SMs do not pretend to be mental health professionals, (anyway most of the calls are not that dramatic, often we just need to be a "listening ear".
At the first sign of anything that sounds like a real case of depression or worse, we will refer the caller to the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association ("CABA") where they will be hooked up to some proper professional attention.

Again, brilliant article Lucy. In my experience, just the simple knowledge that they are not the only one feeling that way is often all that is needed to make a considerable difference to how a person may be feeling

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By DJKL
11th Oct 2019 23:51

I suspect it can hit everyone and in different ways.

I have had two periods where external business factors have certainly caused stress, neither maybe going as far as anxiety but certainly making me slightly nervous, possibly more bad tempered and certainly more difficult towards those around me.

The first was 1994 and the retail downturn, in 1993 I had to close a shop and make the staff redundant, a sick feeling notwithstanding we managed to place most of them in other roles with the company, 1994 was when I knew that nothing I could do would keep us within covenants and we could not replace/rejig the covenants, I ended up redundant just as our second child was born and my wife was on maternity pay- not a good year though I scrambled back into practice later that year. The business I had left folded in 1995 which was really upsetting as I had been involved with it from day one in 1989.

The second was post 2008, we were fine until our facilities came up for renewal in 2010 but at that juncture the lenders were adamant they wanted stronger and faster amortisation of the debt, something our cashflows could not cover- I was juggling three entities with different lenders all clamoring for repayment and total debts of £13m with really no acceptable alternative lenders to go to, they had virtually all retreated from lending- we got out of it with the business surviving only because our starting LTV was circa 65% and we juggled property disposals to manage the process (though even getting cash from the sales out of our lender to meet the tax bills caused more stress), but it was the long years getting there that wore all of us down until we got the debt down to its current sub £3m level (I did not get the rebanking fully sorted until 2016) That long process , year after year, caused stress and dealing with the sale of 60 properties to achieve the plan , properties I had played a part in building, was pretty painful.

Whilst not so frantically driven by the outside world the most recent has been the ever changing compliance world of private practice leading me to give up my part time private practice eleven days ago, frankly having to remember to do x or y, review a and b, have on file re compliance loads of paper and checks etc and then MTD for vat and the way things were/are heading, had me age 59 deciding that I would keep on two day jobs , one 3 days every week the other about 2.5 days a month, and have a much easier lifestyle. (Helped that both children are now fully finished further education so I do not need to earn as much)

To me the secret is watch for even very small signs of stress and address them early, a basic 4 days away from work most weeks is certainly great for making one happier, I am more relaxed, I am sleeping better, I am even smoking less (cigars now given up and only very occasional pipe smoking now)

Next stage will be making everything in my life simpler (second house can maybe go next year) and maybe a bit of decluttering now I have the time.

The best lesson I have learned as I have got older is time is more important than anything else.

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By AndrewV12
12th Oct 2019 09:10

Step back from it all, why do we put so much pressure on our self's, it always makes me laugh when you look back on this that have made you anxious in the past and now they seem so minor.

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