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.
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.
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.
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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.
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:
- A sense of dread
- Feeling constantly “on edge”
- Difficulty concentrating
And on the physical side you can suffer any or all of the following:
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle aches and tension
- Trembling or shaking
- Dry mouth
- Excessive sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach ache
- Feeling sick
- Pins and needles
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?
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.
Lucy Cohen is the co-founder of 2019 Accounting Excellence finalists Mazuma and the author of The...