Let me begin with a disclaimer: anxiety is a condition that impacts sufferers in different ways and at different extremes. The following is based on my own personal experience.
For me, anxiety stems from a suffocating burden of responsibility. I take responsibility for every interaction, for every problem, for every outcome. That means socially I feel responsible for ensuring the conversation goes well, with loved ones I feel responsible for fixing their problems and when external factors cause a change of plan, I feel responsible for the disruption. In my head I am fully culpable for anything that goes wrong – even when something is entirely outside my control, for situations where responsibility should be shared or for subpar interactions that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
This becomes a problem as a business owner, something that brings significant responsibility – to your employees, to your customers, to your suppliers, to those supporting you – which is extremely difficult to separate out from anxious projection. And when those things you genuinely are responsible for are threatened by circumstances outside your control, anxiety makes this a million times harder to cope with.
Let’s take a typical example for most businesses: a payment you were relying on is now overdue and presenting you with a cash flow problem.
Things in your control: Chasing the payment, frequently. Communicating the issue to those you owe money too and keeping them updated. Making a contingency plan with the resources that are available to you.
Things not in your control: How responsive the overdue payer is. How you now paying others late is affecting their own cash flow. Magically finding money when all available resources are exhausted.
I’m never going to be unaffected by the latter issues – anxiety aside, I think that’s just human – but I do feel less awful about the situation when I know I’ve done everything within my control to manage it.
Anxiety tends to make you risk averse. This becomes an issue as a business owner, given a successful business very much relies on taking calculated risks. Whilst I’m willing to take the risks I deem necessary for progress, anxiety can confuse the rationalisation process. If you have a pros and cons list, anxiety fixates on the cons and gives these more significance – even if there are more pros that are, logically, equally important. You need to challenge yourself on this constantly, learn to recognise when anxiety is clouding rationality and to take a step back until you’re in a clearer headspace.
Anxiety also makes it difficult to trust your intuition. If logic is hard to accept, gut instinct is ten times worse because there is even less tangible evidence to shut the worries down. The only real solution is to make a mental note of all the feelings surrounding a big decision and get good at recognising what is coming from where. It gets gradually easier although the anxiety never fully goes away (not for me at least).
Picking your battles is essential. If there’s something you know will likely lead to a panic episode, be really honest with yourself about how much you’ll really be losing out on if you say no. As an example, solo public speaking is something I find terrifying. There have been times when I’ve bitten the bullet, but generally speaking, the anxiety in the week leading up, the complete panic on the day and the subsequent exhaustion for at least a couple of days after just isn’t worth it. Whilst I’ve become a little more confident at saying no, I’ll also always try to offer a compromise that works around my anxiety – a panel discussion or an interview format are things I feel much less panicked by and mean I can still take hold of the opportunity.
Sometimes anxiety can be an advantage. It means you prepare for the worst – and inevitably in business, the worst sometimes happens. There have been plenty of situations where I’ve been grateful for making plans B, C and D, which I might not have done had my anxiety not made me so pessimistic about plan A. And whilst risk-aversion can be a problem, I know that I’m unlikely to be pushed into rash or impulsive decision. Everything is well thought out, albeit excessively.
The overarching theme here is that anxiety is a control freak. It leaves you endlessly exhausted with the need to manage everything and the fact that this is impossible. This isn’t about micro management – if you’re working with the right people, delegation and trust shouldn’t be anxiety-inducing. But running a business comes with a great deal of guesswork and unknown quantities. Not having complete control over outcomes is very difficult for me. I can only do so much and everything else comes down to a whole host of external circumstances. Trying to work out and – even more challengingly – accept this is a constant struggle. But it has also been the most important skill for me to practice, to prevent anxiety from sabotaging me.
I’m five years into my business and I still haven’t found a way to shut down my anxiety permanently. However, every year I get a little bit better at dealing with it, a little more practiced at recognising when it’s obscuring reality and have a little more power with which to push it aside.