I’ve never seen anyone age faster than a president during their time in office. Between their inauguration and their last day, they look like they’ve endured far more than their four or eight years in the Oval Office. You can see the realities of the job in the lines on their faces and the gray in their hair.
It makes sense. Their work is incredibly stressful, impacting billions of people around the world. It’s a privilege, but also incredibly demanding.
The rapid aging of presidents is an extreme example of what stress can do to a person. Being an entrepreneur with employees and customers depending on you is stressful, too. I’m not saying the work I do is as important as being a world leader, but I do take my job seriously. I’m responsible for the livelihood of my employees, for providing for my family, and for serving Jotform’s 5 million customers. As an entrepreneur and leader, I have to be personally invested in everything I do. It’s a position I’m honored to be in, but it can also be very stressful.
For a long time, I tried to power through, burning the candle at both ends to be as productive as I could. It didn’t work. Ignoring the realities of stress as an entrepreneur means you’ll never learn to manage it. By harnessing the power of stress, you can avoid burnout and maybe even use it to your advantage.
What exactly is stress?
Not all stress is bad. Most things worth doing in life involve some degree of stress. Falling in love, traveling, trying new things: all the parts of life that make it worth living are also stressful.
Stress keeps us alive. It alerted our ancestors to life-threatening dangers like predators and poisonous food. It keeps us engaged while driving in traffic on the highway or walking alone at night. Even when the stakes aren’t quite so high, stress can be useful. Stress about money can keep you on budget. Without the stress of an impending deadline, I’m not sure I’d be quite so motivated to get a project done.
The stress response is physical. We don’t consciously control it. Once our brain sends the distress signal in response to a stressor, our adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenaline response increases our heart rate, pushing more blood to our muscles and vital organs. Small airways in our lungs open to send more oxygen to the brain. Our senses are heightened. Cortisol release suppresses our digestive system and stimulates an immune response. Our body releases glucose for quick energy.
Basically, we’re ready for flight or fight.
Our body has these mechanisms so they can kick in when we are in a life-or-death scenario. When the threat passes, our cortisol levels drop and we return to a state of rest.
Most of us are healthy enough that acute stress responses, or stress responses lasting only a few minutes or hours, shouldn’t affect our health negatively. Our stress responses actually help us perform better, to a point. The problem is chronic stress.
Chronic stress is when your body constantly has the stress response turned on. Chronic stress has been proven to negatively affect physical health, leading to obesity, heart disease, and brain cell damage. In addition, chronic stress affects our cognitive abilities, affecting our ability to create new neurons in the hippocampus, which affects memory formation and aging. It also hampers our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.
Chronic stress also affects our moods and our mental well-being. It’s no surprise that stress can make us impatient or anxious — road rage is a good example — but it can also lead to mental illness. Over time, chronic stress changes the way we react to things. Over-exposure to cortisol can cause our stress response to misfire, our body releasing too much or too little at the wrong time.
Why it matters as a leader
No one wants the outcomes of chronic stress. But as an entrepreneur, sometimes chronic stress feels unavoidable. Starting a business is a confluence of many of life’s biggest stressors. Starting a new job, changing your financial state, taking on more responsibilities, and outstanding personal achievement are just a few of the stressors entrepreneurs regularly face. That doesn’t even include the other stressors in life, like managing your relationships with your family and upholding other responsibilities while running a startup.
Getting your stress under control matters for more than just your own health outcomes. Stress is contagious. Being around a stressed person can cause your own physical stress response to kick in. The measured response is stronger when the person who is stressed is someone you’re close to, but we have empathetic stress responses to strangers, too. As a leader, your stress will impact the stress levels of the people you manage, affecting the physical and mental health of the whole team.
Stress is also a major contributor to entrepreneurial burnout. The symptoms of burnout, including decreased motivation, feelings of exhaustion, and decreased efficacy, can have far-reaching effects that negatively impact your business.
Exactly what triggers a stress response varies from person to person. The body’s response to stress is genetic and attributed to life experiences. These are some researched-backed tactics to help manage stress:
- See if you can reframe the situation. By seeing stressors as an opportunity rather than a source of risk, you can get all the benefits of stress, including improved performance, with fewer downsides.
- Remember that life changes and many circumstances are temporary. By acknowledging how our circumstances and our abilities can change, we are better able to cope with stress in the moment.
- Go outside. Spending time in nature is linked to positive health outcomes. Even looking at pictures of trees lowered subjects’ heart rates.
- Exercise. Exercise reduces adrenaline and cortisol and increases endorphins, which elevates your mood. Long-term, exercise can improve your self-image and sense of control over your life, reducing stress.
- Make time for things you enjoy. While you’re slammed at work, having fun probably feels like a waste of time. But, having pleasure in your life can actually make you more resilient and better equipped to handle stress.
- Rest. Sleeping poorly is both a symptom and cause of stress, placing increased strain on the body. Sleeping well leads to a better mood and an increased sense of wellbeing. Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting a full night’s sleep will make you better prepared to tackle whatever the day throws at you.
- Rely on social support. Spending time with friends and family improves your ability to cope with stressful situations. Even when you’re busy, make time to connect with the people you care about.
In the moment, it may be difficult to pause to rest or manage stress, the long-term impact of working to burnout is far direr. By reconnecting with your work’s purpose and thinking big-picture, you can more easily manage chronic stress and avoid burnout for yourself while setting a strong example for your entire team.