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Four ways to reduce stress and feel better as a business owner

9 minute read

Phillippa Hurrell

You and your business are unique. You have your own story, your own ups and downs. The only person that will experience all your life events is you.

That said, we still all suffer stressful events – bereavement, illness, rejection, financial challenges, customer complaints, technology issues and cash flow problems to name a few. In fact, in a survey by The UK Domain, 71% of small business owners reported feeling stressed in the workplace in the last year and 50% of respondents were not aware of any tools or services that could help them or their employees manage times of mental ill health*.

This guide will give you simple tips to reduce stress, help you feel better and give you more mental space to focus on your business.

My experience:

Most business owners experience similar business challenges, what makes their lives and stress levels so different is how they choose to react to these events and how they choose to think about them. We can’t prevent problems, but we can prevent them from ruining our lives.

Issues are inevitable but the amount of stress you feel is up to you. I know this now and I wished I had known this the time I laid on the exam room floor having a panic attack. It was third year finals and half my life has passed since, but I remember the palpitations and chest tightening like it was half a morning ago. I had been battling stress for six months.

I look back on this experience with wide-eyed awe. I was battling a monster, a monster I had created, drawn and coloured in – a story and set of thoughts that I supercharged and focused on daily. I believed unquestionably that if I failed my third year I would never get a job, I would be homeless, no one would want me and I would be rejected. It was dramatic and captivating like a Hollywood blockbuster (stressful thoughts often are). I believed this as strongly as I did that night follows day.

The good news is I won the battle. The bad news, the battle was with myself and never needed to be fought. I was not bad, wrong, ill or weak. I was just focusing my mind on the wrong thoughts over and over again. I was creating my own stress.

Positive psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, found that 90% of long-term happiness is based upon how your brain is processing the world around you.

This article looks at what you can do to reduce the feeling of stress by helping your brain to process the world in a more useful way.

Is stress really that bad for you and your business?

What is stress?

A state of mental or emotional strain and tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

Stress impacts our health on three levels:

1. Psychological damage: Feeling tired and anxious, feeling panicky, flawed decision-making and memory lapses; we are more prone to emotional outbursts

2. Behavioural damage: We become more prone to gossip, we can overeat, stop eating, drink more, stop exercising, stop taking care of ourselves and our sleep is impacted

3. Physical damage: Fatigue, stomach aches, bad digestion, headaches, reduced immune system, skin eruptions, IBS, increased blood pressure, heart attack and strokes

Ask yourself:

  • How stressed have you felt in the last week?
  • What’s the impact of this on you, your family and your business?

None of these impacts will surprise you, yet we put up with stress! So why is stress still winning?

  • Do you think it’s normal to be stressed?
  • Do you think it’s a by-product of having a business or a big job (you cannot have one without the other)?
  • Do you ignore the signs of stress (irritability, fatigue, mental dullness)?
  • Do you think putting up with stress is harmless or indeed makes us stronger?
  • Do you have simple steps to cope with stress?
  • Do you think stress is being done to you?
  • Do you think your happiness is based on the external world?

Which ones of these resonate with you?

You can find out more about stress on the NHS website or by talking to a professional or your doctor. 

You’re not stressed, but you might think you are

Two people can experience the same situation, one person can bounce back and thrive and the other can experience severe stress. Why is this?

Think – Feel – Behave – Results

Our thoughts drive how we feel, this impacts how we choose to behave and the results we get in life. Choosing the thoughts we focus on will impact the results we get.

In my university example, I was telling myself the same story over and over again, which lead to me feeling stressed. Everything I experienced was down to my thoughts, it was not real.  

Unfortunately, the answer to this is not as easy as just ‘think happy thoughts’.

A thought experiment:

Have you ever tried to meditate? When asked to take a deep breath and clear your mind what happens? You become flooded with thoughts.

Let’s try it, close your eyes and notice all the thoughts that come in your head in 60 seconds… loads right? It’s why we call them ‘trains of thought’ because they can be like trains just passing through a station, one after another.

We have thousands of thoughts a day. When we are feeling stressed it’s likely that the vast majority of our thoughts are the same negative ones repeated.

But if we know our feelings and behaviours start from our thoughts, and we can’t control the thoughts that pop into our head, what do we do?

Change your thoughts, change your world: Four things you can do

1. Take what is useful from the thoughts

The most successful and impactful people put all their energy and focus into what they can control. Why would you waste your energy on the stuff outside of your control? We are programmed to scan our environments for threats – useful if we lived 5,000 years ago, but not as useful now. It takes self-control and focus to bring your thinking back to what you can control.

Ask yourself:

  • What are your thoughts telling you is important?
  • What do you need to be aware of or action?
  • How could you solve these challenges (it might not make it perfect, but it would make it better?)

Quick tips:

  • Be a problem solver – our brains are enormous machines. Use the power of the machine to find ideas not more issues. It will do whichever you instruct it to. As soon as you start to write these ideas down you will feel better
  • Take any positive actions you can now, it will make you feel more powerful and in control
  • We are social creatures, use your support network to help you and, if you can, be helpful to others. When we lift others up, we lift ourselves up as well

 2. Notice when you are in a ‘Thought Spiral’

Repeated negative thoughts are like thought spirals, they whip around in our heads, going faster and creating a greater sense of panic. In my example it was the fear of failure, being jobless and homeless that circled around and around in my head. We all experience thought spirals, but you can’t take the actions you need to when in them.

Thought spirals are not true, helpful or useful. Just because you have a thought in your head, it does not mean that it is your thought. It does not mean it’s true, it does not mean it’s what you think; it just means there’s a thought in your head.

View our infographic on thought spirals here.

Ask yourself:

  • When have you had a thought spiral?
  • What were the thoughts whipping around your head?
  • Where did you notice it in your body (i.e. in the gut)?

Quick tips to get out of spirals and into a more productive state of mind:

1. Notice it!

You might notice a physical reaction first, adrenalin kicking in, raised heart rate, clenched jaw, inability to concentrate.

When we are feeling (thinking) stressed we get more thoughts, not less and they jump quickly from one to the next.

When you notice feeling like this, just become aware of your thoughts, ‘oh that’s interesting, I was thinking x…’. The very act of noticing you are in a thought spiral will shift your thinking. You might get pulled back into it, so just notice it again and redirect your thinking. The mind is like a muscle, it will get easier to notice and move on.

2. Distract

Do something else. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, dance, listen to music or exercise. This will help you feel much better. Don’t keep reliving the same negative thoughts. What are the types of things that could make you feel good?

3. Find the truth

Feeling stressed, or thinking stressed, does not help us solve the problems we need to or help us to feel at our best. So be clear on what is true. Understand the main worries and ask yourself ‘is it 100% true?’ and ‘is it helpful?’, ‘will thinking this now help me?’. If the answer is no, then stop.

4. Create new helpful thoughts

What would be more helpful for you to think right now? Rewrite the worrying thoughts to something helpful that is true and that you can take action on.

3. Ignore the hecklers 

Worry is like a heckler. You are focused on something useful and productive to your business and suddenly some negative thoughts pop up. What should you do?

If you think of it like you are performing on stage in front of thousands of people (the number of thoughts you have a day), the negative thoughts are like hecklers and if you paused the show because of every heckler you would be forever stopping.

Ask yourself: 

  • How often in a typical week do you get distracted by negative thoughts?
  • What is the impact on you?

Quick tips:

  • The trick is to acknowledge the thought and move on, focus back on the performance (there will of course be another heckler) so keep doing it
  • Remember thoughts are like clouds, they are transient, they will pass. They are not real and they are not to be feared

4. Create more of the good thoughts

Of the thousands of thoughts you have a day, how many are useful and helpful?

Choosing to focus on the worst case will not guarantee it won’t happen, it will just guarantee that you will feel worse. You can’t control the thoughts that come into your head, but you can set yourself up for success.

The more time you spend doing things that you love and that strengthen you, the better your thinking becomes. We call this living in alignment. Living in alignment means that your life is aligned to the things that make you feel great.

We don’t spend anywhere near enough time making sure we feel good. It’s good to feel good. When we are living in alignment you feel relaxed, you are more energised, your concentration is higher and you are much better to be around.

Ask yourself:

  • Your 10 out of 10 moments: What are the moments, types of people, places, activities and hobbies that make you feel 10 out of 10?
  • What changes can you make to do more of these and to be around these people more? The things that make us feel good are often small things. The more you do them the better you will feel.

Quick Tips: Incorporating more of these into your day will reduce stress

  • Exercise. It releases endorphins (the feel good chemical)
  • Talk to positive people and connect with friends. Have you ever noticed when you are around certain people your energy drops and your mood gets worse? These people are mood hoovers! They suck your energy. Choose to be around the people that lift you up
  • Be consciously kind. Conscious acts of kindness make us feel instantly better (it releases Oxytocin, another of the feel good chemicals). It changes the story in your mind. Try it, you will notice an immediate boost
  • Read and watch things that uplift you. It’s easy to get dragged into watching more negative news or scrolling through a never-ending feed. You can end up feeling worse about yourself. Actively chose to listen to, read and watch the type of content that makes you feel good. If what you think drives how you feel and ultimately the results you get, be very careful in choosing what you allow into your mind
  • Spend time playing to your strengths. When we play to our strengths we achieve so much more, we enjoy our work more and we feel more confident. Understand what your strengths are and use these as much as possible
  • Do work and hobbies you love. From salsa dancing to joinery, we all love different things; the more time you spend doing the types of activities you love the better you will feel. What would you like to do more of? How could you incorporate this into your life now?
  • Gratitude. Write down three things you are grateful for every day for one week. It will change how your brain views the world (you will unconsciously start noticing more of the good)
  • Mediate/breathe (the Headspace app is pretty cool for helping with this)
  • Get out in nature as much as you can. Spending just 20 minutes a day in nature reduces stress hormones

Looking into both my newborn babies’ eyes I knew how happy and peaceful they were. Now as 4 and 7 year olds they bicker, fight, complain, cry, but they return to peace. Their default is peace and happiness. Our default is peace and happiness.

We spend our lives chasing peace and happiness, like my dog, Tilly, chases a ball. We aim for greater success, more things, more titles. ‘If we just achieve x then we can be happy’. But, we can never find what we never actually lost. In my example I felt I could only be happy once I had achieved success and status.

I believe much of the stress and strain created in our lives is created by our misguided attempt to make ourselves feel better by having, doing and achieving.

If we think our wellbeing comes from our companies, our partners, our houses and our cars, we will do whatever it takes to hang onto these. Maybe it’s time to stop chasing the ball and to appreciate all the good things that we already have.

If you’re looking for more helpful advice or resources on managing stress, why not take a look at the below: 

*2019/2020 UK Domain research. Percentages calculated for total respondents for each individual question.

Phillippa's focus is on helping people and businesses transform. Having been Head of Department in her 20’s and Company Director in her 30’s, Phillippa now consults with senior boards and leadership teams whilst still running three businesses day-to-day. Phillippa's specialism is supporting individuals and organisations that want to make a step change in performance.

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