Entrepreneurs dealing with depression

Fear of failure, high stress levels and financial worry are some of the biggest challenges to entrepreneurs’ mental health

People don’t understand what it’s like being an entrepreneur: you have to be ‘good’ at everything, you are responsible for everything.  And you have to be successful, you know: keeping up that I’m successful image.

Articles on entrepreneurship shout: Double your profit in a year!  Be a millionaire before you are 30!  Massive growth this year!  Ten ways to make big bucks!  Succeed like a Mogul!

The big-name entrepreneurs are all so successful. They write books telling you how to be as successful as they are. But how do you when debt is crippling the business, you can hardly pay the bills, and all you think is: “I can’t stop worrying. I’m SO depressed”.

Friends mean well and will make statements like: “It’s OK to fail, as long as you get up again”. Easier said than done; it’s a vicious self-sabotaging cycle: depression kills confidence and self-esteem and that deepens depression. You think: “I’m never going to be able to get out of this”.

What is depression?

They say depression is just an illness, like diabetes is. Anyone can get depressed, it’s just a bad sickness. A depressed person is as normal as a person with diabetes is, except that it’s in their head.

But it can sneak up on you. Even when times are good and you don’t have business worries, it can overwhelm you. You ask: “What’s wrong with me? I have a happy family life and good friends”.

How common is depression? A South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) survey reports that over 25% of respondents have been diagnosed with depression by a healthcare professional.

“Self-worth is not the same as net worth”

According to a Gallup poll, Americans who earn less than $36,000 annually (R 36,000 per month) are nearly three times more likely to be depressed than those who earn more than $90,000 per year (R 90,000 per month). So I guess that struggling entrepreneurs fall into the earlier category.

Triggers which can cause a downward spiral

Some people have personality traits that make them more susceptible: creative and enthusiastic (sometimes ADHD) people are more likely to become entrepreneurs, and they are also more susceptible to depression.

Fear of small business failure adds extra pressure to succeed. Such anxiety can trigger it in a person who is vulnerable to depression.  Not to mention a pessimistic economic outlook. All of this is likely to be compounded by lack of sleep, insufficient exercise, fewer breaks for meals, tensions with other people like staff and suppliers. And entrepreneurs typically experience more anxiety than employed people.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index shows that 45 percent of US entrepreneurs say they are stressed, 3 percentage points more than other workers.

Overwhelming depression means that, when you have to make important decisions, you can’t think straight, you make mistakes, you get distracted and develop bad habits like procrastination when you can least afford to.

Depression stops you from getting out there and doing what your business needs you to do. When you are depressed, you tend to focus more on your failures than on your successes, until you believe that you really ARE a failure.

Tell-tale signs

You’re always terribly exhausted; you’re often irritable; you feel hopeless even suicidal; you struggle to stay focused; you have a poor self-image. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are depressed, but if you are stressed out and also smoke or drink too much, you may be.

Many people don’t know that they are depressed. For many years after a devastating work event, I felt down all the time. My doctor very quickly diagnosed depression. The meds he prescribed made all the difference.

first published in SME South Africa

“One thing that you DO know is: entrepreneurs are survivors”

But society can get in the way of us getting better: there is a common perception that successful entrepreneurs don’t suffer from depression.  So, admitting that I get depressed would also be admitting that I am a failure.

Getting Better

Take better care of yourself: Take frequent (weekly) complete breaks from work and don’t think about it. Eat well (not necessarily over-healthy) food, get out of your house, meet other people especially friends, get some entertainment, force yourself to rest and relax, have zero-tech days, pray, smell the flowers.

The last thing you feel like doing is ‘happy’ things. But doing things that you usually enjoy (maybe watch a comedy) may help to distract you long enough for you to catch a glimpse of the brighter side of life and believe that things can get better again.

Expect to succeed. Thinking positively is as self-fulfilling as negative thoughts are. “I overcame this before, I can do so again”.
You probably won’t feel like it, but doing some physical stuff gets your endorphins, the positive juices going and they convince your brain that “alles sal regkom” (everything is going to be alright).

SADAG says that the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a “runner’s high”,  can be accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life.

Smart entrepreneurs know that the cloud can hang over them for weeks, even months, but they admit they are depressed and do something about it.  They see a mental health professional and, if prescribed, take the medication.  When the depression lifts, you start to get a more relaxed, realistic outlook on life.

Psychiatrist and a psychologist, Dr Michael Freeman, who recently conducted research into the relationship between entrepreneurship and mental health, offers this sage advice: “Self-worth is not the same as net worth”. Financial success doesn’t equate to happiness.

One thing that you DO know is: entrepreneurs are survivors, and you ARE an entrepreneur and you HAVE survived this far, so you ARE going to stick it out and you WILL succeed.

So tell me, how do YOU manage your depression?



Click here if you want to discuss managing depression as an entrepreneur.

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