Every founder experiences peaks and valleys, but sometimes the low points are easy to write off as less consequential than they really are.
I had Spanish tapas at my fingertips. Close friends within walking distance. It was summer and the sun was shining in Madrid. There were all the makings of a summer of bliss for me, but I wasn’t feeling happy. I would walk down Gran Via fighting back tears. I wanted to hide in my bedroom instead of exploring the beautiful El Retiro Park.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” I thought. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d felt this down no matter what I did. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was depressed and suffering from anxiety.
Startup life can include many unexpected roadblocks, and mental health is one of them. In a 2015 study, UC San Francisco psychiatrist Michael A. Freeman and his colleagues found a considerably higher incidence of mental health issues among entrepreneurs than non-entrepreneurs. “The entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to report a lifetime history of depression (30%), ADHD (29%), substance-use conditions (12%), and bipolar diagnosis (11%) than were comparison participants,” the report’s authors wrote.
To find out why and what it takes to cope with these issues while running a startup at the same time, I spoke with Amy Buechler, a licensed therapist who’s also a batch director at Y Combinator, the well-known Silicon Valley seed accelerator. As a result, Buechler is no stranger to the mental health issues entrepreneurs tend to struggle with. Here’s what she said:
ANXIETY SILENTLY FUELS STARTUP LIFE
On paper, my life looked great. I was living the “digital nomad” dreamwhile traveling and working for myself. But my trip to Spain coincided with the two-year mark of losing my brother. Feelings of pain and flashbacks of stark hospital walls began to cloud my vision and impair my ability to get anything done.
Of course, not every entrepreneur has lost a loved one, and depression and anxiety can affect everyone. But when you’re trying to run a young business, it can feel almost impossible to stay afloat when these mental health issues do crop up unexpectedly.
Unlike in Freeman’s study, which found little difference in rates of anxiety between entrepreneurs and the general population, Buechler has seen anxiety to be much more prevalent than depression among the founders she’s worked with. “Anxiety is the natural result of a founder’s overtaxed, overwhelmed, overworked brain, constantly tasked with thinking about the future and finding ways to stave off the ever-imminent death of their companies,” she says. “In this way, anxiety helps startup founders”–up to a point.
In Buecher’s view, entrepreneurs don’t always recognize those pressures until everything is about to hit the fan. “But once a company reaches a certain level of complexity, the sheer amount of these thoughts and their attendant emotions are simply overwhelming,” she explains. “I think depression, numbness, and burnout are often the result of extended periods of intense anxiety.”
HOW MENTAL HEALTH GETS DE-PRIORITIZED (OR OVERLOOKED COMPLETELY)
So how can entrepreneurs avoid this trap? For starters, just taking your feelings seriously can help.
Depression and anxiety still carry negative stigmas that can compound the emotional symptoms that define them; in many cases, you’re not only depressed, you’re also ashamed that you’re depressed. Not wanting to appear weak or incapable, I told myself that I was just sad and that I’d feel better soon. One day of rehearsing that mantra turned to two. And two days quickly turned into weeks on end. Finally, I told a friend how I’d been feeling and realized that I wasn’t just feeling down, I was dealing with depression and needed a plan to feel better. Simply verbalizing what I was going through was a crucial first step.
According to Buechler, many startup founders struggle with “emotional management,” which includes the simple act of recognizing when they’re feeling stressed out. She understands why that’s so common. “There’s simply no space in the day of a startup founder to hit the ‘pause’ button and take a moment to breathe and reflect on what’s really happening for them,” Buechler explains. It’s not so much that entrepreneurs are just temperamentally un-self-aware, it’s that their typical experiences discourage it.
“This utter lack of space for self-reflection is really bad for everyone involved,” she adds. “It’s what leads to poor decisions, fractured relationships, and burnout. It’s the first step toward serious anxiety and depressive disorders.” This assessment rings true for me. With a million and one things on my to-do list, dealing with my mental health just didn’t feel like a priority, even though I know in retrospect that it should’ve taken precedent.
Entrepreneur Melanie Ginsburg, founder of Ginsburg Expeditions, agrees. “There are thousands of resources available that can truly help you,” she says. “You don’t have to feel like asking for help is wrong. If you had an ear infection,” Ginsburg points out, “you would never resist seeing a doctor or taking medication. You should treat your depression the same way.”
It’s important to tell your friends, see a therapist or psychiatrist, join a support group, or even just read up online about what you might be experiencing. I resisted all these steps for too long because I felt I needed to figure things out on my own, when in fact that was the worst thing I could’ve done.
MAKE IT A HABIT TO TREAT YOURSELF KINDLY
While feeling down, I gave myself a break from work I wasn’t passionate about and focused on projects that made me happy. For some, happiness can be found in a walk, cooking a nice meal, or even just taking a bath. For me, happiness comes in the form of creating things, so I channeled my negative energy into making new, happy, brightly colored products for my store.
But self-compassion looks differently for everyone, and Buechler recommends that startup founders start with the basics of their health. “Get exercise, sleep, and eat more fruits and vegetables prepared at home,” she suggests. “Meditate. Get outside.” Resetting basic habits like these can make a huge difference. But there’s no quick fix, she cautions. “Find a therapist who you think can help you, and see them regularly for at least a year” to really sort out what might be going on under the surface..
“While all of this is going on, find a way to discover or reconnect with your purpose–the light at the end of the tunnel driving you forward that makes the struggle worthwhile,” Buechler continues. Holding on to that sense of purpose can be a really powerful way to stay motivated and happy–and not just for entrepreneurs. After all, mental health issues can affect everyone. It’s just that the psychological pressures that come with the startup experience tend to make that harder to see. It’s always important to take a step back, see how you’re feeling, and deal with any roadblocks you might be struggling with.
Startup life has its ups and downs. But by surrounding yourself with positivity and support, the downs will seem more bearable and the highs will be even sweeter.