“Something’s wrong. I think I need help,” I said to my husband from the floor of our walk-in closet.
The room was spinning, parasomnia had set in and I couldn’t move or speak. I also had an uncontrollable trembling in my legs, feet, arms and hands. One minute I was flashing hot, the next shivering cold. I was faint and weak while trying to gasp for air. Chest pains were fleeting, sharp and severely choking. I was convinced that I was having a heart attack. My depression had me convinced that I was about to die.
I spent long hours mentoring and consulting other women and military spouses about their business dealings. But underneath my stoic yet confident, low-key demeanor, I had a secret. I, too, had their same fears.
Regardless of how much skin you have in the game, business hardship does not discriminate. There were many sleepless nights. Constant thoughts roamed unchecked about our children, transitioning out of the military, the aftermath of a natural disaster and all the things I should do differently with the business. I couldn’t get out of my head, and I wondered, when will I catch a break?
Successful entrepreneurs achieve an untouchable hero status in America’s celebrity-driven culture. We love and celebrate entrepreneurs with blazingly fast growth. But while the visible achievements are hailed and lionized with awards, pitch checks, TV appearances and gala events, no one detects the internal struggles or talks about the solitude, darkness and the anguish that an entrepreneur goes through.
“Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating or working,” the National Institute of Mental Health website states.
I’m not a medical professional, but what I’ve learned from many therapy sessions is that although you may experience depression, it does not mean you’re depressed. It’s an experience, rather than something that solely defines you.
I do often wonder, though, if depression is fated for entrepreneurs, or if the odds are inexplicably high since the same traits that make entrepreneurs amazing — like creativity, a high tolerance for risk and a bulldozer work ethic — are said to be clinical features of depression and other mental health conditions.
In fact, 30% of all entrepreneurs experience depression, according to the first of its kind study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Of the 242 entrepreneurs he surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the top reported condition among them and was present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD and anxiety problems. That’s a much higher percentage than the U.S. population at large, where about 7% identify as depressed.
“Entrepreneurs work odd hours, sleep less, experience high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. This is a serious issue and puts many at increased risks of both physical and mental health concerns, up to an including risk for suicide if not treated,” said Dr. Ingrid Herrera-Yee, Clinical and Research Psychologist.
For many entrepreneurs, their personal health is a direct reflection of their business health. When you’re depressed, you’re futile. When you can’t produce, your business suffers. When your business suffers, you’re unprofitable. When you don’t make money, you can’t pay staff, bills or vendors.
Entrepreneur depression is an epidemic, and it’s time we did something about it. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I’ve learned a few things along my personal journey that have helped me get off the floor.
Pay attention to how you speak to yourself.
The things you tell yourself, either silently or out loud, can be helpful or destructive. Speak words of positivity, encouragement and empowerment into your life. My goal-friends and I do 10 minutes of affirmations every morning.
“What I focus on grows and so I focus on my business.”
“My failures have made me a better entrepreneur.”
“My business is set up for massive success and growth.”
“I treasure the freedom my business affords me.”
By elevating how you treat yourself to a higher standard that aligns with your core values and work ethic, your personal and professional environment will follow suit.
Ignore critics and remove toxic people.
It doesn’t take much sophistication to be a graceless critic. Stop internalizing criticism from commentators with no credentials. Remove anyone and everyone who doesn’t contribute to the betterment of your life. The way you believe about and treat yourself sets the standard for others on how you demand to be treated.
Also, establish and maintain healthy boundaries. If interactions and relationships change, run through your mental boundary checklist and enforce these boundaries deliberately and rigidly. You only have so much emotional currency to go around. Spend it on those who support and value you, and speak positivity into your life. Let the other noise fade into the background.
Take a break from social media.
Studies show that individuals who spend a significant amount of time on social media report an increase in anxiety and self-criticism. Stop comparing your behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. What you see on social media does not truly represent someone’s life. Altogether, remove yourself from such triggers. Log off for a few weeks and spend some quality time with family, and planning and pursuing your personal goals.
Find a safe place.
This needs to be a place where you can vent your frustrations and fears, and receive comfort and encouragement from others without judgment. There has always been a stigma about therapy, especially in the African-American community. In fact, going to therapy could become one of the most liberating and freeing experiences you could have. If you make the decision to go, you are deciding to improve yourself and your life, and that is never a bad thing.
Risk-taking is almost synonymous with entrepreneurship. To support your business, you often put your career, mental health and even your personal finances at stake. From my own experience, when it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s slow, you hear the jingle of every coin that leaves your wallet. There’s no safety net. Yet you come back for more, each and every day because you believe the product or service you provide to the world is wanted and needed.
“Entrepreneurs are often self-starters, go-getters and are seen as strong and fearless,” Herrera-Yee said. “You have to be in order to start and sustain a successful business. The problem is that this is not sustainable. Stigma around seeking help for mental health is a real concern for business owners in particular who may feel that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reaching out is a sign of strength. Don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends and a mental health professional, if needed. Your life could depend on it.”
Keep believing. Remember, self-care is a priority, not a privilege. Your body is where you live. Continue to seek and explore new ways to take good care of yourself. Never feel ashamed to ask for help. Whatever your struggles, remember business will come and go. Your mental health is more important than your bottom line.