I started my first business in fourth grade.
“Dinky Dolls” were miniature paper dolls I custom-made to order, and they quickly became a “hot item” in my elementary school. Once the dimes started rolling in, I was hooked as an entrepreneur.
Business ideas come to me all the time—while I’m driving, in the shower, in my sleep.
However, there is a dark side to this drive.
Nearly one in three entrepreneurs experience depression.
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco, University of California Berkeley, and Stanford University conducted a joint study in 2015 on the mental health of entrepreneurs. They found that 30 percent of the entrepreneurs surveyed suffered from depression—a much higher figure than depression among the U.S. population at large, which is approximately seven percent.
A whopping 72 percent of the entrepreneurs surveyed reported that a mental health condition—including depression, ADHD, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and anxiety—was present in either themselves or a first-degree family member.
For many of us who thrive in the high-intensity of startup life, the line we walk between anxiety and creative flourishing is a fine one. When we veer too far to the dark side, our passion for progress morphs into an unhealthy compulsion that simultaneously builds an empire while crushing its creator.
Although it’s commonly cited in Silicon Valley that nine out of ten startups fail, when my latest entrepreneurial venture (an epigenetic-based health and wellness company) fell apart, these statistics didn’t help me much. Like many other company founders, I was working around the clock, ignoring my family, neglecting my health, and relentlessly driven to turn an idea into a fortune while changing the world in the process.
As I watched the company fail to thrive, I maintained the façade of success in order to keep confidence high among our customers and future potential investors. I told myself that if I talked about my intense anxiety, chronic insomnia, or fear of failure, I would put the business at risk. So I kept going, at a frantic pace, until it all came crashing down.
Why are entrepreneurs hit harder than others?
From the time I could talk, I was organizing things—even if they were my stuffed animals—and taking practical steps to achieve my next plan.
Entrepreneurs are driven to create. We set high goals for ourselves, and when we reach them we tend to just set even higher ones. This can be great when we’re aiming to make a positive impact in the world, so long as we stay balanced and healthy along the way.
But often we take care of everything else before we take care of ourselves. We squeeze more hours into the day by forgoing sleep, which disrupts our melatonin and serotonin balance. In the mad world of startups, we also often skip exercise, spending time outdoors, time with loved ones, and nutritious food—the essentials for a healthy mind, body, and spirit. We pump ourselves full of caffeine and slump over our computers until the wee hours of the night.
Add in the stress of deadlines, investor expectations, and a competitive landscape, and we’ve got spiking cortisol levels on top of too much adrenaline. We create the perfect chemical storm for depression.
Turn your broken heart into art.
When my business tanked, so did my feelings of self-worth and personal value. And what felt even worse, at least to me, was that I didn’t have a plan for what to do next. Without a plan, I didn’t know who I was.
Knowing I was desperate for change, my friend Niko shared a motivational recording with me that claimed my life would turn around completely if I focused only on my own joy for 30 days. Since I didn’t have a better idea, I decided to give it a try. Which shows you just how desperate I was at the time—that spending a month focusing on my own joy actually seemed like a viable plan for turning my life around.
Determined to give it my best shot, I went after joy from all angles—from the spiritual, to the physiological, and everything in between. I called on the body of scientific and personal research of hormones, neurotransmitters, and mindfulness I had amassed over many years, synthesizing it into a deliberate plan: “The Joy Plan.”
The results of my 30-day experiment were astonishing—and lasted much longer than the initial month-long project. What started as a temporary experiment turned into a whole life transformation. I worked my way from anxious and depressed to joyful and optimistic by following a few simple steps to harness the neurobiology of joy—almost like a formula.
“The Joy Plan” is not a one-time quick-fix. But 30 days is long enough to form new habits and start to turn the tide of depression and anxiety in the other direction. If you are one of the 30 percent of entrepreneurs who are suffering right now, here are four things that can help right away:
Make your body your priority.
I know it feels like you just have to push through this launch, this quarter, this IPO, and then you will rest. Believe me, I’ve been there.
But if you ignore the essentials of sleep, exercise, and nutrition, your body will degrade and your mind will follow. According to The National Sleep Foundation, people with insomnia are 10 times more likely to develop depression. Insomnia is often caused by melatonin levels that are out of whack—which can happen when we spend too much time in front of a screen, regularly stay up past 11 p.m., and miss out on exposure to sunshine during the day.
The great news is that when we have enough sleep, we think more clearly and are more productive. When we exercise, endorphins often stimulate creative ideas. And healthy food feeds our brain with the nutrients it needs to thrive. Drinking enough water is also really helpful for our overall mental and physical well-being.
Spend time with loved ones.
Many of us entrepreneurs isolate ourselves when we go into “work mode.” But when we push our loved ones away, we’re missing out on an important hormone linked to happiness: oxytocin. This hormone provides a double-whammy of warm fuzzies by stimulating dopamine and serotonin, reducing anxiety. Spending time with loved ones has even been shown to strengthen our immune systems. So be sure to make time for laughter and cuddles with the people you love—you’ll be infused with good feelings that you can bring into your work.
Thoughts of appreciation and gratitude are registered in the brain as optimism. Focusing on gratitude lowers the stress hormone cortisol, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for rest and recuperation), and releases pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters. The areas of the brain that feel fear and stress are deactivated while focusing on gratitude. Which are all great reasons to do it regularly.
You may want to keep a notebook handy and write down things you appreciate and feel thankful for throughout the day. I like to start my day with thoughts of gratitude, and aim to carry those thoughts forward as the day progresses.
Mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment. That includes observation of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This is helpful for anxiety because when we bring our attention to the present moment, we can separate what is really real (our breath, our heartbeat, the sounds around us) from the content of our thoughts.
Your thoughts are not you. It’s something we all know conceptually, but how often do we allow a simple (usually repetitive) thought to stress us out, make us sad or angry, or give us full-on anxiety? Since our thoughts are here to stay, we can practice mindfulness to loosen the hold they have over us when it feels like our thoughts are thinking us instead of the other way around. We can notice them, and practice looking at them from a detached perspective. And we can breathe.
As entrepreneurs, our passion and drive will likely keep us walking the close line between creativity and madness. There is beauty and power in the intensity we live with. But we must be careful, even more so than others who don’t share this particular type of drive, to take care of ourselves and not slip too far off that edge. We must learn how reel ourselves back in, one breath, one grateful thought, one good night’s sleep at a time.