Chris Myers, the co-founder and CEO at franchise software firm BodeTree, generates revenue in the millions. By all outward appearances, Myers is building a successful, 22-person business out of Denver, which he launched nearly a decade ago in 2010.
But to hear Myers tell it, the experience is something more akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. “We have gone through all of these ups and downs,” says the 32-year-old, who likens the startup journey to going through combat. “There are long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
Myers’s experience with bouts of depression and anxiety is certainly not unique in the world of small business. According to a 2015 study by Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, as many as 49 percent of entrepreneurs report having a mental-health condition. Thirty percent of the founders surveyed cited depression, compared with the roughly 7 percent of the overall U.S. population. That’s a marked discrepancy, and Myers says it can be attributed to the challenges unique to starting a company.
“Whatever your foundational strengths and weaknesses, going through the crucible of entrepreneurship will magnify that,” Myers explains.
Mental health has been top of mind for many in the business community, especially this month. Two weeks ago, Kate Spade–the co-founder of her eponymous fashion brand–and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took their own lives. Spade’s husband recently confirmed that the fashion icon, whose style has influenced many professional women over the past two decades, had long suffered from depression.
The incidents have taken their toll on many entrepreneurs, including Rachel Robinson, the co-founder of DotCom Therapy, a $2 million telemedicine startup based in Springfield, Missouri. Her business partners with schools to provide speech therapy, occupational therapy, and mental-health services to patients across the globe. “It was an awakening that these people we see in the limelight, who look like they have everything together, are no different from everyone else,” Robinson says, referring to Bourdain and Spade. “Like others, they put on a persona that they are happy.”
Similar to Myers, Robinson contends that building a company can bring out depressive thinking. “It definitely comes with the territory,” she says. Luckily, she adds, there are ways you can stay balanced, while riding the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. Here are four:
1. Surround yourself with mentally strong people.
A major obstacle to getting well, Robinson says, is the stigma that continues to exist around mental health. “To this day, people don’t feel comfortable opening up [about their struggle,]” she says, suggesting that there is an unfounded sense of shame associated with discussing mental illness.
In building DotCom Therapy, Robinson says it has been helpful to be completely emotionally honest with other executives, including her co-founder, Emily Purdom. “It’s a matter of surrounding yourself with really strong people,” she adds. “I know me and my co-founder have relied on each other when things got hard.”
2. Don’t cover up your feelings.
As an entrepreneur, it can be tempting to develop a front, suggesting that everything about you–and your business–is going well when it isn’t. That’s a dangerous habit, suggests BodeTree’s Myers. “I suffer from a lot of this stuff,” he says, referring to anxiety and depression. “The cover up is worse than the crime. All of the things we do to try to prove to the world that we’re fine is what causes all of these problems, and it feeds on itself,” he adds.
Robinson echoes this, noting that when you feel “well enough” to not go to talk therapy, that’s likely when you need it the most. “It’s important to find a good support network, which can mean going to therapy even if you feel like you don’t need it,” she says.
3. Set aside time for mindful reflection.
One thing that has helped BodeTree’s Myers is the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Whether or not you realize it in the moment, this process will help build muscles you’ll likely need to flex later on. “I set aside time every day for mindful reflection,” he says. “When I don’t do that, the feelings don’t go away, they fester. They come out in really weird ways, like emotional outbursts at people I care about.”
There’s a difference, he adds, between meditation and brooding. “It takes a lot of practice,” Myers adds. “Starting off, my obsessive thought process kicks in. It’s important not to dwell on problems, but to put them in perspective.”
4. Take a note from others.
One concrete activity that can help stave off those feelings of depression–particularly this notion of “being alone” in the struggle–is picking up a book about someone else’s life. “It sounds weird,” continues Myers, “but if you start reading biographies of people that have made a mark on society, a couple of things happen: You get the benefit of hindsight, since you can see someone’s entire life from start to finish. But it also helps you understand that this struggle is super common.”
Indeed, the common struggle–be it with writing a novel, creating a masterpiece, or, indeed, building a business–is something that Myers refers to as a “beautiful madness.” Reading about the “madness” of others can help you to internalize the shared nature of suffering, he says.
One such figure to begin with: Winston Churchill. “He’s just a fascinating character,” explains Myers. “We think of him as this brilliant wartime leader, but he was a failure for the majority of his life, and was kicked out of his own party. It shows that there’s not only a second act in life, but there’s also a third, a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth.”