As an entrepreneur and business owner, managing stress is an essential skill to master. In the most recent episode of CEO Diaries, Future Females co-founder and CEO Lauren Dallas shared her experience with managing stress and anxiety, and discussed some of the effective strategies she has used to keep them at bay.
CEO Diaries is an intimate discussion between me (Lauren) and you (our Future Females community), taking you behind the scenes of our business and the launch of our exciting new platform. We have been spending this year building the new platform and it has been an incredible and challenging journey so far. For me, personally, and for our mission at Future Females, it is important to host our CEO Diaries sessions, which are really authentic in that we talk about the struggles, challenges, and key questions that we have had to answer, the pivots that we have had to make in working towards this launch so that you can also benefit from it for your own businesses.
The topic of stress and anxiety, specifically high-functioning anxiety, is something that I do not think is spoken about enough…
What is high-functioning anxiety?
From my own personal journey, there is anxiety and then there is high-functioning anxiety. The way I look at the difference is essentially thinking about ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is built into all of us as humans. When there is danger (and stress is a danger) we have one of two responses. We ‘flight’, which is typically an anxiety-based response, which means that we freeze and cannot act. We might pull away from situations, we might recluse ourselves, or we might find it really hard to cope with even the smallest things that life ends up putting on our plate – potentially even leading to some depression. That is a very general explanation of anxiety.
High-functioning anxiety is almost the exact opposite. When you feel that stressor, you go into ‘fight’ mode – you feel energised and it propels you forward, as opposed to having you freeze. It is very common for people with a Type A personality to appear to be successful, potentially even appear to be very calm on the outside, but in reality, feeling stressed. If you are busy, never getting to the bottom of your to-do list, or perhaps you even enjoy people saying to you, “I don’t know how you do everything that you do”, then you might have high-functioning anxiety.
The benefits of high-functioning anxiety
One of the benefits, from my personal experience, is that you have this seemingly limitless amount of energy. When someone asks me what motivates me, I say that it is equal parts fueled by my passion for the purpose that we are pursuing at Future Females (I genuinely spring out of bed because I just want to create things that help women), and by my fear of failure. I am fueled by both fear and purpose.
Another benefit is the ability to manage multiple tasks simultaneously. You can work through your list and mentally shift from high-level strategic work down to very detail-oriented work and have an intense focus on both.
De-risking is also a great benefit. It is interesting when I look at how I have built the Future Females business model with my co-founder over the years, because we have never done just one thing. And as much as of course if we had focused, we probably would have gotten further faster, we have been able to de-risk our business model. We do two main things: one is building this new platform and offering programs and memberships directly to our consumers, and the other is doing a lot of work for big corporations and governments. The beauty of this, even though it meant that we have literally been building two completely different business models at the same time and putting a lot of pressure on ourselves and our team, we have created a portfolio approach to our revenue where, if the B2C side is lagging we can survive because we have a B2B side of the business too, and vice versa. So ultimately, when we have a gap between major contracts we can still sustain the business because we have other revenue streams coming in.
The risks of high-functioning anxiety
There are, of course, also a lot of risks. One is, while you can manage a lot and de-risk your business model by having two or multiple streams of income, you can also end up self-sabotaging by taking on too much. Always think of this vision: There is a big hole with oil at the bottom of it. You can either dig one hole all the way down to get to the bottom, or you can dig 10% of 10 different holes and never get to the bottom. That is a really good representation of a founder, like me, or someone who is intentionally de-risking themselves and putting themselves at a greater risk because of the lack of focus, taking on too much, and never doing one hundred percent of everything.
A conversation that I aim to have with myself every quarter, or at least at the end of every year, is what I like to call a cord-cutting meditation and shedding session. It is looking at everything that I do and really assessing if it is moving the needle, if it is strategically aligned, and what I can stop. I have learned that, if you are a really good starter, you also have to be a really good stopper. It is okay to stop doing something because it is no longer serving you or your community, or something else is serving you a little better.
Another risk is burnout. Just because you feel like you have limitless energy from being fueled by purpose and fear, it does not mean you have limitless energy on a psychological level. Burnout is a very real risk for founders. I always say one of the biggest resources that you are putting into your business is not your time, but your energy. I reached burnout a few years ago. It was moderate and I caught it before it got to that physical level where I was medically unable to work. It was just a psychological burnout and it was at that point that I realised I had a problem. I was running a subscription membership at the time, supporting people on their social media channels and I had quite a good community. I remember that I got a cancellation email one day and I felt relieved. I was happy that someone had cancelled and I immediately thought it was a strange reaction for me, as someone who loves growth, acquisition, and contributing to my community. I realised that if I am hoping for people to cancel and want my program to do less well, then I am not in a good energetic position for the company. What I ended up doing was closing that program. I do regret it now because now I believe in the principle of pause, not stop. Pause, recoup and then start up again.
The flags are different for everyone, but it is important to take notice of those psychological signs so that you can change things before it starts impacting you physically.
We need to be conscious of the impact stress can have on us 10, 15, or even 20 years from now. A lot of research has been done on the fact that stress causes a lot of severe later-in-life challenges. For example, the risk of heart disease goes up threefold if you have experienced sustained stress. That is the challenge of high-functioning anxiety because it is the type where you can keep living through it and then suddenly have a problem, and that is why I am so passionate about talking about it.
Something else that I experience is energetic bursts. If you have not done the free online test My Human Design, I would encourage everyone to do it. It basically tells you your natural energy type. It is important to know (and not feel guilty about) how best you function. We will actually have a free resource on this in our new platform – if you are not on the waitlist yet, jump on here!
There are certain coping techniques that I have implemented in my life that have allowed me to live really successfully with high-functioning anxiety and with an understanding of my own energy type.
One of the most important things for me is taking breaks. This is a typical Manifesto type (from the My Human Design test) and it means that you need to take a break before you feel like you need a break. Once you feel like you need a break, you are so depleted that you need a whole day or maybe even two or three days to recoup. If you can take a break before you get that feeling, then you are able to sustain longer. I had to learn to take breaks that are not focused on achieving anything but really mentally taking the break.
What to do if you have a million ideas a minute…
What I like to do is take an analytical approach to ideas. Firstly, I like to not take action for a week. If in a week you still feel equally excited about it, then you take the analytical approach. Is it going to drive your key business outcomes and if you do not have a business yet, can it sustain you financially? If it is specifically a business idea, make sure there is a business model behind it. Businesses require business models and business models need to drive revenue and profit to sustain the business. Do your due diligence, and speak to someone if you are not sure.
Secondly, is it a true intrinsic passion for you? Is it aligned with either the work your business is already doing or the work you are already doing? Most ideas require credibility to be able to sell them – whether you are going for funding, whether you are selling directly into market, etc. It is challenging to create a business that is so far removed from anything you have ever done, but it is not impossible.
How do you deal with people you communicate with and they still contact you while you are needing some me-time?
It is two things. One is communicating your boundaries honestly and upfront. The second part is honouring your own boundaries. Communication is two-way so unless you have an emergency channel for one person that can be filtered through to you, you need to uphold your boundaries.
How can a high-starter rebalance to a good finisher?
There are two schools of thought here. When you are in business, do you focus on accentuating your strengths or fixing your weaknesses? If you are a solopreneur and you have to rely on yourself to start and finish, what has really worked for me is a detailed project plan and an accountability partner. I map out everything I need to do from start to finish. If you are in the other school of thought where you want to focus more on your strengths, find out who you can work with that balances you out.
Failure is when you get to become the most self-aware and you learn the most about how you deal with your struggles rather than your successes. What I am hoping is that you learn about yourself through minor struggles rather than having to hit rock bottom, and putting in those coping mechanisms proactively rather than reactively.
Watch the full session here…
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