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Mental Health Maintenance for Business Owners
Note: Physical health is more than just ‘not being ill,’ and so is mental health.
Sometimes people say “mental health” when they’re trying to put a supposedly more positive spin on “mental illness” – but it’s something we should all pay attention to. The opinions in this post aren’t just directed toward those living with mental illness – they are intended to promote mental wellness in everyone.
We can’t tackle this entire topic in one post, but we can start at the beginning.
So, you’ve made a business plan (right? sorta?).
But have you ever made a mental health plan?
A business plan is not just a “break glass in case of emergency” thing that you think about only when there is a problem.
When you start a business, you think strategically about how you’re going to do it. You study what makes a business run smoothly, and translate that into what you’re doing. You map out how to avoid problems, and what to do when a problem comes up.
If I asked you what makes for good mental health, you could probably rattle off some research-backed suggestions:
Good sleep, healthy eating, exercise, meaningful relationships, daily routines, helping others….
But are you actively planning how to DO those things? With your particular mix of personality, needs, interests? While running a business, household, and family?
No one would recommend running a business haphazardly, getting in good accounting “whenever you can” and marketing “when the weather is good” or following up “when I feel like it.”
And I don’t recommend running your brain that way, either.
Let’s create a little mental health plan to go alongside your business plan, shall we?
You’ll probably feel less irritable day-to-day, more in control, and less vulnerable to emotional distractions.
Here are three simple questions (loosely inspired by the team at Mental Health America, modified for our purposes), and you’re going to make a list for each one. You might grab a paper and fold it into thirds, or open a Google Doc:
1) Think about a period of time (either now or in the past) when you were feeling good & able to cope with problems.
Not a time when everything was perfect.
Just when you felt good more often than not, and could more easily brush a rogue negative comment off instead of letting it throw a wrench in your entire week. You could handle a client meltdown without your stress level rising to DEFCON 1.
What practices, habits, and people helped you feel this way?
Maybe it was last spring when you ran a loop around the neighborhood each morning. Maybe it was back when you and your friend Alice had regular Starbucks dates that stayed on the calendar without question. Maybe it was you being strict about slamming the laptop shut by 4pm. Or that you only binged on Neflix once a week instead of seven times a week.
What were you doing (or perhaps not doing) that helped you feel good and handle things?
If you can’t think of anything concretely, maybe ask yourself simply – “What makes me feel happy and in control?”
But WOOOOP WOOOOP :: flashing lights :: WARNING!!
You may be tempted to write stuff down like: “I was happy last month because I booked six clients in a row.”
Although business and external success is certainly a temporary mood-booster, we want to cultivate mental wellness independently of how your business is doing.
If you stake your mental wellness on the actions of others, you’ll forever be at the mercy of a world that will rarely prioritize you. (Harsh, I know, but important to remember).
Mental health is a well you can draw upon inside yourself no matter what is happening to you.
So when you’re making your list here, be sure to write down practices you can do no matter what, not stuff that happens that makes you feel good.
You can’t count on every client being a perfect angel who lets you exercise your artistic vision without restraint.
But you can lace up your running shoes, practice forgiveness, and have regular date nights no matter what.
When these practices are in place, you find that your general ability to respond gracefully to an absurd, lengthy shot list is magnified. That’s the list we’re going for.
Got a few ideas down? On to something different –
2) What are your emotional triggers?
What actions or situations tend to result in you feeling tired, grumpy, anxious, irritable, sad, angry, unproductively argumentative, etc?
Make a list of things that happen to you that you know throw you off your game.
(I know this is unpleasant, but it’s valuable to label and confront triggers so you know when you’re in emotional enemy territory):
These can be related to your business:
Negative blog comments ruin my whole day because I think about them and stew about how to respond.
Whenever X competitor runs a marketing campaign, I panic.
When my spouse asks me how much money I’ve made this month, I feel defensive and irritable.
When I’m trying to finish editing while my toddler is waking up from a nap, I get snappish and then feel bad later.
Or more personal:
When person X calls, I feel judged and angry.
When I spend all day in PJ’s instead of getting dressed right away, I feel more comfortable initially, but embarrassed when someone comes over unexpectedly.
And this may or may not apply to you, but also ask yourself:
Are there any patterns in these triggers?
I once made a list of emotional triggers and found a curious pattern.
I’d listed that I get unnecessarily irritated when:
1) I get put on hold forever with customer service, only to talk to a rude person who can’t help me in the end
2) I have to miss a green light because the driver in front of me sat there texting illegally instead of paying attention (grr),
3) Someone makes me go to a meeting, but doesn’t know how to actually run a meeting, so people spend two hours yapping about scattered and irrelevant things when we could have been done in 20 minutes.
Looking over my little list, I realized that my actual trigger is feeling like my time is being wasted. Yours might be comparing myself to others or being sensitive about how money plays out in my life and friendships.
It’s good to have specific situations written down, but sometimes these triggers take different shapes, so it’s good to also find bigger-picture patterns. Because patterns help you predict the unexpected.
You may find you need to add to this list as time goes on, and that’s okay. This isn’t about wallowing in irritation, but it’s important so we can answer question 3, which is –
3) What can I do, specifically, when each one of these triggers comes up?
When you name your emotional triggers, it becomes easier to deal with them. Not because they’re less frustrating, but because you can anticipate what’s about to happen, and talk yourself through.
Go through your list of triggers, and write down something you can do or say, right when it happens.
Let’s say your kid takes a short nap, and you know not being able to finish your editing will make you feel stressed and behind on work all afternoon. When you hear her waking up, you can say to yourself:
“Janie is waking up from her nap right now, so I have a choice. I can get annoyed and feel bad later, or I can turn off the computer and plan to come back at 8:30pm when she’s back in bed.”
Recognizing that you have a choice makes you feel in control, and making a specific plan will make you feel less “behind” the rest of the day. You have a time appointed to take care of it, it’s not just going to get thrown into the spinning tumbler dryer of endless “stuff I still need to do.”
And rather than just guilting yourself (“I should be a better mom, I should be able to edit faster, why can’t I just fix this?”), you give yourself permission to say “hey, this is a real problem” and seek out the right fix.
You don’t have to grit your teeth through everything. Recognizing triggers empowers you to ask for specific help:
“Hey honey? I have noticed that Janie doesn’t nap long enough anymore for me to get my editing done. I’m finding that this stresses me out and affects our afternoons together. What can we do to prevent this?”
Now you can come up with a specific solution (rearrange X schedule item, only schedule sessions on Tuesdays and Saturdays, whatever).
Not identifying the specific trigger makes it more likely you’ll just vent generally (this is so stressful! I can’t do it all!), and usually results in suggestions of oversized solutions (Maybe I should just quit my business! Maybe I’m just a terrible parent and there’s no hope!).
In mental health as in driving, overcorrection is sometimes the most dangerous thing.
Take a close look at those triggers and find a reasonable response. It may be:
Prevention: I’m going to email my neighbor to see if she wants to trade off weekly play dates.
Coping: I know this company is going to put me on hold, so here is a queue of funny videos I can watch until they answer.
Or just letting it pass: It’s okay that I missed that green light, I left my house five minutes early so I’m not going to be late.
Now – Putting your mental health plan together:
You’ve amassed all the ingredients, now let’s see what it looks like.
Your first list has a set of things you can do independent of what’s going on. Pick one or two, pull out your calendar and email, and start scheduling them in. No, you can’t suddenly transform yourself into a gym-going, green-smoothie-eating, social-calendar-full kind of person overnight (nor should you….avoid sudden overcorrection – you’ll crash!)
But you can put some things on the calendar right now: Email a friend to see about a monthly Starbucks date. Or schedule a time to look up green smoothie recipes AND make a shopping list for your next grocery run. And put in five minutes on your calendar for 2 weeks from now to revisit how you’re doing and what to do next.
Your second and third lists go hand in hand. Again, don’t overcorrect, but perhaps identify a few top triggers to address and schedule them in: Talk to neighbor about playdate trade-off, leave house five minutes early. See how it goes for a couple of weeks, and revisit.
Most of the needed changes will take less than 5-10 minutes to initiate. Many will require no time, just remembering what to do.
If this seems overly simple and silly to you, I invite you to consider this wisdom: “A very large ship is benefited by a very small helm.”
Most of the time, maintaining anything – a house, a business, your mental wellness – simply requires making many small choices.
Little course corrections add up – and you end up in a place you’d much rather be than if you let the crashing waves of happenstance decide where you’re going to go.
Give it a shot.