If you’re a small business owner, it’s understandable that you may have felt overwhelmed, anxious or depressed over recent months. A Pandemic isn’t a small challenge to navigate as a business owner! So much of the work of being a business owner or entrepreneur is on the inside. If you can master your mindset, your fears and your thought processes, you can find possibilities and make powerful decisions.
And yet mastering your emotions may have been furthest from your mind when you started your business. Most people focus on their product or service, on learning marketing and social media, building a network and nurturing their clients. Self-care may have been furthest from your mind when you embarked on long days (and nights) building your business.
When Covid-19 came along many people felt paralysed with fear. If you’d been avoiding tech and social media before the pandemic you were suddenly challenged to find a new way to work. If you’ve struggled with self-belief, a pandemic brings that struggle to the surface. Maybe you couldn’t see any way that your business could continue, and perhaps that fear continues as we go into lockdown again.
Our tricky minds naturally focus on the negative so, unchecked, it’s easy for thoughts to spiral through anxiety, fear and into panic. It is however possible to learn how to manage your tricky mind and in this short article I’m going to show you some simple techniques to help you.
I’m somebody who used to get anxious and my inner voice was endlessly critical. I thought that my inner critic was essential for maintaining my high standards. If I dropped the inner-critic I thought I would become lazy and self-centred. I would spend much of my life in “threat” mode – feeling stressed and anxious most of the time. I managed this by pushing myself – using my “drive” mode, the part of the brain associated with ambition. “If I just put my head down and push on through it will be ok”. Does this sound familiar?
However, a few years ago I discovered the neuroscience that surrounds our emotions. Scientists have shown that in “threat” mode we are 30% less capable of rational and creative thought. When responding in a stressed-out way, we are using only 70% of our usual thinking capacity because the brain goes into a kind of tunnel vision. We can only see what’s in front of us, we stop reaching out for help, and we don’t have creative ideas.
I found this very interesting because I was working as a doctor at the time and I wondered how much better I would be at my work if I was less stressed!
The research has also shown that you can learn to take yourself out of “threat” mode by activating a different pathway in the brain – the mammalian care-giving system. Simply put, this alternative emotional system is triggered by soothing touch and voice and visualisation. The way we treat a small child or a cute kitten (with a soft loving voice and gentle stroking for example) is an example of our natural capacity to enter this soothed state.
What scientists discovered is that when we are self-critical, our deepest brain (the Amygdala) can’t tell whether the voice is internal or external, so it experiences our critical words as if someone else was shouting them in our face. Self-criticism activates the “Threat” mode. What you say to yourself really does matter. And if you change that internal voice to something soothing, or constructively motivating, instead of going into threat mode, you remain creative and fully functioning!
Why am I sharing this neuroscience with you? In a nutshell, what you are telling yourself about your business or your abilities is directly impacting your success. Your inner voice can either sabotage or support you. In times of crisis I think this information is important, because we need all the help we can get!
You can take this a step further and notice that the narrative that you are running in your mind also determines whether you go into “threat” mode or not. So, the more you surround yourself with negative news and people telling you that you won’t survive, the less creative and effective you will be.
So how can you put this into practice in your business?
- Notice your internal voice. If you notice that you have a strong inner critic, explore whether there might be a more motivating option that you could try. For example: “You always make a mess of things” could be replaced with “You’re finding things difficult just now, and I know you want to find a solution. What do you need to do to help yourself with this situation?” By using compassionate motivation you are more likely to consider new ideas, reach out for support, and be able to think clearly.
- Explore ways to activate your Mammalian Care Giving system. If this sounds totally alien (which it does to many!) start with thinking about what you’d naturally do for someone else when they struggle. Are you good at giving hugs? Would you listen fully and deeply and give someone time to work out a solution? Do you feel better after petting your cat? By turning towards yourself the things you naturally find compassionate, you will begin to activate this part of your brain that helps you to stay relaxed and creative. So you can give yourself a hug. You can use a soothing voice as you remind yourself that you are not alone in finding this situation difficult. You can self-massage your feet when you feel stressed. Explore what feels helpful for you and keep a list nearby to remind you when you feel overwhelmed.
- Explore ways to tone down your Sympathetic nervous system – which tends to be firing when you’re stressed and anxious. Get out for a run or a walk in nature. Put on some uplifting music and jump around the room until you giggle. Explore Grounding techniques (there are lots of examples online). Take a warm bath. Even if your working day is long and there are no breaks, squeeze in some radical self-care for just 5 minutes a day, to help you keep yourself well. (Coffee and alcohol tend to be aggravating rather than soothing the threat mode, so try not to prop yourself up with those!)
- Notice when you are focusing on things over which you have no influence. When you focus on things outside your control you feel miserable. By focusing on those small things over which you have influence, such as your attitude, the people you hang out with, your decisions you feel more positive even when the situation is still the same.
- Remind yourself you are not alone. If you are facing tough decisions, talk them through with someone that you trust. We tend to isolate ourselves when in threat mode, so pushing yourself to connect with others is a helpful antidote.
Whatever the future holds there are always things you can do to support your wellbeing. I hope you will keep this list handy as supportive inspiration!
Nicola Harker is a doctor and women’s trauma coach. She worked in the NHS in the UK for over 20 years as a GP and with a particular interest in cancer, but retrained as a coach so that she could work at a deeper level with clients. She works with purpose-driven women who feel held back by past trauma, helping them to thrive and get back to their true selves. Nicola is a published co-author (“https://www.amazon.co.uk/Monetise-Your-Message-Entrepreneurs-discovered/dp/B0857BGQ4L) and is also a contributor to Psychologies Magazine (in print and online). She lives with her husband, two young children and unruly dog in a small village near Bristol, UK.