People dream of being their own boss, but what happens when anxiety turns dreams into nightmares? Amerley Ollennu discovers how to manage self-employment anxiety.
My stomach is in knots, my thoughts race, I can’t focus, I feel panicked, and I’m constantly eating in a subconscious attempt to self-soothe. That’s what it’s like when my anxiety gets the better of me, and when it does, I wonder why I choose to be self-employed. But as soon as I begin to seriously consider getting a full-time job, I remember how much I love the freedom, and flexibility working for myself allows. So, after what feels like the most anxiety ridden year of my freelance career, I’m on a quest to learn how to manage my work-related anxiety once and for all.
‘You’re not the only one who feels this way,’ said Celebrity Therapist and founder of therapist matching platform CultureMinds Therapy, Sharnade George when I grilled her on the topic. ‘Working for yourself doesn’t come without its challenges, and studies have shown that 53 per cent of freelancers have trouble finding work, while 50 per cent have an irregular income and almost half of those who are self-employed feel less productive, depressed and anxious too*,’ adds George.
"When we are passionate about what we do - which is often the case when it comes to the self-employed - we want to invest all our time and energy into it. But we know from research that passion can either be ‘harmonious’, integrating well into our lives or ‘obsessive’ becoming central to identity"
Rachel Doern, Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London
Stress and anxiety are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, while they both share emotional and physical symptoms, anxiety unlike stress doesn’t fade away once a ‘threat’ has dissipated. ‘It’s a feeling of excessive, uncontrollable worry and can often manifest in a way that is disproportionate to the potentially posed risk,’ explains George.
I know this all too well, as I’ve often wondered why I still feel so anxious when the stress of chasing invoices or finding new projects has passed. However, according to Rachel Doern, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, who studies the cognition, emotions, and behaviours of self-employed people and business owners, there’s a number of reasons why anxiety can go hand in hand with working for yourself.
‘Entrepreneurs tend to work long hours, in uncertain environments where time pressures are often apparent, and it’s in these precise contexts that emotions run high. On top of that, passion plays a major role too. When we are passionate about what we do - which is often the case when it comes to the self-employed - we want to invest all our time and energy into it. But we know from research that passion can either be ‘harmonious’, integrating well into our lives or ‘obsessive’ becoming central to identity. The latter form of passion is particularly common when entrepreneurs set challenging goals for themselves or their businesses leading to anxiety, depression and ultimately burnout,’ explains Doern.
This makes total sense to me, for years I thrived off of the passion I have for my job as a beauty and lifestyle editor and brand consultant, setting myself goals and working tirelessly to achieve them. But I also found that my sense of self became so tied up in my achievements that when I wasn’t hitting my goals my anxiety soared. ‘For some having high levels of work-related anxiety can have a major impact on the very thing they value most – their ability to be self-employed.
As frequent worrying or fear, can lead to a sense of overall dread associated with work, causing people to isolate, and miss deadlines,’ adds George.
So how does one deal with anxiety when it goes from being a motivational tool to a hindrance? Both Doern and George recommend creating boundaries, managing expectations and a hefty dose of self-care. A trio of tried-and-true tools that the following female entrepreneurs swear by too.
‘When I first started working for myself anything from a spelling error, to an important phone call could see me break out in a rash, give me a headache, blur my vision, leave me short of breath or even experience hot flushes. While emotionally my anxiety felt incredibly overwhelming - like I’d hit a wall that I didn’t yet have the tools to limb over.
Thankfully implementing clear boundaries has made the world of difference. I set strict rules around my time to ensure I don’t burn out, and I implement this by keeping my messaging apps on mute, and keeping email notifications off. This means I’m not bombarded with notifications on my devices that can trigger my anxiety or force me into action outside of my chosen working hours. Then alongside my communication boundaries, I’ve created physical boundaries too. I’ve found that creating designated spaces for certain activities when working from home helps me separate my work life from my personal life to achieve equilibrium.’
Katie Braden, 27, Manchester, Director & founder of Katie Braden PR Ltd, @katiebradenpr
‘Despite spending my days working in the wellness arena as a sound practitioner – where I use harmonic sounds to help others deal with anxiety and stress - I have found if I don’t create time for my own personal self-care, self-employment anxiety can creep in.
So, I allocate 30 minutes a day to myself. I start my mornings by listening to one of my own sound therapy recordings, as this practice works by moving you into a restorative and dreamy alpha-dominant brainwave state and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is your rest and digest system and the opposite of the fight or flight response – which is what we’re in when we’re stressed and anxious. Some days that’s all I need to relax, but if I start the day feeling anxious or upset, I implement the same self-reflection technique I use on clients to address the cause and work through it. The best thing about this form of self-care is that you don’t have to do anything but listen, as the calming response triggered in our brains is automatic.
Then at the end of the day I mind-dumping by way of journaling. On days where my business goals feel overwhelming, I focus my mind dump on writing down all the things I want to do, or need to do so they aren’t whirring around in my head, disrupting my ability to rest and relax.’
Farzana Ali, 37, London, Sound Therapist, @TheSoundTherapist
‘I knew very early on in my career that I wanted an environment where I could be creative and have the freedom to work on my own terms in order to design beautiful spaces that allow people to live more harmoniously. But, in order to stop the creativity sapping anxiety that running your own business can induce, I had to learn to stop being a people pleaser and manage my client’s expectations as well as the expectations I had of myself.
So rather than simply saying yes to a deadline dictated by a client, I take the time to truly analyse how long a project will take. I then explain the time frame clearly to prospective clients to manage their expectations so they understand that they will be getting the very best service, in a realistic time frame without the need to cut corners or burn me out. And when it comes to managing my own expectations of myself, I’ve learnt to delegate tasks and set realistic daily goals to help me manage my time, stop me from getting overwhelmed and keep me feeling inspired and creative.’
Shaz Etemadi, 35, London, Architect and founder of New Images Architects, @newimagesarchitects
* According to Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-employed (IPSE)