Entrepreneurship comes with its fair share of stresses, anxieties, obligations, duties, and tasks. From retaining top talent and creating cultures of fairness, to guaranteeing financing and making the best possible decisions at every fork of the road – yes indeed, the stressors are plentiful. Effectively coping with stress, is a crucial factor in entrepreneurial success.
And not only are they plentiful, they also vary. We can stress about one aspect of our business in the morning, and by the afternoon have a completely different problem to wrap our head around. Figuring out how to cope with all the different types of anxiety becomes a source of stress in itself.
In this post we’ll teach you a system for how to manage stress in life and work. It begins with the understanding that certain strategies of coping with stress and anxiety are more suitable for certain stress types. It’s never a one-size fits all approach. Here, we highlight two main coping strategies: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. We’ll explain what each one is, their associated tactics, and when to use them correctly.
Before we lay out the specifics of these strategies, there are a couple of things you need to do beforehand to prepare. You will first:
- Dissect your anxiety and stress, get to its root cause, and come up with a Coping Score (note: each stressor will have its own score; you can do more than one if necessary). Your Coping Score(s) will tell you if the stress/anxiety is best resolved through either problem-focused versus emotion-focused coping.
- Evaluate your own Coping Bias through a personality assessment tool. The tool will tell you whether your temperament means you’re more inclined to use one coping strategy over the other. You need to check this bias because incorrectly applying a coping strategy can lead you down a path of more anxiety. It’s called the Coping Mismatch Error.
With your Coping Bias and Coping Score, you will have a good sense of whether a problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategy makes more sense and where your efforts should go towards.
We’ll then finish with some concrete examples and tactics of what these look like. And as always, our promise to you is that the information contained in the lesson comes from leading psychology and neuroscience research that has been thoroughly checked and validated by our team of academics and PhDs.
So let’s get started.
1. Dissect the anxiety and stress
Effective methods of coping with stress, begins with identifying the source of the stress and anxiety. Many of us take this step for granted. It’s important to know that no two stresses are the same. The root cause will differ from one situation to the next. Breaking down the stress into smaller elements will tell you whether problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping makes more sense.
Begin by checking in with your internal state. Remove all distractions and try to be in a quiet private area. Sit with your eyes closed or gently fixed at some point in front of you. Let your mind wander for 2-5 minutes. Notice where it goes.
Allow the thoughts and feelings to come and go as they please without you shutting them out or pushing them away. Imagine you’re an outside observer looking in and simply taking note of all the things that are happening in your mind and body. Then, along the top of your notebook, fill in the following column headers:
- Feeling(s): These are generally labels that capture how we’re feeling at a particular moment: worried, anxious, discouraged, hopeless, panicked, angry, bored, down, gloomy, and so on. They can also be bodily sensations: sick, dizzy, hot, sweaty, tired, numb, cold, sore, tight, pressure, and so on.
- Thought(s): This is stuff of the little voice in your head. The personal narrator that strings together your moment-to-moment states of consciousness. It states opinions, observes reactions, attaches labels to things, recalls past experiences, makes forecasts about the future, etc. It could be something like: “My senior marketing lead has been underperforming the past little while.” Or, “The team of investors will see me as inexperienced and incompetent.”
- Notice the thoughts don’t include an emotion or feeling. You’re NOT saying “I’m screwed because the team of investors will see me as inexperienced and incompetent.” Or, “I’m anxious about my team with my senior team marketing lead underperforming the past little while.” Keep the feelings and thoughts separate. This is key.
- Intensity: On a 0 to 10 scale rate the intensity of your stress. 10 being the most intense, the most distressing and uncomfortable you’ve ever felt.
- Duration: Estimate the length of time you’ve had these feelings and thoughts. It could be a matter of minutes, days, or even weeks. All depends on the type of stress you’re dealing with.
- Situation: Write out the details of the situation, context, or domain that is causing you to have these thoughts and feelings. Is it related to funding and financing? Team culture? The pressure of hitting sales targets? Finding the right product/market fit?
- In conflict/Preventing/Unknown: These three columns might overlap, or you might only fill in one column. Write out how the situation you’re facing is in conflict with some other part of yourself and/or your business. Or how it’s preventing you from reaching your “ideal state” or hitting a particular goal. Or how it involves managing all the unknowns and uncertainties that are being thrown together.
The final step here is to look at all the data you entered and then come up with a single percentage score. This is your “Coping Score.” This is the estimated likelihood that an active, constructive change can be made to the situation, and it will tell you whether problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping is better.
0% would mean you think there’s no chance whatsoever of the stress or the situation changing. 100% would mean you think the situation will definitely change for the better in the near future.
If your score is in the range of 60-100%, then most of your efforts will go to problem-focused coping. If it is in the range of 0-40%, then most of your efforts will go to emotion-focused coping. And if it’s in the middle range of 40-60%, then you can implement a combination of the two.
We’ll get to these exercises in a moment. Before we do, there’s one more prep step that’s required. It involves answering some personality questions and completing a scientific survey to evaluate your Coping Bias.
2. Evaluate your own bias when coping with stress
This will give you an indication of your preferred coping styles based on your personality. It will also reveal the strength of your Coping Bias.
This is key because the presence of a strong coping bias is what leads to the Coping Mismatch Error – incorrectly applying problem-focused coping when the stressful situation requires an emotion-focused coping strategy (or vice versa).
Let’s check your bias:
Go to this link to answer questions related to your personality and stress coping. There are two tabs on the sheet. The first tab (labeled ‘Emotion.Focus’) has 15 questions; the second tab (labeled ‘Problem.Focus’) has 17 questions.
For each of the tabs, using a scale of 1 (never) to, 5 (always), input your score into the associated field boxes (column J). Be as honest as you can in answering the questions. Okay, go do it now and come back here once you’re done.
You’ve got your two scores for each tab? Good.
Next, for the ‘Emotion.Focus’ tab, look to your score in cell M16 and see which category group you fall into (these ranks are based off of running averages of past research):
- Category 1 = Scores <25 (very low)
- Category 2 = Scores 26-35 (low to moderate)
- Category 3 = Scores 36-45 (high)
- Category 4 = Scores >46 (very high)
Now do the same for the other ‘Problem.Focus’ tab:
- Category 1 = Scores <34 (very low)
- Category 2 = Scores 35-50 (low to moderate)
- Category 3 = Scores 51-65 (high)
- Category 4 = Scores > 66 (very high)
Which categories do you fall in? Where you fall tells you your natural tendency to engage in one form of coping over another. Let’s spell this out a bit more.
For the first score (emotion-based):
- If you’re in category 1 (<25) or category 2 (26-35), your natural tendency is NOT to engage in emotion-focused coping.
- If you’re in category 3 (36-45) and especially category 4 (>46), your natural tendency is to strongly engage in emotion-focused coping.
And for the second score (problem-based):
- If you’re in category 1 (Scores <34) or category 2 (35-50), your natural tendency is NOT to engage in problem-focused coping.
- If you’re in category 3 (51-65) and especially category 4 (>66), your natural tendency is to strongly engage in problem-focused coping.
Now, it’s important to know that the two scores aren’t necessarily anti-correlated. To be high in one doesn’t mean you’re low in the other. Instead, how the numbers shake out will tell you about your Coping Bias.
Go to the third tab on the sheet labeled ‘Bias.Score.’ You will see two orange cells. If both are blank then you have a small or no coping bias. This means you don’t necessarily lean towards one approach more than the other.
If you exhibit a bias, the top cell will read a high emotion-focused coping bias, or the bottom cell will read a high problem-focused coping bias. If either of these appear, then you’re at greater risk of committing the Coping Mismatch Error.
The takeaway with this step is the following: If you have a Coping Bias, then you need to be careful in how you’re dealing with stress. For example, a high emotion-focused coping bias means you could misjudge the situation and incorrectly apply emotion-focused strategies, when in reality, a problem-focused approach is more suitable for the situation.
With this in mind, let’s get to some specifics of what these tactics look like.
How to implement problem-focused coping
Now that you know when to apply problem-focused or emotion-focused coping, the last part of our lesson is to understand how to implement these strategies. We begin with problem-focused coping.
Problem-focused coping, is aimed at reducing the informational source of the stress. It’s used in times when a person feels that something constructive can be done to alter the course of the stress and anxiety. Remember the first step in dissecting your anxiety and getting your Coping Score? If it was in the 60-100% range, then this is high likelihood that a constructive change can be made to the situation. This is when problem-focused coping should be used to deal with the stress.
Here are some tactics that you can use to deal with stress and anxiety:
- Come up with a “divide and conquer” strategy for minimizing the stress. This means breaking down the situation into its constituent parts. Instead of seeing it as one big stress, see it as being made up of multiple separate parts. For example, in your new product line, you might be super anxious about the proposed product/market fit. This is a big stress. Break it down into separate pieces. One piece will require you delegating a market research task; another piece will require you tapping into early customers to get initial feedback; while another piece will require a team finding ways to streamline processes to find repeatable, scalable ways to acquire new customers … and so on. Check these off one piece at a time. And plan your way out of the stressful period by looking at each one on its own.
- Limit your involvement in competing activities or channels. This is called “phenomenal field constriction.” It means putting projects aside for the time, being sure not to get distracted by other tasks, and even letting things slide in order to deal with that one particular stressor at that moment. Doing this might be tough for some of you. To put aside other tasks and duties feels like you’ll be playing catch-up. But if you’re just adding them to your plate while not resolving the initial issue, it becomes a pile-on and something will eventually break. Learn to delegate more tasks if necessary.
- Seek out social support for instrumental purposes. This is a very specific type of social support and differs from the emotion-coping kind (more on this below). Instrumental social support is a matter of tapping into your network, asking around for advice from subject matter experts and people you admire. This is absolutely critical in startup ventures because so many stressors are related to new experiences and unique problems. In fact, network support and social capital has been linked to entrepreneurial growth and success. Social networks are the reason we humans survived as a species. All the social media platforms managed to tap into this fundamental psychology. Take 10 minutes to manage, tag, and organize your contacts to make the process more efficient down the road.
How to implement emotion-focused coping
The second strategy, emotion-focused coping, is used when a person feels that the situation is outside their control, or when the distress is too overwhelming to be changed at the moment. Emotion-focused coping tends to predominate in times when a person believes (and accepts) that the stressor simply has to be endured for a certain period of time.
If your Coping Score was in the 0-40% range, then this is low likelihood that a constructive change can be made to the situation. It suggests the stressor will need to be endured for the time being. This is when emotion-focused coping should be used to deal with the stress. It’s important to know that emotion-focused coping should be a temporary strategy, as it doesn’t actually deal with the root cause of the problem.
Here are some tactics that you can use to manage stress in life:
- Seek out social support for emotional reasons. Unlike the instrumental social support mentioned above, this is more about getting support from others around you. Its purpose isn’t to acquire information, but instead to get moral support and sympathy from others. It’s quite simple. It involves you talking about the stress you’re going through.
- A word of caution: Venting and intensely focusing on these emotions is useful, but only for short periods of time. Sustained venting can become maladaptive and create more anxiety because it focuses the person’s attention back to the source of stress each time it’s done. It can also limit the person’s ability to see possible problem-focused coping approaches. To avoid this, set a date for yourself after which you aren’t allowed to vent to others. You can also get honest feedback from your support people. Ask them if your focus on the stress (and the venting sessions) has gone on too long.
- Engage in “psychological distancing”. This can be done in order to separate yourself from the anxiety and stress. Do this by writing out on a page the stressful situation you’re encountering. But instead of using the word “I”, use your name (go from first person to third person). This simple trick alleviates the anxiety in the brain. Gaining some distance from the source of stress can help broaden your thinking and expose you to possible solutions that you might otherwise not come across. It allows you to see the bigger picture. It helps to make negative situations less emotionally disturbing and to also reduce cardiovascular activity.
- Notice that distancing does NOT mean disengaging. You’re still relating to the anxiety and stress but from a less personal angle. Make sure you aren’t doing any sort of behavioral or mental disengagement. This happens when a person reduces the effort of dealing with the stress or separating themselves from the goal associated with the anxiety altogether. It comes in the form of distraction, denial, suppression, day-dreaming, escaping through sleep or other mundane activities like watching TV or checking one’s phone, etc.
- Manage your distressing emotions rather than dealing with the stressor head-on. This is called “positive reappraisal.” Here you try to reappraise the stressful situation and frame it in a more positive (or less negative) way. Sounds simple enough, but we rarely engage in this because our default response is to always focus on the negative. With positive reappraisal, you’re consciously and actively choosing to see the silver lining of the stressful situation.
- For example, let’s say you’ve noticed top talent leaving from your team. The first reaction would be to see all the possible negative implications. But instead you could reappraise and see this is as a way to improve the team and culture of the business and to retain new talent coming through the doors. Or you could also tell yourself that this is a natural part of the startup world and that these things come and go in waves.
- Remember, emotion-focused coping is temporary. Same goes for this positive reappraisal tactic. You don’t want to forever reappraise the situation in a positive light. The negative information could lead you to a possible solution. Switch back to more “negative” reappraisal after a short period of time in order to get a fresh perspective on the problem at hand. This switch out of positive reappraisal can be the thing that pushes you out of emotion-focused coping and into problem-focused coping.
A step-by-step scientific guide to overcoming past, present and future anxiety
Recap on tactics for coping with stress and anxiety
One strategy in coping with stress isn’t better than the other. Emotion-focused coping gives you time, a fresh perspective, and a bit of breathing room before making a decision. Problem-focused coping, as the name suggests, is when the real problem-solving happens.
They’re most valuable in combination. If you rush to the problem-focused coping stage right away, you might lose site of the bigger picture. And if you dwell for too long in the emotion-focused coping stage, the problem (and its solution) will eventually disappear.
To recap, remember the following system the next time you begin to feel the anxiety and stress coming on:
- Dissect the anxiety to get your Coping Score and determine whether a problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping strategy is more appropriate for that particular stressor.
- Check your Coping Bias and know whether you’re at greater risk of making a Coping Mismatch Error. This means knowing your natural tendencies and being mindful of their effect on you.
With this information, correctly apply any of the emotion-focused or problem-focused tactics listed above. Try out as many as you can. Figure out which ones work best for you. Keep them in your arsenal for future use.
And a final note: be proactive! Don’t wait for the point when your anxiety becomes an overwhelming sense of panic or dread. Invest the time in yourself beforehand. Remember, a calm mind is a productive and creative mind.