How startup founders can fight stress and protect their mental health

Starting a company may be one of the most stressful things you can do in life. Here's how you can take better care of your mental health in the process.

Image: iStockphoto/LittleBee80

Earlier this year in researching an article I was working on, I set out to connect with Cambrian Genomics founder, Austen Heinz, to hear his thoughts on the issue I was writing about.

Before calling him, I decided to check for any latest news on his company so we could discuss it. It was then that I learned the shocking news that Heinz had committed suicide.

Heinz's untimely death was particularly upsetting because he always seemed overly positive and optimistic when I spoke with him before. The last time we chatted face to face, back in November 2014, he carried a smile the whole time.

Unfortunately, this incident wasn't isolated. The issue of mental health among startup founders is bigger than I imagined, and explained particularly well in this Business Insider article. According to a UCSF study cited in the article, 49% of founders reported having a mental-health condition, with depression topping the list. Compare that to the general US public, of whom 7% identified as depressed, according to CDC data.

Taking steps to protect one's mental health is important for all people, but especially so for startup founders. While not a definitive cure or treatment, here are some practical steps you can take to clear your mind and keep your stress in check.

Look for warning signs

One of the first things you can do to take charge of your mental health is to take time and dwell on how you actually feel, mentally. Ask yourself what's on your mind and respond honestly. If it helps, try writing your answers down.

Certain mental health issues can not only affect how we feel internally, but also our outward behavior. Ben Michaelis, clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, said that founders should take note of changes in their relational behavior and routines.

"If you find yourself getting into arguments more frequently than usual, if you are sleeping much less than normal for you, if your eating habits change significantly, or if you are using alcohol or substances more than usual, you are probably in the red zone and should seek out some help," Michaelis said.

Our bodies and our minds are more connected than we realize. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, stress and mental anguish can manifest physically as well.

"Also, long term effects of impaired mental health can show on your body as your immune system is affected. You can feel low, run down and even break out in hives, rashes and other skin conditions," said Michael Maven, marketing strategist for Carter and Kingsley.

Set your boundaries

Startups, in general, are known for their hectic routines. Founders have an expectation placed on them to always be "on" and working nonstop towards their goal. In some people's eyes, work/life balance should not be a part of the startup lifestyle.

Some people can handle a ceaseless workflow for extended periods of time without any ill effects, but they are likely the exception and not the rule. Holger Arians, CEO of Dominet Digital Corporation, recommends avoiding distraction and drawing a hard line in the sand when you can turn off.

"Work hard and efficient for 10 to 12 hours or so and then go home and do something completely different, something you love and can immerse in," Arians said. "That might be your family, a sport or a hobby."

A practical step you can take, Arians said, is to have an email blackout period -- a time period at which it is understood that you will not be reading or sending any emails. Another pattern, suggested by Maven, is to do 90 minutes of focused work followed by 30 minutes completely unplugged from your job as a rest period. Maven said this better follows the natural circadian rhythm of your body.

Outside of work, find something else you can be passionate about. For many, this is exercise or dancing. However, if you're more outgoing, maybe try an organized sport or class that puts you in contact with a new set of people you can hangout with. Finding something physical is key -- the Mayo Clinic reports that exercise lowers stress levels and improves mood.

Buddy up

No matter how independent you are, it's important to have people in your corner who care about you and who you can journey with as you get your company off the ground.

"The first thing that entrepreneurs need to have is a counterpart," Michaelis said. "If you or someone you know is a founder and you have a tendency to overwork yourself try connecting with a counterpart, coach, mentor or thought partner who you respect.

Keeping the right people close means that you will have someone looking out for you who can, hopefully, see the things in your life that you can't. This is useful for your business as well as your personal life.

Be open with your friends, family, and significant other about being honest with you, and be willing to receive what they have to say. You want people who will call you out for overworking yourself, and who also will hold you accountable for taking care of yourself.

Disclaimer: This article is not a means to diagnose, treat, or cure any mental illnesses you may be suffering from. If you believe you may be suffering from a mental illness, reach out to a medical professional immediately. If you are contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.

Also see