How I manage a business with depression and anxiety

Image: Shutterstock / KieferPix

Were living at a time when things are played out in public more than ever before. Spend a few minutes on Facebook, then hop over to TechCrunch, and you see countless examples of your peers killing it, crushing it, or whatever the verb of the week might be. However, theres often a deep chasm between media illusion and reality.

The fact is that life can be stressful, lonely, and utterly depressing at times. Yet these normally arent the adjectives used on Facebook or at cocktail events.

I started a software company after law school for $100. I ended up selling it for $20 million to Intuit. Ive since built another company thats grown into a multi-million-dollar business. Ive got an incredible husband (and business partner) and four thoughtful, beautiful, and talented kids. Ive been featured on radio, TV, and print. And, except for the times when I forget to bring the snack for the football team, I probably look like Ive got things together.

But thats only part of the story. Underneath the smile, self-doubt and anxiety are often running the show.

I wake up worried that were burning through cash, and that Im going to let my husband down. I worry that sales are soft. I havent done enough, and Ill need to let some employees go. Ive had panic attacks where I literally couldnt drive my car; one time I fainted on the bathroom floor. When Im interviewed about my success, part of me feels like a fraud. And when I sold that first business for 20 million? I ended up feeling hollow and empty like okay, what the hell am I supposed to do now?

I dont say any of this to gain sympathy or make the case that a CEOs life is harder than anyone elses. Rather, Id like to underscore that we are all humans and as such, we all have struggles, whether theyre visible or not. I used to believe that CEOs had everything together or at least every CEO but me. I now realize that we all have our own baggage and shit to deal with. We just tend not to talk about it in the corporate world.

So, how do I manage my anxiety and depression while running a business? Here are a few things Ive learned in this journey:

You are not your business

For more than a decade, I allowed myself to be defined by my businesss performance its revenue, profit, client ratings, and employee satisfaction. The problem here is that every failure (and there are always failures) was a crushing blow to my self worth. When you see each little mistake as hurting your value as a human being, decisions become scarier and scarier to make to the point where simple things become downright agonizing.

You are NOT your business. Your business comes from your passion, creativity, and hard work. But its just one expression of you its not who you are. If you have children, you may have realized that your kids have minds and identities of their own. While your children may reflect parts of you, they are not you and you are not your children. Its the same with your business.

Build a balanced life that embraces all the other parts of your identity your values, family, friends, hobbies, side projects, and other interests. Its important to know that you matter outside of work. Your self worth should never be defined by your business worth (or your net worth, for that matter).

Take care of yourself physically

Stressed out entrepreneurs often make themselves less emotionally resilient by neglecting their physical health. You know what Im talking about. Your diet sucks. You dont get enough sleep. You sleep with your smartphone by your side. Youre too busy to go to the gym. But when you abuse your body, your mood and emotional health suffer.

After realizing the link between my own stress, exhaustion, and panic attacks, I started adopting simple rituals like aromatherapy, green tea, and meditation. Im at the gym for a fitness or dance class every morning (its as big a priority as any other appointment in my calendar).

Ive also learned to change my mindset when it comes to work and time off of work. Smartphones, combined with ego, create an over-inflated sense of urgency where you start thinking that every email, text, and voicemail requires your immediate response. But, guess what the world wont come crashing down if I dont check my email every night.

Set your schedule

People are attracted to entrepreneurship in order to have more control over their career and life. However, the reality is often quite the opposite: youll soon find yourself pulled in a hundred different directions, needing to answer to clients, customers, investors, media, partners, employees, etc. When youre pulled in all these different directions, its easy to become grouchy and lose sight of the bigger picture.

As a CEO and entrepreneur, its important to set your agenda and take charge of how you spend your time. You cant please everyone (this is another big lesson Im still trying to learn). Youll need to focus on the things that are a priority for you and the business. You can still say yes to things, but just be sure to frame your participation in terms of whats realistic for you.

Talk about it

Being CEO can be a lonely experience. And, the loneliness is exacerbated when you feel the need to mask your emotions and play along with the fake it until you make it mantra.

Start to share your true feelings and fears with others with your spouse, your friends, your colleagues and employees. If youre struggling with something, tell someone. Its downright terrifying at first but trust me, this will be a game changer. When you can open yourself up and be emotionally honest, you can finally connect more deeply with everyone around you.

It has been freeing to admit that my company has ups and downs. By letting go of the illusion that everything is perfect, I can make smarter decisions for the business. Im no longer driven by fear or shame.

Get professional support

Most importantly, dont be afraid to ask for help: see a therapist or other mental health professional if you are experiencing significant anxiety or depression. In all honesty, I think everyone whether they have symptoms of anxiety or depression can benefit from a weekly or monthly check-in. Therapy can help you navigate specific issues, as well as give you much-needed time to reflect and grow. Regular sessions with a good therapist can be one of the best investments you make for yourself as an individual and business leader.

I dont want to discourage anyone from starting a business. Even with the struggles, I wouldnt want to choose any other path. Hopefully, some parts of my experience can help you with your own journey. And, if things are tough, theres no shame. It isnt easy for any of us.

For more resources on how to seek professional help, visit the American Psychological Association’s website. For international resources, this list is a good place to start. If you need urgent assistance, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Nellie Akalp is an entrepreneur, business expert, speaker, author, wife ,and mother to four. She is the founder & CEO of, an online legal document filing service, where she helps entrepreneurs incorporate, form LLCs, file DBAs and keep their businesses in compliance.

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