The Hard Truths Entrepreneurs Do Not Want To Talk About: Anxiety, Panic Attacks & Depression

„The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.“
Nelson Mandela

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to provide health-related solutions and is based on personal experiences only. There are other professions and individuals who are also affected by these symptoms. The author writes from an entrepreneurial-perspective as this is a chosen career-path by some individuals with all its consequences. 

Puh…It took me very long and courage to write about this topic. This is a topic that most entrepreneurs don‘t want to talk about but – unfortunately – most entrepreneurs have to go through it in one or the other way. Techcrunch wrote a master piece about the mental health crisis in startups end of last year including the study by Michael Freeman that concluded that “entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders”.
According to this study Founders are:

  • 2x more likely to suffer from depression
  • 6x more likely to suffer from ADHD
  • 3x more likely to suffer from substance abuse
  • 10x more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder
  • 2x more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization
  • 2x more likely to have suicidal thoughts

I was talking about the happiness advantage and how you can prime yourself to success. This article is more of a deep-dive of the 10% that I was writing about. Or as Patrick called it: the lowest lows. Talking to most entrepreneurs, everyone has his or her story and most people – including myself – are not publicly talking about it. I believe it is time to change this.

Screenshot 2019-11-21 16.09.41

In my case, I think I had my first mild depression when I was studying as the only Austrian student at McGill University in Montreal/Canada. It was the first time that I lived +6,000km away from my family & friends. On top of this, it was a very challenging environment: my study colleagues were speaking 6–8 languages, all had a near-perfect track-record and everyone seemed to be so incredibly smart. At the freshmen week our Dean invited scientists, olympics, and politicians who went to McGill. This was the first time I thought: I don‘t belong here. These people are all so amazing and I was ‚just‘ a lucky student who got the scholarship to study their as the only Austrian student. Weeks have gone by and I felt that everyone was so much smarter, had it so much better. On top of it, the University was living a real level of competitiveness. E.g. for major exams they have asked the people to pick-up their results in front of the whole class. So everyone knew whether you are in the top 10% – or the last 10% of the class. I was completely overwhelmed and it had an impact on my worldview. I thought that I am a complete loser to the level that I felt that I cannot properly speak english (actually, my english is still not perfect up to this date but I don’t care about it as much anymore 🙂 )

This was my impression. Not the reality though. The most extreme case was in Macroeconomic Development after the first term results. I told the person who was sitting next to me that I did very poorly. I expected to be in the last 10% of the class. Then, the Prof started with the worst results: Person A please pick-up your results, Person B you are next and so forth. Strangely (at least in my mind) I thought my name and/or results got lost. „I have to be in the last 10%“ my brain was telling me. Long story short: I was literally the last person who was called out and the Prof congratulated me for the best exam results. By this time, I lost all my credibility across my fellow students as they thought that I am this kind of nerd who tells everyone „how bad I was“ but then landed a perfect score. In my case, I was convinced that I was one – if not the – worst student. Now looking at my results from McGill I have only A‘s and one B- (which is the equivalent of a ‚high distinction‘ in Europe). But all the time there I was convinced that I won‘t make it and won‘t finish the university successfully. This is the problem with depression: you perceive the world as „bad“ although – in reality – you excel and/or succeed. It sounds paradox but this is mostly the case.

I got my first ‘real’ panic attack during my time at DailyDeal (which was eventually acquired by Google). I can roughly recall that I got to bed at 01.30am (after some heavy weeks and very little sleep) and woke up at 03.30am and thought that I am experiencing a heart attack. Luckily – at this time – I was living at my brothers place. So I rushed to him and said: „I think I am dying. I can‘t handle it anymore.“ Even more luckily he knew what to do, got me a relaxation pill, put me on the floor to relax and stayed with me until I ‚cooled‘ down. He was not pleased about this ‚brotherly‘ experience.

The Inside vs. The Outside Story

So everyone who looks at the outside DailyDeal/Google story says: Wow, congrats that your first company got acquired by Google. In reality, I am telling everyone that it was „heaven and hell at the same time“. People only see the outside story. Yes, the company got acquired. And yes, we all did financially well. But it came at a heavy cost. In my case, I had panic attacks, had literally abandoned my family & friends and only thanks to an accident before the acquisition, was forced to stay in hospital for 1 week – which was for me like a long, overdue holiday. One of my co-founders wasn‘t that lucky. He not only felt into a heavy depression but also had a pretty bad burn out. I am not sure if he ever recovered from this burn out but I can tell you that for 6–9 months he was technically not able to do the simplest things. It should be noticed that ‚burn out‘ is not a medical diagnosis but merely a fancy word to describe an exhaustion depression or post-stress depression (or a similar form thereof).

No One Wants To Talk About It

So the problem is: very few (if any) entrepreneurs are talking about it. Even for me, it is very difficult to talk about it. This is something that you don’t want to admit but the problem is that it is out of your control: if you are in this situation, you have to learn to admit & talk about it and seek for help. Strangely, if you have a flu you are going right away to the doctor. But if it is something about your (mental) state you are shy and don‘t want to look for help. Not surprisingly – same with the flu – it will not always help to ‚just suck it up‘.

Last year, I have gone through very intense times from February – June. I can recall when I was sitting with my girlfriend on the balcony and said: „I fucked it up. Really.“ I even put in my personal notes on 23rd May: „I came to the realisation that I failed.“ Without going too much into detail I was having +80 flights from Jan to May, trained for the Ironman 5–6x a week, started (or wanted to start) a new venture, bought 2 new apartments (leveraged), wanted to launch 2 additional regional offices and all of this literally at the same time: but then we got problems with our core business. With problems I mean: we were +100% off budget and had (unplanned) to let go of people. The last thing was hitting me the hardest as I hate to let go people if it is mostly not their fault. It was my/our fault in the management – and I was distracted and should have acted earlier. But I cannot change the facts. It definitely made a mark on me (and my health). Thankfully (and this is an understatement) I have a strong partner and an even stronger family. This unconditional love helped me massively during these challenging times. A strong belief can also help but this is something personal and depends on your on-going training and exercising of your belief.

So talking about help: couple of coping mechanism. This is a short list based on my 10 years experience as entrepreneur. I am sure there are other solutions that can help you in a similar situation so please see it as a short-guide to cope with such situations.

  • Find the balance to your work/life: This is again something very personal and there is no golden activity. For me, sport is definitely needed. And no, not the 6–7x a week intense training with an even more intense travel itinerary. But the 3–4x a week going for a run, tennis or mountain biking helps me to de-stress. Every week.
  • Practice mindfulness: This can be in form of yoga, meditation, praying or – if you train yourself long enough – being actively mindful and thankful. I meditate every morning after my work out and every 2nd or 3rd day in the evening for a better (& smooth) sleep. It takes couple of weeks to literally feel the difference so I can highly recommend to start early (and not only when it is super stressful). Recommended apps are breethe or Ten Percent (=Joseph Goldstein is my favourite guided meditator).
  • Reduce the workload: This is one of the most important parts (and challenging to get it ‚implemented‘). It might sound counter-intuitive but especially in intense phases it is important to focus on less: but then with full energy. With full energy I mean with the energy that is available. Which – in this phase – is more empty than full. But it greatly helps if you go „one step back“ so you can go „two steps ahead“ again.
  • Talk to friends & family or other entrepreneurs: The first one is usually very difficult for most people (incl myself) so I found it helpful to speak to other entrepreneurs about it. It is incredible how helpful other entrepreneurs are as most of us have gone through a similar situation. Reach out to your entrepreneur friends: it can really help you during this time (and also relativise your ‚problems‘). Or you can join one of the entrepreneur networks in your country. Alternatively, you can apply at SEA Founders if you are a Tech-Entrepreneur based in SEA.
  • Seek out professional help: I was technically diagnosed twice with a mild form of burnout. I am absolutely not proud of it. I merely want to speak or write about it that I have not fully learned my lessons. But ever since, I started to seek out professional help. This can be in form of a business coach, mentor/advisor, other entrepreneurs or a medical professional. Latter can be helpful in certain situations but not all of them will „understand“ your challenge. So I recommend to ask other entrepreneurs whom they can recommend to speak to. Please, if you are in this phase, seek out professional help. It is never „too late“.

So what I can do for you? In case you are going through ‚the struggle‘ – feel free to contact me and reach out. I have been there and I will likely know how you have (or will) feel. I will not promise anything but will try to help you – as an entrepreneur – as much as I have received help from other entrepreneurs.

I would like to end this article with a quote that helped me to write this article:

“Good timber does not grow with ease; the stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.”
J. Willard Marriott

Inspired by the articles of Fred Wilson and the open letter to Elon Musk.

Please help to share this article with the hashtag: #SpeakOut  — I hope that this simple gesture can help someone who is going through this struggle. Thanks for your support!

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