Let me let you in on a little secret about Entrepreneurs.
It’s something that a lot of us share.
Something that we all know, but almost never talk about. The rest of the world sees only glimpses of what Entrepreneurship truly is – but they usually don’t see this.
And that is this: a lot of Entrepreneurs experience some form of trauma.
In my experience this trauma in entrepreneurs is expressed through a couple of avenues.
Firstly, trauma may be a result of a history of subtle and explicit physical and/or emotional abuse. This may be as extreme as repeated violence or verbal abuse, or as simple as physical bullying at school or limiting beliefs at home such as “that’s not for people like you John,” “you are no good,” “you are dumb,” etc.
They may even be psychosocial such as in a lower-income living situation where you are conditioned to believe you can’t escape. Obviously these may even co-exist to a large extent and the root causes and implications are beyond the scope of this essay.
Secondly, the journey of entrepreneurship may have a traumatic impact on the psyche. As an entrepreneur you are feeding a primal and evolutionary need to provide; for your family, your employees, your investors, your own expectations. If this is shaken and compromised during the Entrepreneurial journey – which it inevitably will be at some point – it can leave you open to emotional wounds that I refer to here as trauma.
Not traumatized to the point that they can’t get out of bed in the morning (though some of them are), but traumatized none the less.
The psychological understanding of trauma is any damage to the psyche that results from a severely distressing event or series of events. It occurs as an inability to deal with or integrate the emotions related to that experience, though symptoms are often delayed, sometimes even by years.
The reality of trauma is that it exists on a spectrum. The average entrepreneur sits somewhere above the average person, or can experience PTSD symptoms of a war veteran. Everyone has different experience and related effects
“God has mercifully ordered that the human brain works slowly; first the blow, hours afterwards the bruise.” – Walter de La Mare
The Silent Trauma of Entrepreneurship
On the outside, Entrepreneurs appear to be some of the most confident and grounded people we encounter in society. But the average person seems to overlook the wider story of entrepreneurship, and instead focuses on high light reels of accomplishment like:
White sandy beach vacations, the appearance of lots of free time, no cap on income, etc.
What is not seen happening behind the scenes is coffee infused late nights, week days and weekends that bleed into one-another, cancelled contracts, lost deals, etc.
Entrepreneurs deal with more stress than the average person, and when they don’t have time or an outlet to release it, it can catch up to them. The result is psychological trauma. And one way this manifests itself in the world of entrepreneurship is negative self-talk. The story we tell ourselves (inner story) is where the real game is played!
We’re all familiar with these types of thoughts.
“You are worthless.”
“You’ve been doing this for years, why do you still suck at this?”
“Just give up. You’ve always been a loser.”
“You’re such a complainer.”
“Man up. Work Harder. You don’t work hard enough.”
“Why do you keep making the same mistake?”
These voices are real. They stifle entrepreneurs of all kinds, from the 21 year old college kid learning to code from his dorm room, to the CEO of a Fortune 500 – experience doesn’t matter, everyone has this kind of thinking…
But why does this happen?
To begin with, the brain has an inherent negativity bias. As far as we understand it, this was probably developed to keep us on our toes. From an evolutionary perspective, if 40,000 years ago we heard a rustle in the bushes, it made sense for our brain to tell us that it was a blood hungry leopard rather than a belly-filling turkey.
This is because the result of it being a turkey is relatively insignificant, it’s just another meal. Meanwhile the result of it being a leopard is very significant, it could mean no more meals – ever.
The result is that our sympathetic nervous system doesn’t know how to differ between real and imagined stressors. Relatively insignificant events or situations trigger the stress response and leave us stuck with negative thoughts that can derail and even destroy our creative endeavours.
Part of the reason that negative self-talk is so effective at destroying our confidence is that it comes from within. It speaks in our voice. It is so powerful that it can even become our day to day identify. And we mistakenly believe that these voices are “us”, that they are our ‘identity’. These thoughts happen lightning fast and are often hitting triggers in your brain so quickly that it is quite a challenge……and almost impossible to arrest them at the source.
Why? The Stories we tell ourselves are powerful habits learned early in life. Jim Loehr wrote a book called “The Power of Story: Change your story, Change your Destiny in Business and in Life.” The 17 seconds in between tennis points is critical, but what about the Entrepreneur managing this all day long???Jim got his start and made a big impact in the sports world and in particular with tennis players. The game of tennis is very psychological and the strong players tell themselves in between points is critical in determining high performance.
In sports it is socially acceptable to engage with a sports psychologist…..but what about an entrepreneur? How do they let someone know that their ‘stinking thinking’ is killing them, their families, and/or their business. You can’t. The risk is too great. In the sharing of this weakness you are opening up an aspect of yourself a vulnerability that is probably too big for you in order to bridge this chasm.
Another part is that such thoughts are perceived to reflect a weakness. And because of their interior nature, the rest of the world fails to see the damage. It can be difficult or even embarrassing to ask for help when you are living a life that many others only dream of.
But as an entrepreneur you have a responsibility to ask for help. A responsibility to your team, your investors, and importantly, your family. When you are constantly hijacked by traumatic thoughts, what happens to your energy? What happens to your focus? Your vision?
How does your family suffer when you’re aren’t personally healthy?
There is an entire eco-system you are involved in, and you owe it to them to ask for help.
The Cold Reality of Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurs are constantly facing what are often cold truths, head-on. The lifestyle requires a forceful undertaking of high stress and potentially emotionally damaging situations.
The degree to which this phenomenon could be manifesting itself in Entrepreneurship has yet to be explored in detail, but we can predict some findings through other studies.
A recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman at the University of California San Francisco, showed that of more than 240 entrepreneurs surveyed 49% had a mental health condition, the three most common being depression (30%), ADHD (29%) and anxiety (27%).
Keeping in mind that resilience, grit, determination, and rugged individualism are some of the most admired traits in the business world, and depression is still stigmatized, meaning that these numbers could likely be even higher.
Another study Dahl and Nielsen (2010) found that there was a significant relationship between entering entrepreneurship and receiving prescriptions for antidepressants for both the entrepreneurs and their spouses.
There are quite a lot of pressures on entrepreneurs and their families. Medication can be a bridge or/and umbrella of relief in a stormy situation.
Despite the demonization and shame and guilt surrounding medical pill options, when times are rough and either you are really suffering, or those around you are deeply impacted by you; you may need more instant relief. Sometimes medication is the smartest and the most compassionate option while you sort through your situation.
Depth and Root Cause Solutions
You can’t live your entire life though in an emergency state and some of you really do want to get to the bottom of your entrepreneurial / life issues that cause your depression, anxiety, etc. If this is the case, how do you go deeper and find real solutions for yourself?
- Learn to forgive yourself for the shame and guilt you feel and experience around your negative voices, depression and anxiety. If depression was so easy to solve, it would have been solved many years ago. It is a big issue, but you are big enough to navigate through it.
- Accept your circumstance not because you are giving into the problem, but because with a certain humility you will be able to go at this problem with an intelligence and a wisdom that is more profound as you realize that this problem is more widespread than you ever imagined.
- Recognize that you can’t aggressively tackle this issue with your old methods. In my experience methods like medication, talk therapy, reading, journaling, meditation, mindfulness, self-help seminars, retreats, exercise, adventures, etc. were all important steps in my journey, but they didn’t offer me permanent relief.
Let’s take a look at a therapy to combat extreme stressors presented to entrepreneurs daily.
You may have an academic understanding of your issue/neurosis/depression/anxiety etc. from years of talk therapy. This understanding is very helpful since you have developed a grounding in the genesis of your issues. You get what I mean. This essay is not about origin stories. I want to get to solutions.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein
So how do we face these voices? We need to go deeper.
In order to neutralize negative self-talk, we need to learn how to control our relaxation response in the midst of stress. It has been my experience as I reached higher and higher levels of complexity my physiology, beliefs, mental constructs were not keeping pace with my vision and my results that I was creating and intended to create more of. As stress increases I wanted to relax and not panic as I encountered new triggers in my entrepreneurial life.
Mindfulness-related trainings, such as meditation and yoga, hi impact training for Iron Man’s weight lifting, etc. certainly helped in managing stress response but I needed something even deeper. I didn’t want to manage anymore I wanted a direct impact to my nervous system to settle me down so I wouldn’t panic inside during my entrepreneurial journey.
Enter the Great Psychological Reboot: Cold Exposure Therapy
If our minds were computers, many of us would be running every program on the CPU in the background. Imagine still running your Windows XP or Win 95 machine and capabilities in the background while you are trying to optimize your Windows 7 or 10 laptop. Maybe you never cleared the viruses and infections (of old) and you kept carrying them forward upgrade after upgrade. As a result, the device would get slow, confused, and efficiency and problems would multiply…..you would be frustrated as a user for sure.
For many of you this is what is happening as a metaphor in your life.
You are infected with limiting beliefs, the psychological equivalent of malware. Is there a body system re-boot of your physiology, something to ‘windex the mind’? A way to clean the system in order to get the body back to a natural state?
Enter Cold Exposure Training
Cold Exposure Training is the practice of intentionally exposing your body to the cold, typically with temperatures below your comfort level and often at or below freezing. As a result of these changes, your body attempts to regulate its’ internal state, and there are some positive psychological and physiological health benefits. The principle is not particularly new, we’ve used the manipulation of cold and hot in order to reap health benefits as far back as the baths of Ancient Rome.
CET has seen a huge explosion in popularity in the few years with widespread endorsement of Cryotherapy by athletes, CEOs and celebrities, and the rising mainstream popularity of multiple record breaking superhuman Wim Hof.
One practice of cold exposure that has proven very effective, is that of Hof himself, aptly named ‘The Wim Hof Method’ where he combines specific breathing techniques with cold exposure, and is actually able to control his body’s physiological stress response.
“Challenges bring about the true nature within me. It alerts my body and mind, altering my state of being. It makes me feel so alive! It’s like I always say, “We can do more than what we think.” At those moments when I encounter a challenge, I become extremely aware of the deeper layers of my soul.” – Wim Hof, Becoming the Iceman
The ability to teach yourself how to self-regulate one’s stress response I believe is one of the primary benefits of Wim’s trainings. To learn more about Wim’s strategies the best blogs and podcasts resources I have found are innerfire.nl, Bill Murphy’s RedZone podcast, Tim Ferris, Ben Greenfield, Joe Rogan.
Cold Exponential Training (CET) requires two parts
- Breathing and
- Mental focus/visualization.
These two practices force you quickly into a deep mindful state. Practitioners typically start with cold showers, before moving on to ice baths and if possible more intense methods such as walking through snow and swimming in ice cold lakes.
Fortunately there are dozens of studies on the positive benefits of cold exposure. A study published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine that looked at winter swimmers found that the repeat exposure to oxidative stress from the cold water lead to significant improved anti-oxidative adaptation – put simply, their bodies were better able to tolerate stress, and in the workplace this would translate into a calmer, more controlled leader, particularly in situations of duress.
Navigating the Three Layered Brain
While the Brain is inherently complex, there is one way we can look at the brain which can help us tackle the voices of trauma.
Put simply the brain evolved in three distinct layers; the reptilian brain (responsible for the flight-or-fight), the mammalian brain (also known as the emotional or social brain), and the neocortex (responsible for language and rational thought).
Depression and associated negative self-talk occur largely in the reptilian brain, through physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms. What follows is a trickledown effect as these signs fuel our emotions in the mammalian brain and our thoughts in the neocortex.
However what most of us try to do is talk our way out of a problem. But trying to calm the reptilian brain by reasoning with it, is like trying to do therapy in foreign language– you’re not going to get the point across. Likewise, there needs to be practical solutions; a bridge between academic knowledge to therapeutic understanding and a functional solution.
Depression and anxiety, Panic attacks, phobias, avoidance, addiction, diminished sexual activity, a struggle to love, nurture or bond – these are all different expressions of the same face of trauma.
Re-Connecting with the Body
It has been my experience that I hold trauma in my body and in my stomach. Cold exposure plus deep breathing re-connects me with my body.
It is counter-intuitive, but this process for me is like re-booting my body from the inside out. My physiology is reset.
This process of cold exposure and breathing begins a fast process of rewiring the circuitry of your body, your habituated thought patterns and responses. You literally re-teach your body how to relax in the face of an external stressor by going into the body and feeling the intensity of the cold. This approach of knowingly taking on stressors, feeling them deeply and relaxing with them is a powerful philosophy, and a metaphor for the challenges you face in life and as an entrepreneur.
Post Traumatic Growth
There is a fascinating area of psychology called Post Traumatic Growth. One of the leaders in this field is Jane McGonigal. She has been viewed millions of times in her ted talks and wrote a great book called SuperBetter, a revolutionary approach to being happier, braver and more resilient.
We touched on earlier the important ability of cold exposure to not only heal us, but to allow us to flourish, and this is exactly what can happen when trauma is reframed as a learning experience, and worked through with somatic therapies such as CET.
Exposure to physiological stressors can make us more psychologically resilient and thus provide the foundations for post traumatic growth.
Leverage your strengths of resilience, determined to heal by reaching out for inspiration from alternatives like CET. The experience of trauma among entrepreneurs is real phenomenon. It affects us all; ourselves, our families, our friends, our employees, and ultimately our businesses. The bottom line is that CET, along with yogic breathing, can rapidly help you improve your capacity for mindfulness, psychological and physiological resilience.
For leaders who require clarity, vision, emotional intelligence, and health, but are struggling with negative thoughts and relentless fatigue, this can be a God-send.
The Benefits of Depression
The de-stigmatization of depression is not a passive process. It requires active conversations, like the one you and I are having right now. We need to talk openly about our experiences with depression, anxiety, and the related symptoms. The black and white view of trauma as weakness is something that we need to discard.
“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” – Carlos Castaneda
When we accept the challenge to take mindfulness into our own hands, we are able to access a core strength that modern living rarely allows. In doing so we move past merely coping – we flourish.
Cold Exposure Therapy is one incredible way to tap into our native intelligence, one that we are far closer to than we realise, particularly when you consider how air conditioning and heated living is a very modern phenomenon. For all who may be going through such an experience, and many who may not, I recommend you embrace the lessons of the bitter nature of the cold, even if only once.
If you would like to know more about the incredible benefits of cold exposure, check out my interview with multiple world record holder Wim Hof and other related resources below.
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