The super-successful C-suite crowd suffer from depression disproportionality. Though they often want to make positive differences, sometimes they get burnt out or depressed. Some of the most successful people in history have suffered from relentless incapacitating depression — some have won or continued the battle. Some have sadly lost to it. Let’s talk about it.
“… you have moderate depression”. That was 10 months ago. It came as a shock to me, but not a surprise. Looking back the signs were all there — I had trouble focusing, I lacked motivation, simple tasks seemed liked moving mountains, my muscles were tight, I often felt exhausted, I was overly emotional. All through I just kept telling myself I was burnt out and needed a good holiday.
The clincher was when I started having suicidal thoughts. I knew I wouldn’t act on them but they very idea of having them terrified me. I felt scared being alone. I didn’t know why or what to do about them as there were many things I knew I was grateful for. I almost thought I was intelligent enough to beat them. (There’s a type A personality for you!!) A couple of days later I was so terrified of what was going on inside my head, I worked up the courage to sit by my partner’s side and share the thoughts going through my mind. He was amazing — he held my hand as he listened, he didn’t judge me and just suggested we talk to someone who can help us. The next day we saw a psychiatrist. I finally felt like I wasn’t in this alone.
When I was at University, some of my relatives and friends had depression and I’d kind of think: “Why don’t they get their act together and be positive?” Unfortunately Depression doesn’t work like that, you can’t flick a switch in your head that suddenly makes you happy and positive. It’s a chemical imbalance, a medical condition and very often genetic.
The video, "I had a black dog, his name is depression" is the best explanation of depression I know of.
Emotionally Exhausted. Physically Depleted. Numb. Lonely. Sad. Hopeless. Wanting to crawl back into Bed. That’s what depression felt like for me.
It’s bloody scary. For the first time in my life I understood how someone with depression could bring themselves to commit suicide.
Honestly, I’ve never been so terrified in my life.
To anyone external, I could understand why it didn’t make sense — I had all the ingredients of happiness and success. I had an incredible partner, caring and inspiring friends, I lived in a gorgeous house and was working on my passion. I had the dream social business that I’d c0-founded with friends. Sure, the journey to become a social entrepreneur had been a roller-coaster ride, but our company had just our most successful year and we were finally in a really good financial position. So why was I depressed?
The reality is that 1 in 4 people will suffer from depression or some form of mental illness in their lifetime. When you consider 9 out of 10 start ups will fail and the pressure in leading a business, it’s no surprise that depression rates amongst co-founders, entrepreneurs, leaders and employees in start-ups is high. In a recent survey of 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49 percent reported having a mental health condition. That’s 1 in 2, double the rate of the average population!
After hearing the words “you have moderate depression”, it took me a couple of days before I called up friends who I knew had battled depression. Then I talked to my Co-Founder and other friends I knew I could trust. Then wider friend circles. Then after a couple weeks I worked up the courage to tell my parents and share with them why I thought I had depression. A month later I emailed our business mentors and advisors to let them know why we’d be laying a bit lower as a business for the next 6–12 months. All of these people were incredibly supportive and many people would open up and share their own battles or friends’ battles with depression.
Being the co-founder of a company is the hardest thing I’ve ever done to date. My thoughts would be “You have to be strong”, “You can’t show your weaknesses”, “You have to ride the highs and lows”.
Many start ups or co-founders especially don’t want to talk about depression because of the fear of being seen as a failure. The cultures of entrepreneurship and business make communicating depression hard.
I’m writing this because talking and sharing with my team, friends, family and doctors has been the biggest keys to me understanding my depression and feeling much better again. I’m very lucky to have an incredible partner, co-founders, team, friends, family and mentors who listened to me without judgment and have taken care of me.
I’m in a place now where I can see the positives of my battle with Depression and most of the time feel grateful that I’ve experienced this. I say that because of what it has taught me and how it‘s helped me to change my lifestyle. But should any anyone get so close to the edge before they realise they need to change?
I’m still on my road to recovery and working out my triggers and how to manage them. Here’s some of my thoughts based on my discussions with doctors, my experience and reading:
1. Be vulnerable and share. After all, is your job or your startup really worth more than your life?
As a leader I often felt I needed to be strong — almost show no weakness. After-all, will your team trust you if you’re weak? Will your mentors want to work with you if you’re all over the place? Will investors invest if they know you’re struggling on a personal level? Most startups are trying to send signals they’re doing well and that they’re backable. It’s hard for anyone, especially a founder to say “I’m having trouble”.
Depression taught me vulnerability. My relationships with my co-founders, team, friends, family and mentors are all the more stronger for that. I’m now super proud of the openness we have within our team. This experience has taught me to openly cry in front of my friends or in public and to be okay with that. Once you accept being vulnerable, you can discover incredible strength you didn’t even know you had.
I encourage you to build a support network you can rely on and you can share anything with. Do you have friends or a support network you can truly share with?
I love this video made in Australia which encourages guys to talk about their feelings.
2. Understand Your Limits & Schedule Regular Breaks Off Grid
Before I realised I had depression, work had become the biggest part of my life and I wasn’t able to switch off. 3 years ago we had the makings of an awesome business, but it took effort, struggles, ups and downs, sweat and tears to bring it fruition. Looking back I pushed myself too hard without giving myself down time. You can also practice mindfulness through daily meditation.
I ended up taking about 3 months off from work to focus on myself, then have slowly eased back into work over the past 6 months. That’s a lot of time off!
When work is busy it might seem hard to take time off, but it’s critical. We all need time off. My partner and I now take at least 1 week off grid every quarter and we’re now making it a point to take weekend adventures away every month or two.
I realise as well I need weekends off — so now I don’t work unless it’s mission critical (and I really mean critical).
And I’m learning to realise what is in my control and not stress about things so much. If you're a serial micromanager or feel like you have too much on your plate, then try outsourcing some of the work or sharing the load.
I am learning to let go.
If you’re looking to develop a better work-life balance I recommend checking out this article on work-life balance or reading Start Up life by Brad Feld, a serial entrepreneur who has also battled depression.
3. Get some Aerobic Exercise!
Doing exercise and spending time outdoors has always been my way of switching off or relieving stress. But a couple of years ago, I started getting very tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, and developed headaches and pain. I tried chiropractors, massages and other ways to try to take the pain away so I could do sports, but nothing seemed to work. I progressively did less exercise and by the end of last year I was no longer doing any of the sports or exercise that I love.
When I stopped doing sport due to a sore neck, I lost my outlet for relaxation & stress relief. For many people, sport is an outlet for stress and actually makes them feel much better!
I’m lucky to have found an awesome physiotherapist and yoga therapist that I’ve been working with over the past 10 months to strengthen weak muscles and get my body muscles working properly again.
15 minutes of aerobic activity daily is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant. It’s not to say anti-depressants aren’t good, it’s instead an indication of how good exercise is for you. Your brain records a victory — and that gives you a boost. Physically it also improves your overall physical health and functioning — read up about your thyroid and you’ll understand why.
There’s not much point dragging yourself to the gym though if you don’t like it — find something you love. And if you’re struggling to find the time, build it into your daily routine, for example, cycle or run to the office; or run with your dog in the morning.
4. Cultivate Habits for Happiness and Gratefulness
Turns out there’s a science behind happiness. Here’s a few practices that I’ve loved doing over the past months:
- 3 Acts of Gratitude — Writing down at the end of the day 3 specific and new things I’m grateful for and also sharing this with my partner
- The “Doubler” — visualising for 2 minutes at the end of the day the favourite positive experience for the day. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualisation and actual experience!
- Breathing — taking time out for me to just breathe and be mindful.
- Meditation — this was initially daunting for me. I’d almost be anxious at the idea of sitting and doing nothing. What I had to realise is that it’s not about sitting down and blocking out negative thoughts, but instead focusing on something else (e.g. your breath) and letting thoughts come and go.
Practicing meditation has given me space and framework to see life, relationships, thoughts, feelings much more clearly.
If you’re looking for a good way to get into Meditation, you might enjoy this app, Headspace.
Check out the scientific basis for meditation — including impact on stress, relationships, focus and well being.
5. Take time to do things you love and that relax you
Since I was young I always loved gardening and doing art — but after leaving school I’ve not been good at making time to do them. Taking more time off this year has given me the time to re-connect with these passions.
Can you put aside a couple of hours a week to enjoy your passions?
6. Take Responsibility for a pet and/or Spend time with friends and family
Social connection is critical for us as humans. Only once I got depression and stopped to reflect did I realise how much I’d stopped spending time with friends and family.
A few days after finding out I had depression, my partner suggested we think about getting a dog. He’d always seen dogs have a really positive happy influence in his parents lives when work was busy. Turns out pets can have a tremendous impact on health. We ended up adopting a gorgeous puppy from SPCA — he ensures I spend heaps of time outdoors and have lots of love and hugs in my life! :) And that I get back into following a routine and developing confidence again.
7. Realising it is about the journey
“Attitude is more important than facts. …It will make or break a business, a home, a friendship, an organization. The remarkable thing is I have a choice every day of what my attitude will be. I cannot change my past. I cannot change the actions of others. I cannot change the inevitable. The only thing I can change is attitude. Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it.” - Charles Swindoll
Why get stressed or become overwhelmed by how much work needs to be done, when instead we can make the decision to see them as a challenge or learnings?
During my recovery of the past 10 months I realised that the more I focused on overcoming Depression, the more I’d struggled to feel better. As soon as I focused on enjoying the journey — the little things like spending time with my partner, playing with my puppy, cooking and eating good food, adventures outdoors, the better I started to feel.
Being a co-founder or being in business is the same. You hopefully started the business because it’s something you love, and you wanted to turn that passion into something you can do instead of your 9–5 job. But somewhere along the journey, many of us forget why we started and instead become focus only on the goals or end game.
Over the past 10 months, my partner has often read this quote to me in the mornings, which sums up pretty well how i’m trying to approach life —
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
8. Clarify your Expectations.
There are some great legends in the start up community and a halo around the word entrepreneurship. We hear about public figures like Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. The not-so-successful entrepreneurs though are rarely spoken about and they’re the overwhelming majority. Nor are the crazy hours, the pressure, the stress, or your dwindling bank account. People often step into entrepreneurship unaware of what they’re getting into. Leadership or entrepreneurship is a hard slog.
Re-look at your expectations. Consider if they are they realistic.
9. Failure — Can you accept it?
Some of us don’t realise the baggage or the pressure we’re walking around with.
I felt that I couldn’t let our business fail — as then I’d be failing. I was often asked by people close to me if I really knew what I was I doing starting a company. Questions such as: “Are you sure you’re making smart financial decisions?” Over time I internalised this love and care the wrong way. This created a lot of pressure — I’d over think business decisions, stress about little things going wrong.
For me, I didn’t want to fail because that would mean all those questioning me would have been right. Now I know failure is fine. Depression is rock bottom — and there’s nothing that justifies going through it. My health and the health of my co-founders and team is far more important.
9 out of 10 start ups fail. Failure is an option and a real risk, but what’s more important is what we learn from it and how we can prevent it i.e. turning failure from an anxiety to something you can manage.
What happens if your venture fails? How will you cope with failure?
Think about it. Talk about it.
10. Get yourself checked up — the same way you’d have a physical check-up every couple of years
I love this ted talk where the speaker shares about why we visit doctors for physical pain, but not for emotional pain. He argues too many of us deal with common psychological challenges on our own, but don’t need to. He makes a compelling case to practice emotional hygiene — taking care of our emotions, our minds, with the same diligence we take care of our bodies.
I’d recommend at the very least understanding mental illnesses better so you can understand the symptoms. And if you ever feel emotional pain — loss, loneliness, anxiety, etc — then see a psychologist the same way you would if you broke your arm.
A consistent dialogue about depression is still missing from the business & startup world. Let’s start talking about it.
If you’re struggling, please talk to someone — a friend, your colleague, family or a doctor you feel comfortable with. Just take that first step. Just talk. I’m sharing below some resources i’ve find useful and a helpline for Singapore. As you keep sharing and talking honestly, everything else is more likely to work itself out in time.
Thank you and with love,
Laura Allen — Passionate Gardener & Artist, Sports & Outdoors Enthusiast, Partner — and Co-Founder and CEO, Gone Adventurin’