Tips for protecting your mental health—when your business is your baby

When I started my parenting journey, I wasn’t prepared for how I would struggle as my kids’ personalities began to emerge.

Sometimes I pause and think: Who are these tiny humans in my house?

They are certainly not the people I imagined they would be. While my children reflect some of who I am and who my partner is, they’ve developed their own sensitivities and habits—they aren’t just an extension of us anymore. Of course I love them, and I changed the expectations I created for them long ago. But sometimes who they are leaves me feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and out of control.

Do you have similar struggle when it comes to your business? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself similar questions:

What is this business? Where is my business going? What am I doing this for?

The business you imagined as a fledgling entrepreneur might not be what you see in front of you today. Whether it was the pandemic, personal circumstances, or other things beyond your control that changed your business, perhaps you’re reading this because your business is your baby, and it’s not what you thought it would be. That tension can be immensely draining.

Did you know that mental health issues disproportionately affect business owners?

The Journal of Small Business Economics found that mental health struggles, including depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disproportionally impact business owners—nearly 72% of them, in fact.

It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to understand why this is the case. Owning a business is stressful, especially when you’ve put all your proverbial blood, sweat, and tears into your business. But entrepreneurs are also more likely to be creative, innovative, and disruptive—the same research indicates there’s a link between those attributes and mental health issues.

Time to press pause.

This post is giving you permission to stop: you can’t change your expectations and respond to changes in your business if you’re not first taking care of yourself.

When it’s your business, you’re the parent. If I learned anything from the early days or parenting, it’s that you can put your baby down for a minute and walk away, even in the most stressful of seasons. Here are a few concrete ways to do that.

Find a hobby outside of your business.

For some of us, our businesses blossomed out of our favorite hobbies. Writing was my life-giving “happy place” for such a long time. But today, writing is my job.

And that means now I have to seek out other ways to be fulfilled outside of my work.

It’s awesome to get paid for something you love to do, but you need a break from it, too. Hobbies help you explore new skills, give you a mental break, and stimulate your brain in new ways. People who have hobbies are less stressed, experience less negative emotions, and even have lower heart rates. Here’s a bit of guidance on how to think about finding that hobby.

  • Keep it simple.
    For most of us, having a hobby does not mean signing up for trumpet lessons or driving 45 minutes to a painting workshop. It shouldn’t inconvenience you. It can be as simple as going on a daily walk or a weekly hike, joining a book club, or buying a stack of adult coloring books or puzzles.

  • Consider alone time.
    Signing up for a softball league might sound really fun, but before you commit, ask yourself whether you need to recharge solo or with other people (ideally who have nothing to do with your job). If you’re forced to be extroverted all day but get your energy from alone time, make sure your hobby incorporates the solitude you need.

  • Make sure it’s fun.
    In her book The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, science journalist Catherine Price defines True Fun scientifically as those activities in our lives that have playfulness, connection, and flow. Does your hobby make you feel like a kid? Does it help you feel connected to the world around you or to the people with you? Do you lose track of time when you’re doing it? Then do that thing.

Carve out wind-down time.

After my kids go to bed, I need a solid couple of hours to unwind and be an adult human without my kids to protect my mental health. The same can be said for business owners. When our jobs come home with us, we don’t get the mental break we need and end up staying up all hours of the night to get that time to ourselves.

I’m giving you permission to make your workdays and hours concrete and non-negotiable.

Start by answering the question: when don’t I want to work? It’s a reversal of setting your work hours but it means you set aside the time that’s most valuable to you. Is it 4 to 6pm— because you pick up your kids from school and you’re sick of picking up work calls during snack time? Is it after 8pm, because you need that time with your spouse?

(By the way, if you need some help answering the phones or responding to web customers after you’ve signed off for the day, Ruby has a solution for that.)

Move your body.

We got a puppy a few months ago, and I’ve been walking her every morning. I’ve felt the effects of that morning walk on my mental health. I am markedly more patient with people when I get exercise.

Exercise can feel like work for many of us, and it takes a lot to map out the time in our day for movement.

Here’s my tip: do a screen time trade.

If you swipe left on your iPhone home screen, you get an in-depth analysis of your screen time for the day (here’s how to do the same thing on an Android). Yesterday, I spent 2 hours and 20 minutes on my phone, and it didn’t feel like much.

What if you traded 20-30 minutes of your screen time for a walk? Walking or running (or a mix of both) actually restructures your brain and is one of the most powerful methods of mental health intervention. It also happens to be free.

For the actual science behind exercise and mental health, here you go.

Know when it's time to seek help.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. 42% of Americans seek out the help of a therapist. That number should probably be much higher.

You’re an entrepreneur. You almost certainly have a do-it-yourself attitude with most things. Your mental health shouldn’t be a do-it-alone affair.

It’s hard to know when you’re at a breaking point and need to seek that professional help. For me, it was when I realized my stress was causing negative effects on my relationships with my family, and I couldn’t break the pattern on my own.

There are a quite a few signs that professional help might be a great step, including apathy, consistent feelings of being overwhelmed, and disproportionate anger or resentment toward your work or others. If you’re not quite ready to try in-person therapy sessions, there are some great online tools and therapists you can use to get yourself comfortable with the experience of therapy.

The bottom line: your brain needs a break.

Taking just one of these tips to heart creates space for your brain to rest and rebuild so that you can return to your business with energy, and protect your mental health. Just like parenting, it’s about the long game, even when it feels overwhelming in the short term.

For more resources on mental health, check out The National Alliance on Mental Illness.