Maintaining your mental health has been hard for just about everyone the past two years, but keeping a good mental balance is always hard for entrepreneurs. Pre-pandemic research shows entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely than the general population to report having a mental health condition. They are twice as likely to suffer from depression and three times more likely to struggle with substance abuse.
Dealing with serious mental health issues often demands professional intervention, and many founders have opened up about how much therapy has helped them. But even better than treating mental health problems when they arise is preventing them in the first place.
Fill up your tank before you run out of gas.
Doing that can seem complicated, but according to one therapist, the basic building blocks of good mental health are less complex than they first appear. Sure, some people have complicated histories or complicated biology, but we all require the same few basic things to have the best shot at maintaining our mental equilibrium, clinical psychologist William Hwang explained on Psychology Today recently.
"Imagine your car stops working all of a sudden," he writes. Immediately, your brain starts racing and you think "my battery might be dead, or maybe I have a bad starter motor. It could be a problem with my engine, too," but he continues, "sometimes, it turns out that you just ran out of gas and need to fill up the tank."
We have the best chance of avoiding getting stranded on the side of the metaphorical road with a mental health breakdown if we check in with ourselves regularly to make sure we're getting enough of the essentials for good mental health. Hwang has developed an easy-to-remember acronym to help stressed-out entrepreneurs do just that: FUEL.
"It can be hard to recognize when we are running low until it's too late. The acronym F-U-E-L can help us remember to check whether our basic needs are accounted for before we reach for more complicated, perhaps unnecessary solutions," he writes before laying out what each letter stands for.
Humans are deeply social creatures. No wonder science has found again and again that rich social relationships are one of the most powerful mood boosters available. Good friends help us be more resilient, balanced, and ambitious. That's why the first step in Hwang's FUEL mental health check-up is to ask yourself how much you've seen of the people closest to you lately. If you have to scratch your head and think for awhile, maybe it's time you make time to reconnect.
Just as a house needs basic utilities like water and electricity to function as a home, your body needs some basic utilities to be taken care of for your mind to function as it should.
"Ask yourself if you are drinking enough water, getting the right kind and amount of energy through your diet, and keeping your body clean and free of the accumulated debris from daily living," suggests Hwang. It sounds simple, but things like diet and sleep can have a surprisingly profound impact on your mental health.
Same goes with exercise. "Exercising can re-energize us even if we think it is going to make us more tired and drained," Hwang reminds readers. Other experts are even bolder in their claims for the mental health benefits of exercise--one Harvard researcher claims that "exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin." A little more time spent at the gym, on your bike, or walking your favorite trail might just help you avoid needing those sorts of medications.
Time spent kicking back and doing things you enjoy isn't wasted. It's an investment in your mental health, creativity, and long-term resilience. And if you need to be convinced, Hwang has a boatload of research to point you to.
"People who engage in more enjoyable leisure activities have been found to have higher levels of positive psychological well-being as well as lowered levels of depressive symptoms and negative affect. Higher levels of engagement in leisure activities also correlated with physiological factors such as lowered cortisol, decreased blood pressure levels, and perceptions of increased physical function," he writes.
By pausing to check in with yourself regularly you're getting enough of all four letters in the FUEL framework, you give yourself the best chance of maintaining your mental balance despite all the challenges, upsets, and stresses life throws at entrepreneurs.