How to cope with anxiety when you run your own business

Do you have anxiety? You are not alone. When Drive The Network member Karen Arnott said she had given a presentation at Cambridge’s PechaKucha night on living with anxiety, lots of others in the group wanted to know about how to cope with it. Karen ran an Ask The Expert session, answering questions about anxiety. This article is a transcript of the conversation, which took place in the Drive The Network Facebook Group.

Karen ArnottKaren Arnott Before we get started properly, I just want to point out that although this session is called ‘Ask the Expert’, I am not professionally qualified to give advice about anxiety, or depression. (Although my university degree was in Psychology and we covered mental health conditions including anxiety). My insight is purely based on personal experience. I’ll provide some external resources at the end for anyone looking for extra support.

Do I know this to be true?

Things to ask yourself – Is the anxiety acute (high stress, related to a particular situation right now) or chronic (more ongoing worrying about anything/everything)?

If acute – aim to rationally look at the situation and see if there is anything you can change.

If chronic – aim to be objective with yourself. A great sentence I was taught on a mindfulness course is ‘Do I know this to be true?’ We often build something up in our heads, and make it bigger, when looking at what we actually know to be true can highlight where we’re catastrophising without reason.

With both types, cultivating a daily routine of methods to cope with anxiety will help. You can’t pour from an empty cup, it’s essential to look after yourself. Don’t wait for anxiety to strike before using these techniques – build them into your daily routine and they will automatically be there when you need them.

What are the signs you might need to do something about anxious feelings?

Helen Lindop I’ve definitely had anxious times as a self-employed person but I don’t think it’s ever been bad enough to be considered clinical anxiety. In your own experience, what are the signs you look for that suggest you need to do something about anxious feelings? I mean instead of just getting your head down and trying to tough it out (which used to be my main strategy – I’m a bit older and wiser now!)

Karen Arnott In my experience ‘trying to tough it out’ can lead to issues (definitely been there, it’s easy to battle on).

Look for patterns in your anxiety. This is especially relevant for women. Our monthly hormonal cycle, pregnancy, fertility, contraception, HRT and peri- and post-menopause can all have an effect.

Also, if those feelings are impacting other areas of your life – sleeping, eating, relationships with family and friends, self-esteem.

Anxiety often surfaces when we feel out of control. Having a daily routine can help provide a level of control.

If it’s a business or financial situation, I find it helpful to pinpoint the worry and sketch out some possible solutions on paper. We can’t control other people, but we can control what WE do about a situation. It may not change the situation itself, but how we respond to it can bring back the control.

Being specific with ourselves helps…anxiety has a tendency to let us snowball a worry and it cascades into other areas. Target one worry at a time.

For specific times of anxiety/stress – e.g. pitching to a client, or making an awkward call. Tell yourself – in an hour, it will be over. Think of a nice reward you can look forward to afterwards (a bath, a cup of tea etc). Also, in the famous words of Nike – “Just do it”. Don’t feed the anxiety by thinking about it for too long. Scratch the itch, rip off the plaster, and get it done.

How to prepare to talk to a new client

Emma James I’ve just listened to your PechaKucha presentation Karen. You speak about it so beautifully and really summed up how I feel about my own anxiety. I could win medals for worrying (and worrying about the worrying) and one of the main triggers of this for me is putting myself out there and trying to win new clients. Do you have any particular strategies when it comes to getting yourself ready for a call/pitch with a potential client? I find it very difficult to stop myself from writing the whole thing off before it’s even begun and it leaves me dreading new calls (I’m fine once they start, but the build up is pretty rough).

Karen Arnott First off, Emma, I hope you now know after watching my PK talk, you’re not alone! Secondly, the fact you know you’re fine during and afterwards should hopefully be useful to tell yourself – I’m fine, I can do this. Beforehand, you might find it useful to do a 5 min guided meditation? I also channel Nike ‘Just do it’ because over thinking is the rascal here.

Louise Lee Thinking about a pitch or a call to a prospect/referral etc, do you find it beneficial to give yourself plenty of time to plan (or does this prolong the feeling of anxiety). Or do you think ‘I know I can do this, I’m good at what I do’ and pick up the phone? Or, is it different for everyone?

Karen Arnott Planning is a double-edged sword – the planning can take away some anxiety because you’re prepared, but too much time to ruminate over it can cause the anxiety to tumble into ‘what if’ scenarios where it all goes wrong. A bit of planning and then quickly into action work better for me. And reminding yourself of all the times it worked well before.

I also find it useful to tell myself I’m not a brain surgeon, no-one is likely to die if it doesn’t go well. If things DO go badly, focus on the lesson learnt. And try not to ruminate over it.

When it comes to business and potential clients (or awkward existing ones), think about what you can find out about THEM rather than focussing on what they might want from YOU. Imagine you are already helping them with their business, ask what you can do to help. Find out what their worries are. If it’s a current client, ask what would they like to see in an ideal world. If you don’t have the answers at that moment, say you’ll look into it and come back to them. I also find it helps to think that they might be just as anxious about the call/meeting.

Louise Lee When meeting a prospect / new client I pretend I’m Mcauley Culken in Uncle Buck. I also tell this to the person at the beginning of the meeting. As you say, finding out about them takes the pressure of me. It also means I stand a chance of getting to the heart of what they want.
If you don’t know the scene I’m referring to. Here it is.

What to do when anxiety threatens to hold you back

Emma James I’m struggling with how to word this, but from a growing your business point of view are there areas where you feel it’s threatened to hold you back, and if so is it a case of doubling down on your coping strategies or do you reach for something else? I think I’m thinking (?!) of when trying new ways of working or different income streams, where you’re not sure if you can a) do it and b) if it’ll be profitable.

Karen Arnott I think it has to be a combination of focusing on strategies to reduce your anxiety and increase self-esteem about the ideas along with looking at the business idea objectively. Objectively might be to get some external advice from a business mentor or peers?

Or even, if possible, apply the 90/10 strategy – keep doing what you’re doing 90% of the time and 10% take a few risks and see what happens?

Is it helpful to tell others?

Andrea Joyce Do you think it is helpful to share your anxiety with people or do you think it isn’t a good idea because those people may then see you differently?

Karen Arnott Brilliant question Andrea! I hid mine for so long (that in itself is a coping strategy – there can be a certain reward in going out with your game face on). Anxiety, for many, can be exacerbated by not feeling comfortable in your own skin. What better way to be comfortable and authentic than simply by being honest?

Christine Seymour Do you think worrying about what people think of us or how they perceive us is the cause of some anxiety? As business owners / entrepreneurs, we have metaphorically stuck our heads above the parapet.

Karen Arnott Absolutely! We don’t necessarily need to be liked, but probably worry we’re seen to be competent. Business owners have so many extra worries compared to employed folk – tax, wages, bureaucracy, legal stuff, as well as wanting to enjoy what we do.

(Insert here from Ann Hawkins: One of the biggest causes of stress is lack of choice. Employed people suffer high levels of stress because they are not in control of their working day. Most people start their own businesses to increase their choices so if that’s not working and you’re the worst boss you’ve ever had, please have a word because with support, you can definitely make that better!) 

Coping strategies

Emma James Of all of your strategies, which one do you think has had the biggest impact?

Karen Arnott All of them, really. I’ve found it’s the act of regularly carving time in the day for myself. It doesn’t matter what those activities are – everyone’s different – but benchmarking the day with things that help. It’s the act of doing it daily I think, that most helps.

What not to say to someone with anxiety

Louise Lee For folk who don’t have anxiety, what are the worst phrases of ‘encouragement’, things they can say to someone who does suffer from chronic anxiety. An example might be my mother’s favourite saying “don’t be so ridiculous, what’s all the fuss about?”. I guess I’m asking, how can others help?

Karen Arnott The worst thing I think is “I’m sure it’s not that bad” or words similar to your Mum. At that point in time it can be completely overwhelming because the body and brain have gone in to ‘fight or flight’ so adrenaline is coursing through stopping all rational thought. Apart from ‘will this lion eat me?’

A good thing to say to someone is probably quite simply ‘is there anything I can do to help’? The person may be too overwhelmed to answer right then and there, but let them know they can think about it and come back to you any time.
For those you’re close to, it can also be as simple as ‘would you like a hug?” Without getting too scientific, hugs release oxytocin, and this can calm the recipient down. Both parties get the oxytocin hit so it’s a win win.


NHS resources

Local to Cambridge


Mindfulness & Meditation apps




Aura Health 


These are not self-help books, but I found them useful in feeling ‘not alone’ in my struggles:

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig
Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful – Sarah Wilson

A bit more ‘self-help’ than the above books:

The Stress Solution – Dr Rangan Chatterjee
How to Be Human: The Manual – Ruby Wax
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled – Ruby Wax

Just a random one that helps you focus at what’s important, and forget about what’s not (business and personal):

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson

I’m only half way through the following book, but it’s a great guide to forming regular (small) habits that add up – good for personal and business!

Atomic Habits – James Clear