It won't have escaped your attention that the last few years have been tough, for a lot of people, with an epidemic of stress and anxiety apparently raging across the entire population. Having emerged from the pandemic, we entered into an extended unsettled period, with higher levels of uncertainty, a war and a cost-of-living crisis. While it's true that for the founders who make up Helm membership, uncertainty offers tremendous opportunities, running a business at a time of economic upheaval brings with it extra layers of stress.
Helm is the UK’s leading peer-to-peer network for business founders. As such, we exist as much to help members manage their personal growth as their business growth. A couple of weeks ago we got in nutritionist and mental health expert Kate Maycock, founder of Get Your Sh*t Together (GYST), to run a specialist, expert session looking at all aspects of stress management and how to avoid pressure tipping over into burn out.
Maycock has firsthand experience of burn out and founded her business to help others avoid the same situation she had found herself in. Having come through a couple of difficult episodes, Maycock is well placed to show how it matters to hit peak performance, and how productivity dips as people edge along the “pressure performance curve”.
Pressure, and even stress in short bursts can be positive
Maycock was keen to show that stress in short bursts, in the right circumstances, isn’t always bad. “Stress acts as an accelerator,” she explained. “It can push you either forward or backward, but you choose the direction.”
Maycock has been able to turn her experiences into a positive - and move herself and her business forward as result. She offered three main areas of advice for all founders who may be feeling that pressure is building up to the point where it is beginning to tip over into stress. These are a well balanced diet, a decent amount of sleep and the right amount of the right sort of exercise
Eat a balanced diet, low in processed foods
Maycock explained that left to fester, and especially where it leads to burn out, stress leads to ill-health. One fo the reasons for this is that when we’re stressed we’re less likely to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. As a former nutritionist, Maycock doesn't follow any particular dietary fad or fashion. She says there is no one set of rules for a diet will be right for all people at every stage of their life. “If you find that a low-carb diet is right for you right now, that’s fine. Go with it. But I can’t say it will be true for everyone.”
Instead, Maycock explained that when it comes to diet, there are only general principles around getting and maintaining a balance of nutrition from a range of sources. And, she believes, that means a diet of natural foods, which are minimally processed, will be better than a diet full of heavily processed items. “The tendency when we’re stressed is always to say ‘I don’t have time’ and to drift towards takeaways or junk food. Even if you do really have less time, it really makes a difference to keep things nutritionally well balanced. Gut health is so important to how we handle stress.”
Get between seven and nine hours' sleep a night
Getting up early, then working late and burning the midnight oil is another feature of people on the verge of stress. They often find it hard to focus on the important things and waste lots of time on things that don’t matter that much. Worse still, when they do get to bed they can’t get to sleep.
Maycock says the latest research suggests that in order to function well, get enough of the right type of sleep and not knock out our circadian rhythms, we need between seven and nine hours’ sleep a night. “That’s what you need to make sure you get enough of both non-REM and REM sleep. These are different and help the brain perform different functions.”
Maycock warns that a lack of sleep can end up leaving people in a state similar to being under the influence of alcohol. On which subject - along with caffeine - Maycock says it isn’t helpful to use relaxants or stimulants to get yourself to sleep. “It really doesn’t help,” she says. “Both caffeine and alcohol can reduce your ability to get into proper REM sleep.”
Take at least 15-minutes' exercise, three times a week
And the last of Maycock’s top three tips is to get enough exercise. “It’s really important when we're looking at mitigating the impact that stress has on our body. When we exercise, endorphins get released, which is important when we're looking at stress management. Endorphins help reduce levels of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Endorphins make us feel good, but it also makes us feel less stressed.”
In terms of the amount of exercise, Maycock says there is now research to show that just 15 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three times a week is enough to have a positive impact.
Get into good habits and keep them
Maycock is clear that when we’re busy we all have a habit to throw certain good behaviours out of the window. “Sometimes it starts when you've got a deadline, or a clear goal to hit,” she says. “You sacrifice some sleep, or not find the time to go to the gym, or might not have the time to cook a healthy meal. But once you throw these things out the window, it’s hard to get them back. You end up saying once XYZ happens then I'll start getting more sleep or I'll start exercising again and start eating healthy again. More often than not, that doesn't happen. What we have to do is we have to start looking at how we can build those foundations and strong habits when you’re not under pressure. The stronger the routlines and habits are the less likely they’ll be broken when the pressure tips over into stress. And then you’ll be in a much better position to cope with a short burst of stress and keep it as a moment of pressure.”