Tackling anxiety when you’re self-employed: tips from a (semi!) reformed worrier

Everyone feels anxious from time to time; it’s just part and parcel of being human. But for those of us who are self-employed, it can often feel like anxiety is the major clause in a contract we unwittingly signed with ourselves the day we decided to take the self-employment path. So what can we do to wrestle our anxiety gremlins to the ground? As part of IPSE’s Mental Health Awareness Week activity, Julia Payne, director of the hub, and winner of IPSE’s 2021 Wellbeing Award, shares some thoughts.

Tackling anxiety

“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it— just as we have learned to live with storms.” - Paulo Coelho

It’s really easy for me to trace a line from the 10 year old me who experienced crippling anxiety around exams and the adult me – a social entrepreneur who has to work hard to keep in check her workaholic tendencies. Over the 20-something years I’ve been self-employed in the creative sector I’ve learnt a lot, about running a business, about myself and about the shockingly high rates of mental illness amongst my peers (those of us working in this sector are 3 times as likely as the average UK adult to experience poor mental health). That’s why, as the pandemic hit, I needed to do something! That something was our Balance programme; designed to help fellow creatives balance their minds AND their books, our Balance toolkit, training and monthly talks have helped thousands of individuals and scooped IPSE’s Wellbeing Award in 2021.

Along the way, I’ve also learned a fair bit about what makes me anxious, and – crucially - how to keep (for the most part) my worries under control. And it’s these insights that IPSE have invited me to share. We’re all wired differently, and what makes you anxious will be different to what keeps me awake at night, but I’ve learnt that many of us find the same things helpful when tackling anxiety. So, I hope you’ll find something here that will help beat your worry gremlins!

My top tips for tackling anxiety

Choose curiosity over fear

“Anxiety is when the butterflies in your stomach turn into bees.” - Brigett Devoue

Curiosity is one of the hub’s core values, and something I try to bring to all of  my work. A few years ago I had a lightbulb moment, when I realised that curiosity and fear are two sides of the same coin. When faced with a perceived threat, we can either respond with curiosity (“I don’t know how we’ll do this…Interesting…What might the possibilities be?”) or with fear (“I don’t know how we’ll do this. Oh no! I’m going fail.”). This was a real revelation to me, and now, whenever I feel anxious about something, I try to bring curiosity rather than fear to the mix.  

Get better acquainted with your thoughts

“The best use of creativity is imagination. The worst…is anxiety.” - Deepak Chopra

Our brains are hard at work all the time; research suggests that we have 60-70,000 thoughts every day. As entrepreneurs, our minds are capable of imagining all kinds of things, good and bad. The trick here is to be selective about which thoughts you listen to, and recognise they are merely thoughts and NOT FACTS! Now when I find myself falling into negative thinking, I do my best to challenge my thoughts and ask myself if they are actually true or just something my inner critic (called Brenda!) has conjured up.

I call this my ’SOS moment’, because it’s about Standing back, Observing and Steering myself in the right direction. Part of the observing is sometimes about asking myself what the worst that could happen really is (as opposed to listening to Brenda’s take on that). Meanwhile, the steering element  means I’m focusing more on what I can actually control; super helpful for worriers as we waste lots of time and energy on stuff beyond our control.  

Why don’t you go do something less boring instead? 

Moving from fever pitch anxiety to moments of calm reflection can be tricky. But sometimes it can really help to just distract yourself and interrupt the worry. Suggestions from our Balance community for so-called ‘circuit breakers’ range from doing a 5 minute micro-blitz/clean to jumping up and down on a bouncy chair, a mini kitchen disco, going for a walk… or even shoe shopping! There also some well-known grounding techniques, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise you’ll find in our Balance toolkit. Whatever takes your fancy, anything that interrupts that unhelpful train of thought should work a treat.

Stay in the now and schedule some worry time

Anxieties are worries about the future, so I find it can help to bring myself back to the present, asking “What’s happening right now?”, “Am I safe?”, “Is there something I really need to do about this right now?” If there is, I’ll do something to interrupt the worry (see above) to ‘reset’ my mind. If there isn’t, I put a time in my diary later in the week/month to revisit that particular worry and take some action when I’m calmer. Doing either seems to provide a bit of a ‘reset’, and gives me permission to move on with my day as best I can, knowing that I’ve got things covered.

Say hello to the 5x5 rule!

The 5x5 rule is one of my favourite anxiety busting tools! This really simple rule states that when you’re feeling anxious you simply take a moment to reflect on whether or not the thing you’re worrying about will matter in 5 years. If the answer is yes, then you should schedule some time to come up with a strategy to address it (see above!). But, if the answer is no, then you allow yourself just 5 minutes to worry about it, before moving on. If you can play by this rule, it’s a brilliant way to break out of a worry spiral!

Kill worry with kindness and treat yourself as you would a friend

Anxiety is rooted in fear, and in my experience the best way to respond to fear is with kindness. When you’re anxious, try showing yourself the kindness you’d show your best friend if they came to you with a worry. Whether that’s seeing off a noisy inner critic, parking the worry and getting yourself some tea and cake (actually, tea and cake should be on this list in their own right!) or going for a run, above all you need to be kind to yourself.   

And while we’re talking about treating yourself as you would a friend, I also find it helpful to ask myself what advice I’d give to a friend in this situation. Even if the solution I come up with isn’t quite right for me, it helps me reset my mind into a more rational state, and before I know it I’ve had my own lightbulb moment and moved on.

Phone a friend

The saying goes that “a problem shared is a problem halved”, and one of the best ways I know to calm my worried mind is to reach out to a trusted friend or colleague. What I need from the conversation might differ from one situation/person to another; sometimes it’s advice, sometimes I need help finding the answer myself, sometimes it’s empathy and reassurance, or even just distracting! Just saying things out loud can really sharpen my clarity, as if I’m hearing myself for the first time. So, go on, phone a friend and give your worries an airing!

Just breathe!

We all know that deep breathing helps us calm down. But what, if like me, you worry that you’re ‘not doing it right’?! There are so many books about breathing (a good number of which are languishing half-read on my bookshelves)! The good news is that in moments of anxiety you don’t need to worry about counting out a certain number of breaths. Instead, just focus on evenly inhaling and exhaling. Trust me, and join me in abandoning the counting!

Some preventative measures

So, we’ve looked at a few of my favourite ‘go tos’ for easing moments of anxiety, but I also wanted to share a few thoughts on what helps me avoid such moments in the first place.

Setting clear boundaries

A big source of anxiety for lots of the freelancers I work with is not having clear (and clearly communicated) boundaries – with themselves and with their clients. In response, one thing I often ask them to do is make a ‘manual of me’: a record of things like how they like to work, what fuels or drains their energy, what inspires them and what makes them anxious (see this lovely website for inspiration). Doing this can really help set boundaries; it’s both a personal reflection tool AND the basis for a manifesto/set of T&Cs you can set out to prospective clients. 

Being a good employer of myself

I’m slightly embarrassed that it’s only in the last few years that I’ve realised a key part of being successfully self-employed is to be a good employer of myself. For years, I employed myself in a way that if anyone else had done so, I would have quit straight away! This changed a few years ago when, towards the end of a sabbatical, I wrote some ‘returning to work guidelines’ for myself. Knowing that a simple list of changes to make wouldn’t work, I wrote about Julia as my employee, developing a code of conduct for how I employed her that I eventually distilled into ‘KNEES’, an acronym of sorts about how work should be: Kind (to me); Nurturing; Exciting; Enough (but not too much), and Sustainable. Having this has helped curb some of the tendencies that fed my anxiety.

Investing time and effort in balancing my mind

When you’re self-employed YOU are your biggest asset, and yet all too often looking after ourselves falls to the bottom of our to do list. That way lies anxiety, depression, burnout and a business and way of life that no one would choose. As employers of ourselves, we need to put nurturing our minds at the top of our to do lists. If you do just one thing as a result of reading this blog, make it this!

Visit the hub to learn more about tackling anxiety as a creative entrepreneur from Julia.

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Meet the author

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Julia Payne

Julia Payne is director of the hub, and has worked in the creative sector for over 25 years. In 2020, she created Balance, a programme designed to help creative freelancers balance their minds and their books for which Julia won IPSE’s Wellbeing Award in 2021. Available for free – and relevant to anyone who’s self-employed – you can find the Balance toolkit here and watch all the Balance talks here.