How to Manage Anxiety When You Work for Yourself

The freelance life has its own stresses

Stressed at work.
Stressed at work.

WWhen I decided to go freelance two years ago, it was to avoid anxiety. I was commuting on cramped public transport, putting in long hours, and rarely switching off. This can be exhilarating and energizing for some people, but for me, it was unhealthy. Every morning, I’d wake up feeling nauseous, my stomach churning with dread at the day ahead. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I began to have panic attacks.

So I quit. And I haven’t regretted it. Now I’m able to do my job — and enjoy it — while managing my health.

Sort of.

It turns out freelancing brings its own brand of anxiety. It removes crucial support systems — like other people and free coffee.

Self-employment isn’t for everyone, but it can be manageable even for those who struggle with anxiety.

“There are a number of reasons why working for yourself can trigger anxiety,” says Rachel Doern, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, who studies the cognition, emotions, and behaviors of self-employed people and business owners. “For one thing, entrepreneurs tend to work in uncertain, complex environments where time pressures are often apparent, and it is precisely in such contexts that emotions run high and may be intense.”

Self-employment isn’t for everyone, but it can be manageable even for those who struggle with anxiety. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

Say no

When your income is sporadic, it’s tempting to say yes to everything that comes your way, but too many responsibilities can lead to added stress, as well as poor-quality work.

One of the best ways to handle anxiety is to prioritize, says Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School. While many freelancers worry about alienating clients by saying no to a job, doing it in a professional way can often help your professional reputation, Cooper explains.

“The funny thing is the people who say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that, I’m too busy,’ actually continue to get work from the people they’ve rejected,” Cooper says. “Clients think, ‘This person must know what they’re doing if they’re getting work.’”

Overestimate how long a task will take

We’re all prone to underestimating our workload, self-employed or not. This is thanks to the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study, students working on a project estimated they would be finished 30 days before they were.

Research shows that anxiety can have a serious impact on productivity. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, performance increases with mental or physiological arousal — that is, stress — but only up to a point. Once stress surpasses that point, performance drops significantly.

Instead, it’s important to set yourself realistic goals and a manageable amount of work each day. “Research on goal setting suggests that when goals are set too high or are not perceived to be possible to achieve, they can reduce motivation and commitment,” Doern says.

Even small things can take longer than we estimate, so don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure to get everything done in a day. Be honest with yourself — and your clients — about the time you need to do something well.

Keep fixed hours

The nature of self-employment means you might not be doing the same thing every day, but keeping to a routine can help minimize anxiety. This might mean getting up at the same time every day or allocating an hour for certain tasks, like general admin.

Routines work as a kind of anchor point, says Almuth McDowall, a professor of organizational psychology at Birkbeck University, London. “If used well, they should also stop you from overworking,” he says. “It’s really important to have a routine which signals the transition to time off work.”

Knowing when to walk away for the day is as important to creativity as getting started, but, Cooper says, “If you’re anxious, the tendency is to want to work all the time, and you just burn yourself out. You can’t keep working all the time. If you do, you’ll be less effective, and clients won’t ask you back.”

It’s important to have regular breaks and take adequate time off, which takes some financial planning if you don’t get paid annual leave.

Create your own colleagues

There are definite perks to the solitude of working from home — like avoiding the crush of morning transport and working in your pajamas. But life can get pretty lonely when you don’t have colleagues to join you on the coffee run.

“Escaping the solitary bubble of sitting at your laptop and reaching out to a friend to do something nice and entirely unrelated is good,” says Michael Dey, 29, a self-employed musician living in Vienna, Austria. He suggests building a core group of fellow self-employed people who can give you solid advice and help you put worries into perspective if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

“It usually ends up with you both reminding each other how good you are at it and how much better it feels to be working for yourself,” Dey says.

It also helps to stay connected to your professional community so you have people to turn to with a technical question about your tax return or for advice on a client problem.

There are some great groups on social media, or you can find local networks through the National Association for the Self-Employed (U.S.) or the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (U.K.).

Get out of the office

“The weight of responsibility when one is self-employed and the feeling of being on call for all matters is a combination in which anxiety can thrive,” says Sheetal Sirohi, a general adult consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woking in the U.K. “Self-help via meditation apps, books, and forums can help to keep symptoms in check.”

Getting out and about, even for just a short walk, can also help. “If you exercise, you can’t think about the anxiety-provoking thing, and therefore you can come back to it more rationally, rather than the anxiety building up,” Cooper says.

Whether you’re freelance or not, if you find that anxiety is seriously affecting your life, it’s important to seek support from your doctor or a health professional.

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