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17 May 2018

Wellbeing in small business: Mental Health Awareness and the Small Business

Guest blog written by FSB Member Julia Maitland-Shadwell

Julia Maitland-ShadwellI started my own small Yoga Studio business a couple of years ago.  I haven’t always been a yoga teacher – I’ve worked in Financial PR, Advertising (both the planning and the creative side) as well as a stint as a Counsellor, so I’ve experienced my fair share of the work environment. 

However, ironic as it may seem, opening and running a Yoga business isn’t as restful as it might sound and, in fact, it’s pretty similar to starting any small, client facing business.  In terms of time spent working on social media presence, advertising, administration, people management, amount of time spent on laptop, phone, text and face to face it’s really the same as any other small business – including the fact that you can never have an ‘off day’, must always be patient and smiling and make sure that the client always comes first.  In other words, the stresses, strains, worry and exhaustion associated with being self-employed and running your own business affects me and my business in the same way as everyone else.

There are days when I’m exhausted, stressed, anxious, unwell, sad, depressed but there are also days when I’m elated, enthusiastic, joyful, energetic and passionate.  The point is that people usually start a small business because they are passionate about what they do and they want to share that passion with others as well as to make money and make a success of themselves and their business.  It’s so important to take joy and passion in what we do – in fact in Japanese, finding your passion that intersects with all areas of your life is called ‘Ikigai’ and is said to bring lasting happiness in life but this can sometimes get lost in the day to day drudgery and stress of owning your own business.

It’s so important to highlight this during mental health awareness week – the key word being ‘awareness’.  Sometimes we are so caught up in the day to day struggle that we are not even aware how stressed we are and, in turn, forget the passion we once had for our job.  If this happens over a sustained period of time not only will clients begin to notice and business start to suffer but the loop of anxiety and stress will seep into our home life, our families, friends and ultimately make us miserable.

There are the obvious physical boundaries between work and home life that allow us to switch off – physically leaving the office/shop/desk/study or simply turning off the laptop or phone but sometimes that’s not enough.  Often we are caught up with work thoughts and thinking is something that we cannot escape from.  The mind can’t ‘not think’.

This is where having a personal yoga and/or meditation practice comes into play and this doesn’t have to mean contorting into some intractable position and chanting.  Yoga is beginning to step away from the stereotypes and is gaining traction and respect in the West as western science begins to catch up with and support ancient yoga practices.

As one example of this, our stress regulator in the body is called the Vagus Nerve.  It is a large cranial nerve which forms the most primitive and ancient part of our nervous system and runs from the brain stem to the gut.  Ever heard the phrase ‘gut feeling’?  It turns out it’s a pretty accurate observation of how our nervous system operates.  If we are suffering anxiety in the mind we can often feel ‘butterflies’ in our stomach – that’s the Vagus Nerve.  The job of the Vagus nerve is to regulate our stress response, calming our heart rate and activating our ‘rest and digest’ mode.  However, if we suffer from long term stress our vagal tone begins to suffer and just like a muscle wasting from lack of exercise, our Vagus nerve forgets how to respond and we become stuck in a loop of constant stress and anxiety until it becomes chronic which can lead to all sorts of physical illnesses as well as mental ones.  New research by neuroscientists at the University of Boston has shown that Yoga can reduce stress-related disorders by increasing vagal tone.  How?  There are lots of different ways but the most important is regulation of the breath.

Being aware of our breath and having the skills to recognise when it becomes shallow and restricted in our chest and then how to regulate it and slow and deepen the breath is one of the most important but also overlooked skills in the Yogic tradition.  And it really is as simple as it sounds. Just taking five minutes to yourself – whether it’s on the train, in a lift, in a meeting, at your desk - to simply follow and deepen the breath can make the world of difference.  You can do this in a room full of people without anyone noticing so there are no excuses about ‘being too busy’.  Everyone has time to regularly incorporate this into their day.  Five minutes or thirty or so long, deep breaths will automatically allow your Vagus Nerve to begin working and your Parasympathetic Nervous System to begin activating.  If you find yourself taking a deep sigh it’s normally because your breathing has been too fast or shallow and your body wants you to breathe more deeply.  If you notice, you normally only sigh when you’re stressed.  If you follow this simple practice you will feel calmer and more capable to face whatever is coming next in your day.  There is nothing more important than your breath, it will always be with you as long as you live and each new breath is a new beginning, a new chance to start again.

Finally, yoga also has a strong focus on impermanence.  The idea that life is always moving, always changing, always flowing through time and that we should not get attached to the past or the future.  Think of something you are stressed or worried about right now.  It will probably be associated with something that has happened in the past that you therefore cannot change or otherwise something which is going to happen in the future and is therefore uncertain and may never occur at all.  By following our breath we allow ourselves to abide in present moment awareness and this helps to take our mind away from worry.  We can’t stop the mind from thinking but we can make it more present moment aware.

Running a small business it is easy to get caught in the minutiae – admin, staff problems, emails but never forget that the most integral part of your business is you.  You need to look after yourself first and everything else will follow and the simplest way to start is with the breath.  Make a commitment to give it a try and notice the profound effect it can have on body and mind.