If I’m A CEO And Have An Anxiety Attack, What Should I Do?

I recently received a long email from a CEO, who I don’t know, about an anxiety attack he had. At the end, was a pertinent question that I don’t think I’ve ever addressed before.

“What is my responsibility to openly communicate this important matter to the Board? And how do I balance what I feel is a need for material disclosure with a desire for privacy around my personal health information?”

I wrote the following in response.

First of all, thanks for being brave enough to write.

Next, and most importantly, make sure you are getting professional help. If you don’t have a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I strongly encourage it. In moments of crisis, I’ve found this kind of a relationship to be critical. I’ve figured out so many things about myself in this kind of a setting, especially when I’m having a personal crisis.

Re: what to do in terms of disclosure, start with (a) what you want the outcome to be and (b) what you know about the people involved. If you have a trusted personal relationship with one of your investors, consider talking openly about it. But recognize that once you start talking about it, you will likely be viewed differently by that investor, especially if they aren’t comfortable with anxiety themselves.

If you don’t yet know what you want the outcome to be, find a non-investor who is a trusted advisor to talk to. One of the biggest challenges is exactly what you identify – balancing your work on your own mental health with your responsibilty to the company, your partners, and your investors. If you feel like this is manageable, even when you struggle under real anxiety, that’s one path. If you are afraid it’s not manageable, that’s another.

Facing your biggest fears about this (e.g. “they kick me out of the company”, “they don’t have any respect for me”, “they aren’t supportive”, “they don’t believe I can do it”) is important as by simply asking yourself the question you’ll often get guided toward what you should do.

My wife also has been an incredible supporter and help for me. I don’t know if you’ve read our book Startup Life but we have a section on this and how we’ve dealt with it. But don’t put all the burden on her – it’s a huge burden for a spouse, especially when combined with the pressure of family and work.

As a short term tactic, if you haven’t tried meditation, I suggest it. I discovered it last year and found Headspace.com to be super helpful. It has two 30 day segments (up to 20 minutes / day) on anxiety and stress.

Finally, breathe. Sleep, Rest, Take care of yourself. It’ll give you a base to work on everything else.