There I was, stopped at the intersection outside my office’s parking lot. I had been at this very spot hundreds of times before, but this time, my body shut down. I couldn’t breathe, my heart raced, the walls of the car were closing in on me, and I couldn’t move a muscle. I truly, honestly felt that I might die.
After a minute (that felt more like an hour), I finally managed to pull the car over. Panting for air, soaked with sweat and tears, I called my husband and cried for help.
This wasn’t the first time my body had failed me. Several years ago, I broke my nose and ribs after collapsing in the bathroom. My ten year-old daughter heard a thump and rushed in to find me lying on the floor. I really didn’t know what to tell her when she asked what happened. After countless medical tests, the diagnosis was a single word: exhaustion.
The easy answer is to blame work stress for both incidents. Yes, when I pulled out of the parking lot that day, I had just been told that my company – the business that I had put everything into for the past six years – was on a collision course with failure. Our topline growth numbers were phenomenal, but we were also hemorrhaging cash and things needed to change fast if there was any hope of saving the business.
I thought about my employees. I thought about my kids and their future. I was baffled about the fact that I had already launched and sold a successful business in the exact same industry years before – why was it so much harder the second time around? Embarrassed didn’t begin to describe the shame I felt. I didn’t want to let my husband down. I was mortified at what my colleagues, competitors, neighbors, and anyone else would think.
The old me would have said I just needed to buckle down…if I worked a little harder, put in a few more hours, I could turn the ship around. But with that panic attack at the intersection, I realized that I had been putting both my business and my well-being on an unsustainable course and it was time to pull over and re-evaluate.
In terms of the business, my husband and I brought the spending under control by rethinking the business strategy. We couldn’t match Legal Zoom’s massive ad budget, so we would stop trying. We dropped the bulk of our online advertising and put the focus on customer service and our existing customer base.
Understanding how to change the business was relatively straightforward. The numbers told the story: we were spending too much and needed to reign in our costs. However, figuring out the changes I need to make in my own life is more complex. It’s an important journey that I want to share because I see so many of my own hurdles and milestones in the paths of others.
It has been nearly seven months since my initial panic attack at that intersection. I couldn’t drive anywhere for three months (which is particularly challenging when you have four kids who have grown accustomed to your chauffeur skills).
I have been seeing a therapist to learn how to manage and handle the anxiety when driving. For example, when the panic creeps in, I tell myself …Stop, you are not having a panic attack! You’re okay…You’re not having a panic attack. I then turn on the air conditioning, switch the radio station, drink some water, or make any other kind of change to the external environment to divert my focus.
After realizing the link between my stress, exhaustion, and panic attacks, I have adopted simple daily rituals, like fitness classes at my nearby gym (ballet barre…my favorite), warm hot baths, aromatherapy, green tea, and meditation to help relax and replenish. These are all gentle reminders that every day is worth my full attention and presence.
Beyond the rituals, I’m trying to be more mindful of how I spend my time, opting for quality over quantity. The truth is, great results don’t always come from long hours. I’m now in the office from 8 to 3, and reachable via email/phone for a few hours beyond that. But once the clock hits five or six, I’m a mommy and a wife. I’m done trying to multitask, putting on the charade that I can do everything all at once, while shortchanging myself.
It’s a difficult transition to make. The digital age combined with ego creates a trumped-up sense of urgency. I’m still learning that not every email, text, or voicemail requires my immediate response. The world won’t stop turning if I don’t check my email or Twitter feed at night. And my employees can do a lot of great things when I get out of the way.
I still work at night sometimes, but it’s on my own terms, based on inspiration, not obligation. One of the biggest revelations in my journey so far has been discovering how many of my actions have been driven either by the fear of letting others down or the fear of being seen as anything other than the perfect entrepreneur, CEO, mother, and wife.
I have come to realize how much of my stress is rooted in what others think, and to what extent shame has been running my life, both at home and in the office.
In today’s “fake it until you make it” business culture, it is liberating to admit that my company is having its fair share of ups and downs. No matter how easy things may have been with our first business, everything is much tougher this time around. By letting go of the illusion of perfection, I’m making smarter decisions for my business. My actions aren’t driven by shame or fear. Things are back on my terms…and I’m excited to see where it will take me.
Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing my experiences as an entrepreneur and mother, including my struggles, discoveries, and milestones. I’d love to hear your stories as well.
Editor’s Note: This was originally written by Nellie Akalp on Huffington Post.