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Tired & Wired: Managing stress & anxiety as a product leader
Science-based tactics to manage acute, SOS-level periods of stress.
Earlier this week, I coached some founders at an event for Fusion's latest batch. I was reminded of a truism that comes alive every time I'm working with founders or product leaders: the hardest part of the job is managing your own psychology.
Founders and product leaders tend to have high-stress, high-stakes roles. There's a constant balancing act between performance, mental health, and stress/anxiety. I know from much direct experience that in this state that you often feel "tired and wired"—redlining and exhausted at the same time. So revved up that you can't rest, even though you're weary and desperately wish you shut it off. You wake up unintentionally at 4:30am with your whole body and mind burning. Everything feels hot.
It's very hard to think clearly in this state, let alone summon the creative solutions you need. All you want is to regain some sense of stability and sanity. But everything you've tried that's supposed to work, hasn't worked, and that makes it worse. While it's great that mental health conversations have become normalized in our industry, many people I talk to still aren't sure what to do.
This article is my first attempt to synthesize what I've learned about this from direct experience and a lot of study. I hope to help you better understand what's going on and give you a concrete roadmap of what you can do about it. I've geeked out on this stuff for years in managing my own stress, and hope to transmit the essence of what I've found to you.
There is a lot more to say about general habits and building stress capacity, but this piece will just focus on what to do when you're in SOS-mode, when you're tired/wired. I tried to minimize the biology side of this and just keep it actionable, but links to resources and references are compiled at the end if you want to dig into the science.
What's going on here?
The short version is that your autonomic nervous system is out of balance. The sympathetic ("fight or flight") nervous system is overactivated. You've probably heard this before. Here's what you may not have heard before: this is the default regulation strategy run amok.
Most adults default to thinking as their stress-regulation strategy. The body is holding difficult emotions of stress and anxiety, and the mind is trying to regulate through thinking.
This is why it doesn't stop—the thinking is the mechanism by which your system is trying to relieve the stress/anxiety. Essentially, "shutting off" would be akin to letting the stress go unchecked, which is a biological no-no. So your mind is actually trying to help you manage this. So when the top-down regulation strategy (thinking) takes a break, the roiling energy below is still there, and the looping has to start up again.
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this:
When you're THIS activated, you can't use the mind to regulate the mind.
You need another way.
We'll get into tactics shortly, but first I want to clarify some terms and set a context to help you think through this better. (Skip ahead if you don't care and just want some tactics to try.)
Let's quickly define terms: by "stress," I am referring to the experience we have when we face some challenge that exceeds our perceived resources or ability to cope. By "anxiety," I'm referring to the state where the mind is constantly trying to resolve future uncertainty.
All anxiety is stressful, but not all stress is anxiety.
Stress: all bad?
There are two broad flavors of stress: negative stress (distress) and positive stress (eustress). "Stress" is synonymous with distress in common usage, but it's important to know that some types of stress are very helpful to the mind and body. For example, your cognition and immune system actually need stress hormones to be productive and healthy.
Stress is a Goldilocks zone thing: some stress is good, but too much or too little is bad. Optimal functioning depends on the right amount of stress. (There's that damn "balance" again...) This is what’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, which you may have seen as the “pressure/performance curve,” mapping the inverse-U relationship between stress and performance in complex tasks.
There are two factors here: the type of stress (stressors) and the amount of stress.
4 types of stress
The scientific literature covers various types of stressors: physical, social, emotional, psychological, etc. While we usually experience this as a sense of pressure, I find it more actionable to clarify what type we're dealing with using this framing from Cal Newport:
Uncertainty: dealing with the unknown and "what ifs?"
Overwhelm: having too much to do in the time/energy available
Expectations: needing to perform to a high bar
Conflict: interpersonal disputes
We each deal with some of these types better than others. Most people handle conflict poorly, so it's the other three you want to examine. Which is hardest for you? For example, I'm naturally better at handling overwhelm and high expectations than uncertainty. In the 0-1 phase, I have to use techniques like scenario planning, conscious experimentation, and fear setting to get my mind to not constantly loop on "what ifs?"
Quick aside: many Type-A people are dependent on overwhelm, finding that it generates a useful, focusing amount of stress. This is the payoff of procrastination. It's also a way of avoiding the fear of not meeting expectations—it's often emotionally easier to just throw a ton of effort at something than to be on the hook for delivering at a high bar. This is part of why product—and writing—are tricky: nobody cares how long the process took you, they just care about the quality and impact of the resulting product.
Now that we've covered what stress and anxiety are, what can we do about them?
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Tactics for when you're redlining
There are four levels to effectively managing stress and anxiety: habits, capacity building, hobbies, and interventions. When you're under duress, go top-down. In general, build your capacity by going bottom-up. Most biohacking approaching are either in the capacity building or acute stress management layer.
I can cover the rest of the pyramid in a future piece (let me know if that's helpful). For now, we'll zoom in on layer 4, SOS management, to handle acute stress on the order of a few days to a few weeks. There are different strategies to build your overall stress capacity on a medium- and long-term basis.
5 tactics to stop redlining
You may hear the term "adaptogen" a lot when you start exploring stress management. An adaptogen isn't one thing, it's an umbrella term for anything that helps your system adapt to stress. There are all kinds of adaptogens: behaviors, mental strategies, diet/nutrition, supplements, etc.
Again, when you're THIS activated, you can't use the mind to regulate the mind. You must get behavioral, get into the body.
Here are some approaches with a strong physiological basis:
In the moment:
Box breathing with longer exhales
Regularly throughout the week
The first three are the most direct approaches, and are available to anyone for free. The latter two have costs associated and are adjuncts to the first three anyway.
The key thing in all of these is that you are dropping below the mind and into the energy in the body, and letting it move through and out. That's the most direct way to stop the mental looping. (Remember, mental looping is a default strategy used by your system to regulate these energies in your body.)
In the moment: handle the redline
Performance review? Key stakeholder meeting? Scathing feedback from your CEO? Use these in those moments. The goal is to regulate the system as best as possible through the moment of acute stress, so there is less residual to deal with after.
Physiological sigh: double inhale + long exhale
Take a full breath through your nose. Then take an extra sip of air. Hold it for a second. Then release the tension and exhale sigh as slowly as you can (try for an 8-count exhale). Credit to Andrew Huberman's lab at Stanford for this technique.
You can do this any time, anywhere. Do 3 of these a few minutes before any stressful meeting or event.
Box breathing, and with longer exhales
Box breathing is controlled breathing, often with a 4-count on each side: 4 counts in, hold in for 4, exhale for 4, hold out for 4.
General guideline: to calm the system, make exhales longer than inhales. To rev the system up, do the opposite.
A perfectly controlled box breathing, e.g. 4-4-4-4, can absolutely work, especially if you can stop and do 3-5 minutes of it.
But sometimes, it’s hard to do that in the thick of stress, or we don’t have time to stop what we’re doing. In these cases, switch to the box breathing variant I’ve heard called "performance breathing" which is just focused on smooth inhales + 2x longer exhales, e.g. 4 counts in, 8 counts out. (Or 2/4, 3/6, whatever). Go for the longest, smoothest exhale you can.
Credit to Mark Divine’s book, Unbeatable Mind, which originally turned me on to box breathing. Terrific technique.
(Note: you can practice this one throughout the day, and practicing it while exercising will really help build your capacity.)
After the moment & throughout the week
Hot yoga is my go-to here. HIIT works too, CrossFit, or a hard run. Do whatever you can. But move your body. Moving the body is the fastest way to get all that roiling energy out. This needs to be at least 30 minutes, ideally aiming for 45+. The goal is to get out of your head and into your body.
Minimum bar: do SOMETHING with your body for at least 5 minutes. Goal: do whatever you have to in order to really sweat.
If you don't have access to equipment or a studio, do a body weight workout or yoga session from YouTube. There are thousands of excellent free ones available. Or, if you have a deck of playing cards around, do the deck of cards bodyweight workout (related iOS app).
This is where that "adaptogen" term is likely to crop up the most. Stress-relieving and herbal teas (e.g. chamomile) are legitimately helpful here.
Minimize caffeine and alcohol
Try supplements like ashwagandha, but cycle off them regularly
Try herbal teas that help with stress
Minimize caffeine & alcohol. Hard stop on caffeine 8-10 hours before bedtime. Caffeine tends to increase anxiety, and both caffeine and alcohol screw up your sleep. And sleep is the best performance enhancing drug of all time.
Studies have shown that 600mg of ashwagandha, split into two doses in afternoon / evening, can help reduce cortisol. Don't take ashwaganda in the morning, as the body needs a cortisol spike in the morning to turn on the system. L-theanine pairs very well in late morning to reduce the jitters from caffeine, and can also help the mind wind down in the evening before bed. Magnesium is a very common deficiency and is also used up faster by the body when we are under stress. Supplementing before bed will also help you fall asleep, if you have trouble with that.
Try not to use these every day, but rather on days where stress is highest. If you do use these supplements for more than a few weeks, cycle off for 1 week after 4 weeks of use. If you have very intense dreams that wake you in the middle of the night, don't use theanine. No need to cycle off magnesium.
For more on the science of stress & anxiety, as well as related supplements, check out this episode from Dr Andrew Huberman. For a great overview of how to think about supplementation, listen to his supplementation overview podcast episode.
The final tactic I'll recommend trying is a sensory deprivation tank, AKA a “float tank.”
Three caveats about floats:
they aren't for everyone—it seems to be a love/hate thing
they have costs associated with them
they are more effective if you have done even a little bit of meditation practice
These aren't available everywhere, and do have some costs associated with them. But I have found very few things as effective as a 2-hour float for settling the system. It literally shuts off all sensory input, which gives the entire system a break. Think of it like fasting, but for your nervous system.
I think these are more effective if one has even a bit of meditation practice. Why? Because you need to be willing/able to let difficult energies come up, experiencing the emotions as they release. Otherwise, you'll just be lying there doing more thinking about them, again using the mind to avoid feeling them directly.
I'm not sure what the mechanism is, but anecdotally, it seems that one 2-hour float weekly has a more durable effect than several 30-minute floats.
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There's much more to be said about managing the inner game of product, but hopefully this will give you some actionable things to try when you're really "in it." I've been there too, and resonate with your experience. If you're a product leader wanting help sorting out the inner game of product, feel free to reach out to me to chat and I'll try to help (or at least provide a good ear).
References & resources
Studies & data:
Dr Andrew Huberman: