Managing stress in the time of COVID-19, a Q&A with Shannon Waters

It was a warm April morning when Shannon and I did her Skype interview. The wifi at my house was slower than usual, so I was sitting in my car attempting to get a halfway decent wifi signal from a public network. Laptop propped against my steering wheel, in the middle of a pandemic, a mug of coffee that was starting to go cold - it was a laughably accurate depiction of what my work life had turned into.

After we postponed her New Maps photoshoot due to COVID-19, Shannon Waters kindly asked if there was any kind of content she could help with. She suggested we talk about dealing with stress management in the face of big changes.

Shannon currently runs two different companies, Pilot Light Consulting and Gastro Gnome Meals, and teaches in the Montana State University hospitality program.

Stress management is a term you hear a lot in the entrepreneurial world. There’s not much security for small business owners and change is a constant. Even for established business owners and freelancers, the COVID-19 crisis has often felt paralyzing.

“As freelancers and entrepreneurs, we have savings set aside and we expect some low times, but there was no amount of planning or responsibility that could have put us in a position to be perfectly set up right now,” Shannon said, as we talked about our respective plans for moving forward.

“We're pretty used to the lulls and the big swings up and the big swings down. For me, living in a state of uncertainty has been the past three years of my life. I think most entrepreneurs and small business owners can speak to that and align with that feeling that nothing is ever for sure.”

photos courtesy of Shannon Waters

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background with running businesses?

So, first - my name is Shannon. I currently run two different companies and teach at MSU in the hospitality program. The first company that I started is called Pilot Light Consulting. It's a restaurant consulting business that primarily opens restaurants. As soon as I recognized that that wasn't a sustainable lifestyle to only be opening restaurants, we started doing a lot of other consulting: financial planning for restaurants, labor development, menu development, things of that sort. My newest business is Gastro Gnome Meals and it is a freeze dried backpacking food company that has mostly been in the R&D stages for the last year and a half. I’ve recently secured a kitchen space and I'm in the middle of the kitchen build out. 

Q: What’s a story that you have from a time of managing stress and managing big changes in your businesses?

I’ve been managing a lot of stress since starting my consulting firm. I didn't change my lifestyle to manage the stress. It was more of a mental reworking that I had to do. It was definitely prior to the COVID-19 shutdown of pretty much everything that would involve any of my businesses. 

My first rent check for Gastro Gnome’s new kitchen bounced and I had no other way to get money into the bank. It was overwhelming and I just didn't have a plan to find additional money quickly. It felt like what a mistake and all of these things were piling on in the same moment. 

So, I called my dad who tends to be my business mentor and I was like, I am so stressed. I don't know what to do. I have to pay this rent and my actual rent and the check bounced and I have no way to do this and I blah blah blah, blah, blah. 

He said, “Cool. Are your kids going to remember how stressed you were?” And I was like, what? 

He responded, “In ten years, are you going to tell your kids the story about how stressed you were or the story of bootstrapping a business? “

And my reaction was, “What are you talking about? Why would you say that?” 

He said, “I'm just asking you if you think it's that important to be stressed right now.”

I thought what an asshole. I hung up the phone and carried on with my day and remained stressed. Later, when I had a moment to think about it, I was like, what he's saying is that this stress is a choice and I can choose to have the great story of: when I started another business. It's something I've been trying to do for almost two years now. When it started to happen, I could have either been stressed at all of the things I knew were coming or I could have accepted them and kept pushing forward seeing the joy in each hurdle.

For me, managing stress is always taking a step back, grabbing perspective and asking myself: did I ask for this? Do I have control over this? What can I do to move forward past this point? 

Q: Do you have a couple tools in your toolkit that you've developed to help yourself take a step back or that you remind yourself to do to shift your mentality? 

I think the biggest thing is that I have developed a few mantras that I like to repeat to myself. I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it doesn't take much for me to remember that the situation I'm in is one that I wanted. 

The mantra that I say to myself is: you asked for this. When I’m thinking about that mantra, I think about it in a really good way. Like, this is what I dreamed of. This is the thing that I've been asking for. So, if all of a sudden things feel like a lot, it's because it is a lot and you wanted that. I just repeat that story in my mind if I ever get caught in that vicious cycle of this is too much

I would say like first and foremost, grabbing perspective for me is saying the mantra. Thinking about it for a moment and then moving forward.

Oftentimes, I find a really good way to relieve stress or to grab perspective is to talk to somebody else in a similar position. I have a few friends in the entrepreneurship world that I like to just call on and say like, hey, this is what I'm dealing with. Have you experienced something like that? Or can you just tell me about your day so I don't think about mine anymore? That usually allows me to see a bigger picture.

We think for all that we're dealing with, we're the only ones or it's so much more than anyone else's handling. To talk to a friend who's also trying to make it on her own and do whatever creative thing she's trying to do, and have her say X, Y and Z also happened to me is grounding. I'm like, oh, right. We are all in this together and this is a thing that isn't just affecting me. It's affecting my closer girlfriends too. 

With COVID, it’s comforting to hear that everybody's in a gray area. I think there's something about the current environment that allows it to feel less like individual failures and more like a community wide slow down. For a lot of entrepreneurs it's hard to feel like you're not getting something done or you're not being productive for the day, especially when everything else is still going. Right now there's some solace, especially in my smaller community of either freelancers or entrepreneurs that the slowdown is widespread. 

So just take solace for now that there's sun outside and you can go for a walk. 

photos courtesy of Shannon Waters

Q: What are some of the things that you have found helpful for grappling with the current situation? 

I remind myself that my family is healthy and safe, my friends are healthy and safe, and I'm safe and healthy. That would be the first thing that helps me with the COVID situation. We're doing our best to maintain safety for ourselves and our community. The people that I really care about are safe and we need to maintain a wider community view. I think it can be really hard for everybody. 

There's a lot of talk about existential anxiety if you wrap yourself into everything happening everywhere. I don't have a good way to deal with that. I don't, I really don't. I think that if you engage with how horrible the actual climate is, it can just be devastating and overwhelming. It’s not to say that you shouldn't engage with it or shouldn't understand what's going on. But for me, mentally, it's not the best choice to go in and out of that on a day to day basis. So I focus on small things. I focus on what I can control at the moment and what I know to be true at the moment, which is family, friends and myself and my cat.

Q: If you had a friend who was very stressed and having a hard time with COVID and you could give them a first step on what to do, what would it be?

Change your physical view - even if it means sitting on your front porch. It’s easy to fall into the thoughts of: well I can't go here and I can't go there and I can't do this. I'm stuck in my house. 

Go into your garage, open the door or go on the porch and sit down for a second. Write about what it feels like. Get out your feelings so those feelings aren't bottled up inside and you don't just brew around your house feeling perpetually stuck. I think even that small change of viewpoint and perspective is extremely helpful in this moment. And to be grateful for that. 

So much of the time, we feel like grabbing perspective needs to mean going into the mountains, getting on a river, driving here, skinning up to there. It’s important to recognize we can actually gain that same little shift by walking onto a porch and feeling the sun on our face and writing it all out. Then returning back to whatever it is you're doing, but giving yourself the grace to just say, this is actually good enough.

Q: What advice would you give entrepreneurs and freelancers right now?

If I had to give advice to freelancers and anyone that's working for themselves at any capacity to start digging into the resources that we have available to us. At this moment, it's not a shameful thing to say like, I need to take out a loan or I'm going to apply for a grant. There's no way that we could have expected this abrupt downturn. 

As freelancers and entrepreneurs, we have savings set aside and we expect some low times, but there was no amount of planning or responsibility that could have put us in a position to be perfectly set up right now.

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