19 May 2015

Persistent Thoughts: running a startup about mental health problems when you have mental health problems

By Guest

Last week Playlab London CEO (and BGV alumnus) Simon Fox shared his thoughts on running a startup about mental health problems whilst tackling mental health problems himself, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week.

Hi everyone! My name is Simon and I’m the CEO at Playlab, as well as the lead designer on our product Flowy – a mobile game which people with panic or anxiety disorders use to help manage their mental health.

There’s a reason I started a company that specialises in helping people improve their mental health – I’ve been experiencing panic disorder and generalised anxiety for nearly a decade now. There’s a running joke at Playlab that I spend my working life trying to help people become less anxious, and it makes me more anxious than anything else I do!

Seven years ago, I experienced my first severe panic attack. In the weeks that followed, my life would basically fall apart. Feeling as though you’re going to die at least once day makes life hard to live and my world quickly became very much smaller, and full of things I could no longer do. My friendships suffered, my work suffered immensely, everything that had made up my life became very hard. I eventually sought out professional help with the support of my family;the resulting process was very hard but it allowed me to gather the confidence and self-affection to start Playlab.

Running a business is inherently very stressful, a startup perhaps doubly so. As a founder you have to provide the certainty, the confidence and the enthusiasm yourself – it’s part of the job description. You’re always putting yourself out there doing something new and unproven, you get used to the idea that you are most likely to fail. You get used to forcing yourself to believe in the statistical miracle that would be your incredible success. That kind of thing could drive anyone a bit crazy. I’m a fan of Kelly McGonigal’s approach to stress in your life – it must be embraced as a friend. We desire meaningful lives and so we ought to pursue the frightening challenges that make up our dreams and trust ourselves to handle the stress that follows.

For me, mental health is a constant consideration. If I don’t respect it, then I’m going to be waking up in a few days time wondering why I feel like somebody is stepping on my brain – it’s pretty reliable, and when I’m miserable everybody around me (like the amazing team I work with) ends up suffering. As a result I’ve learned some really simple habits that make a huge difference.

  • Watch what you eat – eating for comfort is a way to cope with excessive stresses until it becomes a source of excessive stress because being overweight makes you miserable.
  • Move your body around – even 20 minutes of mild exercise a day can prevent or alleviate anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. It’s amazing how quickly this one makes a difference.
  • Be Mindful – I meditate every day right now, and have been meditating regularly for 2 years. It’s completely changed my life. Regular meditation promotes what is referred to as ‘metacognitive awareness’ which more simply means ‘a wider awareness of your thoughts’. Regular meditative practice gives me some space in between thinking a thought or experiencing a feeling and reacting to it. In this space, I gain a great deal of peace.

I always felt as though my mental health was a weakness. Sometimes I still think that. Sometimes I think it pretty firmly.

But I also think of it as a gift. I’m lucky that my body and mind tell me so firmly when I need to pay attention to what is going on in my life and make a change.

I’m especially lucky that my experience gave me the insight I needed to build Flowy, and to start a company dedicated to supporting people with the same experiences as me. And know that even if you do have a great deal of difficulty coping with your thoughts and feelings, you can still take a crack at doing something you care about.

Happy Mental Health Awareness Week everyone!

This originally appeared on Playlab London’s blog on 15 May.