Leading Under Pressure

For executives and entrepreneurs who need to hit the ground running

Small Fish in Big Pond

When to seek help

About 15 years ago, I assisted the National Mental Health Association, now known as Mental Health America, at the House of Representatives for the National Depression Screening Day. Many people came by out of curiosity trying to figure out why a large group of people were so effective at inviting people to take a survey. Perhaps it had to do with the mostly young women with clipboards who were asking the questions.

I vividly remember a young woman deeply concerned about her depression. She had been the best in her class in her hometown and had earned a scholarship to a prestigious DC university. In addition, she had competitively won an opportunity to assist a representative in the government. She was miserable. As powerful and successful she had always felt in her home university, she was now deeply depressed as she was now paired with other very talented young men and women who were, like her, competing for the best, the ultimate, the most prominent opportunities. She had already thought of being better off dead. I was also an Emergency Room Attending Psychiatrist on a part-time basis, being full-time researcher at the National Institutes of Health, and this was extremely familiar. We made sure she was offered help on the spot.

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Others are not as lucky. Feeling low when constantly competing and comparing with others’ success or wealth around can be taxing. Men and women may respond differently. Women may experience pervasive signs and symptoms of depression prior to making an attempt to hurt themselves whereas many men may resort to combining alcohol and impulsivity in an attempt to hurt themselves.

How does living around much wealthier people affect one’s mental health and sanity? And, how could this drive someone to suicide?

From Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince discovering his rose was not the only one in the universe, to people feeling they are the paupers on the block, drastic economic meltdowns may put in evidence this pervasive problem with exponential impact: when the loss of wealth is gradual people get more used to the experience. When loss is sudden or significant, there may be a higher risk for self-injury and impulsive behavior. A recent publication links the recession to a rise in suicides based on an English study with an 8.5 (men):1.5 (women) in a gender split. 

How can we stay grounded and keep our sanity if we feel the small fish in the big pond?

1. List the positive in your life: your relationships, assets, talents, achievements: Felix Baumgartner worked on his recent feat for years before achieving it. Aside from “training” for his world-record jump from space he had to overcome panic attacks while in his space suit. How did he overcome it? With the assistance of a psychiatrist who helped him focus on the positive, not the negative.

2. Surround yourself with positive people: We tend to surround ourselves with people who match back what we radiate. If I am constantly competing with the world I will surround myself with people who are constantly competing as well. If all I care for is looking good I will tend to attract people who may also care about looks. If I care about exuding wealth I will tend to attract people who are interested in wealth. Just be aware that you receive what you are looking for. Ensure you surround yourself with people who appreciate you as a person and who value you for who you are, without the golden robes and shiny jewelry.

3. Focus on your health: Discontinue any behavior that affects your integrated health. Stop overdrinking caffeine or taking stimulants to enhance your cognitive or physical execution. Stop drinking alcohol to self-treat your underlying anxiety or constant worry for an uncertain future. Make sure you focus on eating and sleeping well and find healthy ways to relax. Learn relaxation techniques including guided imagery, meditation or prayer and increase your exercise time if you are feeling more stressed. Paradoxically, more people cut down their exercise when they feel they need to do more with less. Exercise will help you fight stress and be in a more positive inner state.

4. Mind your own business: Stop comparing yourself to others. May be you and your brothers are ivy league graduates with amazing entrepreneurial ventures but you feel behind their achievements and your family’s expectations. While staying competitive and at your top game is important, comparing yourself, your family and your achievements to everybody around you is exhausting. Instead, focus on your gains and your own accomplishments and learn how to value your own worth not based on relentless comparisons but on self-knowledge about who you are and what your aligned mission is.

5. Seek help: This is one of the toughest suggestions. Many people feel they can surf the rough waters on their own and many people can. However, if you are despondent, if you are constantly having negative thoughts, if you don't find solutions and are surrounded by what seems to be dark and bleak, seek professional help. Many people believe their family will be better off without them in their desperation. Suicide is devastating for the remaining family members increasing the probability of suicide in future generations. Think of the legacy you are leaving behind. The secret to your happiness and wellbeing is to value your self and mind your own business while avoiding comparing your achievements or wealth to others’.

Gabriela Cora, M.D., M.B.A., hosts Dr. Gaby's Take: Make Life Interesting. She’s a medical doctor with a master's in business administration.

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