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I Started Having Panic Attacks as a Business Owner — Here’s How I Reprioritized Mental Health While Still Growing

Stress is a normal part of running a business—but there’s a point at which it goes too far. When Ted Browning started having panic attacks from running his restaurant, he knew something had to change. Here’s how he started taking better care of himself while keeping the business growing.

Jan 24, 2023 6 min readFlow
Photo of Ted Browning
Ted Browning

Ted Browning, Founder of Shorty’s Pizza Shack

It’s such a paradox for business owners that more success often means more stress.

At least, that was the case for me. When I started working on Shorty’s Pizza Shack in 2010, my wife and I did everything. We welded the tables, we built the fence, we tested pizza recipes endlessly until we landed on the perfect one. When we opened our doors to customers, this mindset of doing as much as possible myself continued: I hired, I fired, I cooked, I cleaned. I worked open to close most days and would go weeks without taking a single day off.

To say it was exhausting is an understatement, but it was manageable for the first few years as we grew slowly. But everything changed when we started offering a great drink special on Thursday nights. Suddenly, we became the go-to spot for local college students, and those nights were total mayhem.

We were making a ton of money, but my mental health started taking a nosedive. I wasn’t eating enough and started drinking more than normal. I was lightheaded all the time—like that feeling right before you pass out—and different muscles would just start twitching randomly. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having near-constant panic attacks. All I knew was that I felt like I was going to drop dead at any minute, and it was truly terrifying.  

There would be busy stretches during which the only thing that would get me through the night was knowing that, if it all became too much, I could just lock the door and quit. At that point, it became clear: Something had to give if I wanted my business to survive and to take better care of myself along the way.

Today, eight years later, I am so much happier. And, although I had to make some sacrifices to make it happen, the business is still thriving—in fact, we’re about to open our second location. Here are the changes I had to make to take care of myself while also taking care of my business.

I gave up money in the short term to thrive in the long term

When my to-dos at the restaurant started becoming overwhelming, I should have hired more support immediately. But I kept feeling like the success was just a farce—that the sales wouldn’t last or that we would have to raise prices to pay our staff and then customers would stop coming and everything we had built would crumble.

It was a kismet moment that finally convinced me to bring on more serious help. A good friend came into town, mentioned he was looking for a new opportunity, and asked if I’d consider letting him buy in as a co-owner. He’s a much more extroverted person than I am, and he loved the thought of being in the energy of a busy restaurant all day. The idea was we’d run it together for a year so I could train him, and then I’d hand the day-to-day over to him.

This was scary for a few reasons. First of all, it meant giving up control, which I’ll talk more about in a minute. It also meant giving up money—50% of the business, to be exact. Plus, we decided that instead of sending me a paycheck, we’d put my income back into the business so we could grow it without taking on debt.  

But between closing down entirely—which I was on the verge of doing at that point—and bringing on a partner and making less, the latter felt like the better option. Plus, I knew that this move would give us more capacity to expand in the future. I may be bringing home less in the short term, but there was potential to grow more sustainably and meaningfully in the long term. This is proving to be true as we work on opening our second location, something that never would have been possible when I was running things on my own.

I let go of responsibilities I wasn’t suited for

Of course, bringing on help does no good if you can’t let go of control as a business owner, and that’s something I had to learn how to do. Many of my problems came from micromanagement and not coming to terms with the idea that every tiny thing didn't have to be done exactly how I would do it.

The mindset shift that helped me delegate was realizing that continuing to do the tasks I don’t enjoy or that bring me stress is not only harmful for me, but for the business as well. If I’m a miserable human being around customers all day as an introvert, then that’s going to affect everything, from the atmosphere at the restaurant, to my employees’ satisfaction, to the quality of the food.

So, I worked on fully handing over the day-to-day operations to my partner. First, my life almost immediately got better. Knowing that I could theoretically step away for weeks and the business would continue running was so valuable for my mental health and work-life balance, especially as I started caring for my grandparents and my wife and I decided to have a kid.

Plus, getting to fill my days with tasks I actually liked—such as working to improve the food or thinking of creative ideas for business growth—dramatically increased my enjoyment of the work.

And the business was better for it, too. Since my partner took over, our revenue is up 80 percent, and we’ve maintained a 4.6 Google rating.

I remembered that life is so much bigger than my business

Another thing that really helped my mental health was remembering the other aspects of my life that are truly important and intentionally creating time for them.

For instance, I’m often in charge of caring for my daughter. While that can create some additional stress at times, it also really motivates me to create real boundaries with work. No matter what is happening in the business, at 5 pm I have to pick her up from daycare and she gives me a huge hug and a lot of things just wash away, if only for a brief period of time. I'm not perfect, and I do still think about work after hours, but she helps me keep it in check.

I’ve also been working on creating more time for exercise and creative projects outside of my business. I used to be a hobbyist potter and haven’t had much time for that lately, but I find even doing toddler crafts with my kid relaxes me. And working out as little as 1-2 hours a week has been one of the best things for my mental health, whether it’s taking my daughter for a bike ride or getting to the gym.

I recognize that carving out time for “unnecessary” activities like this during times of stress can seem ridiculous or downright impossible, and I find I either have to put these things on my schedule as a non-negotiable or get creative about how I squeeze them in (such as combining creative time with parenting time). Being intentional about fitting them in has been so beneficial, both for my own wellbeing and for my business. Not only do I come back to work happier, but I find that solutions to the biggest problems tend to pop into my head when I’m distracted by something else.

I learned to better manage my stress (because it doesn’t go away)

Dealing with my panic attacks didn’t just mean making changes to the business—it also meant making changes within myself. This is especially important because, as a business owner, the stress never fully goes away. There will always be busier periods and unexpected challenges, and learning how to take care of myself through those has been vital.

Talking to a professional who helped me identify that what I was experiencing was panic attacks was the most helpful step. Naming what was happening helped me feel more in control of it, and she also gave me tools to cope, like doing a few rounds of box breathing or giving myself a few minutes alone during a busy shift. Realizing I really could spare five minutes for myself and the world wasn’t going to end was a big step. My panic attacks still happen, though much less frequently than they used to. And when they do, I know how to take care of myself.

Giving up control and making less money as a business owner was a scary leap, and a lot of my peers questioned what I was doing. But being on the other side—happy, with more time for myself and my family, and with my business thriving—is so incredible that I know it was the right move for me.

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