Dealing with stress and anxiety in the Software industry

Dealing with stress and anxiety in the Software industry

Lately I’ve seen a lot of posts about burnout in the the Software industry blogs. Burnout refers to the lost of motivation, hopelessness at work or life, and lost of interest in anything. Stress and anxiety are symptoms which can lead to it.

All the articles and blog posts address a real problem in the Software industry - a subject hard to discuss with others. Sharing with colleagues or managers that we are stressed or depressed brings a sentiment of weakness. In this world which promotes that only the strong survive, we traded kindness, understanding, and compassion for oppression, threat, and intimidation, thinking that they will generate better results.

In industries like Banking, Fashion, Entertainment, Medical, it is well known that people experience a considerable amount of stress, anxiety and/or exhaustion.

What about the Software industry, do “we” programmers experience stress, anxiety, depression?

Software industry is no different. I am hundred percent sure that we all do. In any sector or industry we faced at least one of the following:

- Stress
- Anxiety
- Exhaustion
- Demotivation
- Depression
- Oppression

Today, I would like to share my experiences with you. I will only talk about myself with “I” as everything is based on my personal experiences. I do not have any scientific proof to back up my thoughts and certainly do not assume that I understand what your issues are. I am sharing my thoughts as you might recognize yourself in my path and hopefully it might give you some directions. I do not hold the answers to the questions on how depression or stress happen, and I do not hold the answers on how to handle it but I have multiple points which guide me on a daily basis and those are the points I would like to share with you.

About five months ago, I felt like I was losing interest and had increasing difficulties to handle small problems. I felt like something was missing. At that time, I had (and still have) a beautiful and understanding fiancC)e, a great job, just started a new job working on amazing technologies (F# ;)) with awesome colleagues (like @nbevans ;)) and no real problems (of course I had some problems but those weren’t life threatening). Seemed like I had it all but still, something was strange, I had everything I wanted but the stress was constantly there. Then I realized that my whole life I have been constantly stressed, it became part of my daily routine. This stress was provoked by fear - fear of failure at work, fear of disappointing , fear of messing up and not be up to expectations. Sometimes, I could escape this feeling, times where I could tell myself to stop worrying. These moments were gratifying but soon enough I would fall back into the world of stress. Three months ago, that’s when I understood that success from my career will not bring me happiness. It can help for sure but as long as I chose to be unhappy, I will remain unhappy.

And that was the key, I have the choice. And from that day on, I choose to be happy every day. I choose to not be stressed. I can’t choose to not be tired but I can choose to stop what I am doing now and go rest. I choose to not be afraid to disappoint as I know that what I provide is my best.

Self improvement has now become a big part in my skillset. It helped me improve my relation with myself, clients, colleagues, friends but also to make new connections. I value others as much as I value myself. The shift of ideas and thoughts gave me a complete new perspective and suddenly instead of facing obstacles, I was facing opportunities. In this post, I would like to share with you three points that I constantly remind myself. These three points help me every day to keep improving my life and also improve the life of everyone interacting with me (or at least I would like to think so).

Here are the three points:

  1. Accept where I am now
  2. Find the right balance between improving my technical skills, my mind, and my physical condition
  3. Understand my feelings to see the positive aspects of the situations

All the information given in this post came from books and articles I read and also long hours of thoughts. Some of the most influential books I read were How to win friends and influence people, The chimp paradox, The obstacle is the way and The power of now.

1. Accept where I am now

I used to always think that nothing I had was enough. Every time I would wish to have something else, more. Blinded by the illusion that possessing this something will finally quench my thirst. I would get obsessed by this something over weeks until I finally get it and when I finally got it, I was back into the same cycle of obsessing over something else. This something was different every time, a better job, a higher paid salary, a car, a new TV, being fit, even a new subject to learn. Every single time I would think that after possessing or understanding this I will be fullfilled and finally be happy and relieved from stress. This things were future possessions. I was postponing my happiness for an alternate future which never came.

I was postponing my happiness for an alternate future which never came.

Alternate future because this future was one where I would be fullfilled which of course didn’t match with what actually happened. Understanding this brought me to the conclusion that I had to accept where I was and that was the best place I could be at that moment. If there were a better place, I would be there (and probably be thinking the same… that It ain’t the best place). Of course I could think of million of places I would like to be, like in New york (I was in UK) for example but I am talking about reachable places from where I was at that moment.

Accept where I am now.

I am where I am, being unhappy will not change where I am. If there is a better place for me to be, I would be there already. I have the choice of being happy or unhappy about it.

2. Find the right balance between improving my technical skills, my mind, and my physical condition

Being a programmer, I used to be solely focused on technology. Understanding a new language, a new framework, a new design pattern, a new platform, I used to get immerse in it and lose sight of anything else. I used to read a book nonstop for a whole day about a language or framework hoping to grasp a good understanding out of it. When I had the momentum, I would jump into it and try to complete the learning as fast as I could before the momemtum was gone. Truth is that the momentum was so short that I would only be able to grasp half of the knowledge and force the rest. It takes time for my brain to understand the information and at the end, I would just forget about that particular framework or pattern. What I was lacking was organization and consistency.

It was only when I decided to improve myself on the technology side and the social side that I realized that my brain worked better if I gave it variety. I would limit the time spent on a particular subject every day in order to keep myself interested in it. Since then I have been devoting, every day, half an hour to learn something new in technology, half an hour to learn something new in terms of self improvement and half an hour to improve my physical condition by hitting the gym. This whole improvement only take up to two hours of my time in a day and I can still do all the rest of the things I normally do during the day. I found the right balance between improving my skills, my mind, and my physical condition. By doing this, every night I go to bed with a feeling of accomplishment. It helps making me feel that I accomplished something today, that it was a good day.

Find the right balance between improving skills, mind, and physical condition.

I manage to do that by tracking my time. I constantly check how long I spend on every area and I am very conscious when it takes more than half an hour. Having this balance also indirectly allows me to sleep early and wake up early. Instead of staying up late hoping that the day wouldn’t end, I now sleep early and am excited about tomorrow. Tomorrow now means new things to learn and more opportunities.

Sleep early and start the day early. Be excited for tomorrow as it will bring more things to learn and more opportunities.

I changed my routine few months ago, it is still fresh to me but I am consistent. Without consistency, there won’t be any results. I am confident that this routine will bring a lot of opportunities as well. In a year time from now, I will be able to look back and I am confident that the progress will be unequivocal.

3. Understand my feelings to see the positive aspects of the situations

Even when situations seem bad, I will find a positive aspect in it. All of the situations I faced were not life threatening at all. A bug happened in production, one of my previous employer lacked the fund to pay my salary, heck I even had my arm paralyzed and could not move it for a month. In all cases, those situations felt really terrible but in each one of them, at least one positive aspect could be found. The most prominent aspect was that I could learn a lesson from them. But at the time, my mindset was different. I was drowned in stress, angst, and anger. The feelings were overpowering my thoughts and I could not think properly.

Stress makes me act in a rush which is almost always prone to error. Angst and anger make me act in disproportionate ways. Find the positive aspects would have been seeing that:

  • A bug in production would teach me how to handle a delicate situation.
  • An employer not paying me would teach me how to defend myself by exercising my rights.
  • Losing the control of my arm would teach me how I could re-educate my muscles to slowly gain back my movements.

Feelings are normal, they are signals from my brain to let me know that I am in a different situation. It is absolutely normal to feel stressed or feel angry. It is up to me to handle these signals. It is all about understanding and managing them. I will never be able to remove my stress or anxiety when facing issues. What I can do instead is understand where it comes from and work with it.

It is absolutely normal to feel stressed or feel angry. It is up to me to handle how I want to react to my feelings.

A technique that I read from The chimp paradox and which is also talked about in the The seven habits of highly effective people is to visualize yourself during those situations of stress. To project myself out of my body and visualize myself being stressed or angry in the situation.

Project myself out of my body and visualize myself being stressed or angry in the situation.

Doing that help me refocus and think what would be the next most useful move. I now have my emotions under control.

Conclusion

I started this post by specifying that this was for the Software industry but in fact it can be applied anywhere. As of today, I strongly believe that following these points will bring a better life for me and a better interaction with people. If you have any kind of negative feelings and don’t know how to deal with it, give this a try and let me know how it goes for you. As I said, I don’t have the answers so if you feel like I could add something to improve my methods, let me know here or hit me on twitter @Kimserey_Lam!

Stress, anxiety, depression is usually caused by challenges thrown at us in vulnerable positions. If we understand where they are originated, we will be in a better position to respond to them. Happiness and balance are very important as they keep us healthy and strong to face these challenges. There will never come a time where we don’t have any challenges anymore, where we conquered it all. At the end of every challenge, life has prepared other more difficult ones for you and me. I am prepared and ready to face it. Are you? Bring it on!

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