When it comes to stress and anxiety in the workplace, you could call me a frequent flier. Years ago I was diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (or GERD for short), which feeds off of my stress and anxiety. As you can imagine, this is often not a great experience during the workday! Over time, I have added ways to minimize my stress (in and out of the office) to my toolbelt and I am happy to share those with you here. Some of these approaches might seem trivial, but I’ve found that relying on a combination of most of them works best for me. As always, your mileage may vary.
Please note: none of this should be taken as professional medical advice. This blog post is meant to reflect on stress and anxiety relief methods that I found worked well for me or people close to me. Always talk to your doctor before making drastic changes to your diet, exercise routine, or before starting/stopping any kind of medical treatment.
With that being said, let’s get started!
1. Make sure to Get Enough Sleep
Getting consistent sleep every night is probably one of the most helpful ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Experts recommend anywhere from 7-9 hours of sleep per night to feel well-rested and alert. The exact amount you may need varies from person to person. I’ve found that 7.5 - 8 hours is my sweet spot. Anything less than that and I tend to not feel 100% or perform my best work. Remember that the amount of sleep you get should be measured by when you’re actually sleeping and not when you’re just resting your eyes.
People often find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Here are some tips to get a better night of sleep:
Avoid electronics screens about an hour before bed. The blue light tends to keep us awake.
Try some light stretching to loosen up your body. Nothing that will get your heart pumping though!
Avoid eating 3-4 hours before bed so that you avoid sleeping on a full stomach. Otherwise, you could stay awake from an unsettled stomach
Avoid drinking fluids an hour or so before bed to avoid having to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom
Avoid alcohol consumption in general as it messes with your deeper sleep cycles
Try drinking herbal teas like chamomile and lavender a few hours before bed to encourage relaxation
Get a solid sleep mask and blackout curtains for your windows. If you live in a noisy neighborhood, try a pair of earplugs or noise-canceling headphones (I love my Airpods Pro I recently splurged on) with some white noise. I’m a big fan of rain sounds while I sleep.
2. Exercise Regularly
Most health experts agree that sitting is generally bad for you. As developers, most of us tend to sit for 8 or more hours a day at work and then probably some more after the workday is finished. To combat some of those nasty side effects of being sedentary, we need to make sure to take care of our bodies through regular exercise each day. You should ideally be aiming for an hour a day to stay healthy.
The exercise you engage in doesn’t have to be intense bodybuilding. You don’t even have to go for a run if that’s not your style. I enjoy going for a walk/jog every morning. If you don’t have a single period to dedicate to exercise, try splitting up your exercise in shorter bursts throughout the day. On days where I wake up too late or have early morning meetings, I’ll try to go for a shorter walk in the morning and then make up the difference during lunch or after dinner. Your body will thank you and you’ll likely feel energized each day if you’re consistent with it.
3. Consume a Healthy Diet
What goes hand-in-hand with a good night’s sleep and daily exercise? That’s right. A healthy diet! Your body needs to fuel those intense coding sessions and your exercise routine. You’ve probably experienced the sensation of feeling pretty sluggish after an unhealthy meal or snack. While tempting, if you continuously binge junk food, you’ll likely feel sluggish and less mentally sharp during the workday. That can lead to having less productive days and accumulated stress.
Now it’s important to mention that junk food in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. Treating yourself when you have an intense craving is often better than limiting yourself to the point where you binge a huge amount all at once. So how do you go about introducing a healthy lifestyle into your daily routine? Check out what the World Health Organization recommends.
I usually try my best to do the following with my diet:
Eat a variety of proteins including lean meats, fish, eggs, legumes, seeds, and nuts
Include plenty of fruits and vegetables that span the color of the rainbow
Limit sugar, salt, alcohol, and unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats)
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day
It can be difficult at times to stick with the above if I’ve had a rough day. I find that the best way I can keep to a healthier diet is when I take the time on the weekends to do some meal preparation. With the NFL season ramping back up (go Jets!), I tend to do this while watching football on Sundays or while listening to a podcast. I recommend preparing large batches of at least one or two types of meals and easy snacks (like cut-up fruit and veggies) for whenever the inevitable craving to snack arises.
4. Take Breaks Throughout the Day
As developers, our jobs are demanding! While it can be tempting to try to accomplish as much as possible within working hours, it’s important to remember to force yourself to take breaks throughout the day. I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve emerged after several hours straight of coding and slogging through meetings, only to find myself hunched over, hangry, and feeling mentally drained.
If you’re as task-focused as I am, then consider trying the Pomodoro method. The basic idea is to pick a single task, work on that task for 25 minutes until the time is up, and then take a 5-minute break. For every 4 cycles (or Pomodoros) you complete, you then take a longer 15-30 minute break. I can honestly say that using this method helps me to keep myself refreshed during the day than if I were to work for hours at a time.
Even if you don’t follow a specific system for taking a break, be sure to get up out of your chair and stretch when you’re feeling stiff. If you can manage to do so, get away from your desk when you take lunch and try to stay away from looking at screens while you do it so you can give your eyes a rest. I find a 30-minute meal and then a short lunchtime walk is a great way to get ready to tackle the second half of the day.
5. Make Time for Hobbies you Enjoy
As the saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Remember to make time for enjoying your hobbies. One of my favorite things to do outside of work is to cook. Not only is it a great stress reliever, but it’s also a creative outlet where I can express myself through the food that I create. I also love playing video games, watching anime, and going on hikes (when I manage to get out of the city). Find what makes you happy and make time for it each day.
6. Spend Time with Friends, Family, and Loved Ones
It’s been quite a year and a half! We’ve all been struggling in one way or another due to this pandemic and it’s important to realize that we may not have had much contact with other people during this time. One of the biggest positive influences on my mental health is when I’m able to spend quality time with the people I care about most. Whether that’s binge-watching a show with my fiancée, calling my parents, or playing video games with my friends, it’s important to keep in touch with those closest to us.
Having a support system through this difficult time has been key to keeping my stress and anxiety in check. If you don’t feel as though you have a strong support system at this time, try reaching out to folks who you may not have spoken to in a while. This could be a distant relative, an old friend, or maybe a previous co-worker or classmate.
7. Take Quality Time off to Recharge
One of the biggest contributors to burnout (a.k.a. stress overload) is never taking quality time off from work. A lot of developers I have known in my career so far take pride in taking off as little vacation time as possible. For whatever reason, there seems to be some kind of belief that the less time off someone takes, the better they are at their job or that it makes them worth more in the eye of their team.
I can not emphasize enough how important it is to use your vacation time as an employee. Not only will it keep you from burning out (and thus less stressed out), but you’ve earned it, and it is a part of your yearly salary! If you don’t take your time off, this is money left on the table that you have to work for additionally.
This also applies to “unlimited PTO”, which can be confusing and often leads to folks taking less time off than traditional accrued vacation. At a minimum, I try to aim to collect 1 day off every 3-4 weeks. This adds up to about 13-17 days off a year (not including company holidays). Of course, use your best discretion for whatever is the norm at your place of work.
When you do decide to take time off, make sure you completely unplug to maximize your recharge. That means turning off those Slack notifications, emails, and whatever else might remind you of work. If you’re scheduled to be on-call during your time off you may not be able to do this, but I would recommend avoiding taking time off while you’re on-call as a best practice.
8. Develop a Solid Work-Life Balance
Not only can stress and anxiety be caused by not taking time off, but it can also be made worse if your infamous work-life balance is out of whack. I mentioned shutting off your notifications and email from work when you are taking time off. If you can do this at the end of every workday, then you will be way better off. There’s nothing worse than getting an email right before bed and being thrown out of your bedtime moment of zen.
I find that I’m able to balance work and life by utilizing a few daily strategies:
Do your best to start and end work at the same time each day. There will likely be days where you have to go a little longer or start a little earlier to meet a deadline, but this should not be your routine.
At the end of the day, write down your tasks for the next day. That way you can leave your last thought for the day at work and feel like you haven’t forgotten anything for the next day.
Remind yourself that “the code will always be there tomorrow”. It can be very tempting to want to finish your current task before you go home or fix this one small bug you just found as you were wrapping up the day. Those little extra half an hour spurts add up over time and can affect your overall wellbeing.
9. Find an Outlet for Working through your Struggles
It’s important to find a vehicle to act as an outlet for your anxieties that pile up from work and life. Keeping feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety bottled up until you can’t handle it any more will eventually lead to burnout and even depression. Luckily there are ways we can work to offset some of these mental health struggles.
One suggestion for an outlet is to keep a weekly journal where you can reflect on your thoughts. Sometimes the act of writing down how we’re feeling is enough to help us acknowledge our emotions and help to sort through them either in the moment or at a later date when we’re feeling able to do so.
If writing down your thoughts isn’t enough, you may benefit from therapy. It’s important to note that while some view therapy as a sign of weakness, it is a completely normal and effective way to deal with stress and anxiety. If your heart started to have issues, you would go to see a doctor. Your mental health is no different.
These days, therapy is not limited to in-person sessions. With the recent expansion of online resources, you can now get access to high-quality therapists online. Companies like Talkspace and BetterHelp are making online therapy more accessible than ever. Most employers in the tech space even offer some kind of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) that can provide you with mental health care as well.
10. Switch Jobs (If you can)
One of my favorite podcasts related to soft skills in software engineering is Soft Skills Engineering. The hosts of the show have a running joke that no matter the problem at hand, you can always quit your job! As much as they joke about this in their episodes, it definitely applies to certain situations.
I ended up taking this advice after my last job started to become a significant source of stress in my life. I had recently been promoted and after a year, my position became unreasonably demanding. Although I tried my absolute best to power through it, I realized that I wouldn’t feel better until I did what was right for me and found a different job where the day-to-day grind was much more reasonable.
After doing so, my stress and anxiety plummeted and I’ve felt much happier. It’s important to remember that employment is a two-way street (like any relationship). If one side is not providing what the other needs, then there’s nothing wrong with trying to find something that works better for both sides.
11. Talk to Your Doctor about Potential Treatment
If you’ve already tried several strategies to lessen your stress and anxiety on your own with little to no results, it may be time to talk to a medical professional. Tell your doctor about what you’ve been going through and ask about possible treatments like therapy or anti-anxiety medication to help with your symptoms if necessary. Using a combination of the above techniques and medical treatment could lead to more effective results.
Dealing with stress and anxiety is no easy task. Hopefully one of these strategies can help to reduce your daily mental anguish and over time you will see improvements. Want to share your struggle or ways you use to find relief? As always, drop a comment on this post or find me on Twitter. I'd be more than happy to try to offer whatever advice I can or just be someone to listen to if you need it. Until next time, stay safe out there and remember to take care of yourself and help others around you that may need it.