Originally Posted On: https://beapython.dev/2019/11/30/stress-management-for-software-developers/
It was a Friday afternoon at 5:30 pm. I was just about to pack up my things and go meet my girlfriend at a new restaurant downtown when my on-call pager went off. The availability in one of our teams new services started to decrease significantly and I didn’t know enough about its system to confidently solve this alone when most of my team has already left for the weekend. On top of that we had two days left in our sprint and I still have 5 open story points and 3 more story points in code reviews which would be about 4-5 days of work if I’m lucky but still clearly behind the release schedule. I texted my girlfriend to let her know I wouldn’t make it to dinner for the third time this month and hunkered in my desk for what I hoped wouldn’t be a long night of debugging why the new service was behaving unexpectedly.
– Stefan B.
It’s not unlikely that you haven’t encountered a similar situation to the above and the developer world can be more stressful than some people give it credit for. You and I both know we’re not just sitting at our desks all day hacking away at code and eating free “name your favorite food here”. Managing software cycles, dealing with outages from changes in traffic or dependencies, debugging bugs in development code, having challenging meetings with senior leaders or pushy junior developers, and skimming through log lines in broken integration tests can all drive you to feel stressed out.
Being able to recognize the causes of your stress, how stress affects people, and finding positive ways to deal with stress can help you avoid burn out, feel more energetic, happier, and even healthier.
Also I feel obligated to tell anyone reading this article I AM NOT A DOCTOR. This article reflects my own research and experiences with stress in my life as a software developer; and is a result of me wanting to learn more about stress and share my learning with others out there. If you are experiencing extreme stress, chronic anxiety, or other stress related ailments that affects your quality of life please also consider talking to a professional.
It may be hard to imagine a time before cities, meetings, and deadlines but it is said that the earliest versions of recognizable human ancestors are estimated to be from over 2 million years ago. Fossils of humans in our current evolved form have been found and dated to be 200,000 years old. Industrialize humans have only been around for 250 years and as such our current way of life is far different to the way humans have evolved.
It may be obvious to say primitive humans didn’t have cars to escape from dangerous predators or sophisticated weapons to fight them off. Somewhere through genetics there existed a group of Humans whom having encountered such a threat their hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for regulating hormones, tells the body to release more adrenaline and cortisol to physically prepare to “fight or flight”.
The adrenaline will increase the function of your heart to help pump blood throughout your body so your muscles can respond quicker, it bind to cells in your lungs enabling you to be able to breath faster and take in more oxygen, it also generates other small reactions in the body almost making you some kind of mini-super-soldier whom can lift cars off of small children in trouble.
Cortisol is used by your body to help process blood sugar and stored fats to generate energy. It also helps your brain control your mood and fear. This helps to be able to respond to a threat in such a way that would result in our early relatives having a higher chance of survival than those who didn’t have such a “stress reaction”. As such humans with an evolved stress reaction were more likely to survive on 200,000-year-ago-earth and pass this biological reaction to their children, compared to a human who may have not even been scared of the charging bear coming right at them.
While it wasn’t everyday early man may have encountered a bear in their face while walking to the nearby stream to get water; In today’s modern society human’s perceive threats that trigger their stress reaction more frequently. Examples of potential causes of stress can include; driving in traffic and you get cut off by a big truck, watching dramatic tv shows, intense conversations with coworkers or friends, receiving dislikes on your social media post, or running behind on a timeline where you may feel your job and livelihood can be endangered if you don’t deliver a high quality feature.
Depending on how you perceive daily situations one person is likely to experience a heightened or lowered stress reaction to similar situations. And while this stress reaction of increased adrenaline and cortisol release has helped humans escape threats our bodies are not evolved to handle this for long periods of time. People that experience frequent heightened periods of stress responses are more at risk of also experiencing a type of reaction that people now call burnout.
The room suddenly felt as if the temperature had went from 70 to 100; I looked around at all the senior engineers and managers that I was about to give my first large presentation to and seeing if they too looked hot. Obviously not since several big dogs from out of town were still wearing sweatshirts and jackets.
I had been preparing for this demo for the past week and knew in my mind I would nail this but something about public speaking to this many higher ups was intimidating. I could feel the antonymous negative thoughts kicking in, “You’re going to forget your slides and how your service works. They’ll surely laugh at you when you blank on what to say and have to run out of the room and move back to the mid-west in your mother’s basement. Whelp it was good while it lasted.”
The fight or flight reaction was kicking in at full steam as they announced me to present. I went slide through slide as I prepared but there were more “ums” than I’d hoped for but overall it went fine. The audience all clapped at the end and some even gave positive feedback and contributed some ideas I could bring into the project I just spent the last 50 minutes talking about. However, My body felt as if I just been hit by a truck. When I came home I swear I instantly slept for the next 12 hours.
I woke up the next day with a cold and was really dragging at work. I was more silent than normal during meetings and noticeably slower at writing working efficient code. Luckily it was a Friday and I’d be able to sleep it off but this was all tell tale signs of burnout from the preparation I put into the presentation while having to maintain my normal job duties.
– Stefan B
Burnout can strike at anytime of increased stress and be so severe where the only solution before you have a heart attack is to switch careers into being a cruise ship deck cleaner. It is also a large reason to learn to recognize and manage your stress since it can have significant affects on your relationships, as well as your mental and physical well being.
Here are signs you may need to keep reading this article:
Well friends most of the above can all be attributed to burnout and stress. If you are 100% happy with your life and job and still have all the above then please immediately quit reading this and go to urgent care because it probably isn’t stress and you may need more than the words from some software engineer.
Well the answer to this could be “YES, get out immediately” or it could be a simple no. This depends on the way you think and the way you respond to things that can be considered stressful.
In the case of “YES” there are always teams and jobs out there that might not match your values. There may also be toxic teams who don’t reflect on failures or make changes based on employee feedback. Luckily, I haven’t experienced this first hand but others have made me aware this could be the case. In which case I’d advice you to also considering getting out immediately.
There could also be a case where your values have changed over time and the company direction has gone differently than you expected since you started. Remember, it is always okay to reevaluate your situation and pivot your life plans to realign your current values with your career to reduce the amount of stress you feel.
Stress can also be attributed to our experience levels. A professional athlete in his very first game in front of millions of fans is likely to feel completely differently than the veteran on his team playing in his 800th game. So if coding under pressure makes you feel stressed than code more to gain confidence and grow your skills. This isn’t something drastic enough to warrant considering a career change in your first few years of software development.
To help drill down on this question a little more it helps to know what other situations at work can contribute to increased stress.
There could be cases where you may be on a very efficient team with clear expectations and consistent 40-45 hour a week work schedules and you still feel you are stressed out. To recap above the feeling of stress is when you encounter perceived threats. These threats can be internal as well as external. Internal perceived threats can actually be more stressful to a person since your thoughts are with you where ever you go and prolonged stress leads to burnout. This causes a fly wheel of stress inducing feelings and thoughts contributing to more mental and physical damage.
To help avoid this cycle lets consider what kind of thought processes can add to your stress.
Now that we know what stress is, how stress can lead to burnout, and what work and personal factors can influence a person’s stress level we can now think through how to handle our stress more efficiently. In addition to the suggestions I made in the corresponding sections; here are other activities a person can do to help manage stress as well as affiliate links to books that can provide more information than I can. If you’ve found this article helpful please help me in supporting this blog by checking out the links or sharing this article with others you think it may help.
Thank you for taking the time to read along and I hope you have been able to learn something new to help you reduce any stress you may be experiencing! Please let me know additional stress tips you have in the comments or on twitter.
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