Developer Anxiety, we’re not alone

Yesterday I was approached by a developer, apprentice, friend, and sometimes mentor, who was having some personal issues.  I consider this person to be very strong, and capable of great things.  I’ve watched over some years, and I’m really impressed with their progress personally as well as professionally.  However, these facts only increased the shock of what they revealed to me, and must have been very difficult for them to share.

During the conversation it was revealed how they’re experiencing HUGE anxiety, complete with panic attacks, and are even consulting a physician who prescribed medication for it.  As this person spoke I could see the anxiety levels grow within through their body language , and witnessed the “deer caught in headlights” look as they wrestled on the precipice of going into another panic attack.  Though I had someplace I needed to be, I knew I couldn’t leave this person alone to struggle as I had so often in the past.  So I lingered, and we talked until the ebb had calmed.

My heart went out to my friend because I’ve dealt with the same feelings and problems, and had always done it alone. (Except for a few trips to the ER in past years to ensure it wasn’t really a heart attack.)  Oh, how well I can recall the feelings of fear and doubt.  Not knowing when my body will randomly boost my adrenalin to extreme levels that push me over the edge, fighting for my next breath until my chest loosens again.

Yes, I know I “seem” different in person as I talking loudly and laughing at conferences.  It has taken me many years to get to that point.  And yes, inside I’m constantly forcing down the roiling anxiety that never truly subsides.  So don’t get caught up in the stereotypical idea that someone with anxiety is this lonely person crying while huddled in a ball in the corner.  That is not me.  My stress and anxiety doesn’t come from being around people (unless they’re stupid), or from public speaking and such things.  I’m fairly social, but stress by other things such as deadlines, lack of requirements, distractions, fear of failure, and bad code, can be just as damaging.

Another common misconception is that anxiety is caused by the stress of the moment, which is simply not true.  A doctor I consulted with in the past informed me that anxiety can be caused by stresses from as long as six month ago.  So moving to a new home may seem OK at the time, but up to 6 months from now we suffer from the effects of the stress.  So, by the time we have an anxiety attack it’s too late to fix it.  All we can do is deal with the anxiety and push through it somehow.

For each of us the cause is slightly different, because we each struggle with our own problems and/or OCDs.  For my friend it was developer related stresses that many of us deal with:

  • Working on a development team and not kept busy enough, so we internalizing the many things that weigh on our shoulders in such situations.  Will we be downsized because someone realizes we’re not busy?  What should we do with our time?  Is the company failing due to lack of feature requests?  Is it fair to collect a paycheck for filling time?  Am I not good enough?  And the list goes on.
  • Working on a codebase that really needs a major refactor, but nobody will give the OK to do it.
  • Witnessing a company rewriting an application, and realizing it’s as bad as the original.
  • Wanting to contribute, but not knowing how to start.  Sure, it’s easy to say, “Just pick a project and start.”  But in reality it’s not that easy internally.
  • Impossibly tight deadlines.
  • Lack of requirements for a project.
  • Relocating.
  • Can’t seem to keep pace with new technologies.
  • Open work spaces.
  • Noises, motion, or cube drive-by ending in a meeting.
  • Having questions, but not wanting to bother others by asking.
  • Feel like an imposter. (see imposter syndrome)
  • Feeling your alone, or perhaps your some “weirdo” because nobody else speaks about these things.

Some advice I gave, based on how I handle things:

  • Tension Tamer tea by Celestial Seasons.
  • Licorice root capsules twice a day when stress is high. (but as one commenter added, can cause side-effects)
  • Learning how to say “no” to tight deadlines.
  • Take a walk during lunch time.
  • Read a book.  Not a technical one.  Something not related to work. Maybe something inspirational, or a fiction.
  • Learned how to gather requirements for projects, and do proper time estimates.
  • Running, or some other physical activity to get the heart rate up 20 minutes or more a day.
  • Talk with others, even though we would rather be alone. (maybe even professional listeners)
  • Join, or create, a user group to pull others like me together.
  • Teach others how to create better code, so I don’t need to see bad code as often. (never ending)
  • Work from home.
  • Get a new job. Not a new profession. (extreme, but sometimes it’s the only way)
  • Get an annual checkup, so I know I’m healthy and not having a heart attack when anxiety kicks in.

I don’t really have the answers, nobody does.  But felt I should create this post and put it out there.  Perhaps others will read it and realize they’re not alone.  And sometimes just knowing that can help lessen the stress levels.

How do you handle the stress?

NOTE: I received permission from my friend to share this story, so it wouldn’t cause any more stress and anxiety by sharing it without their knowing.

Comments

  1. You know, I’ve been starting to think. I saw Ed Finkler’s talk at TrueNorthPHP, I attended the Mental Health Summit last night and now I’m reading this.

    I wrote this blogpost yesterday: http://leftontheweb.com/blog/2014/05/21/Want_To_Be_More_Productive_Work_Less/

    I sometimes wonder if my stress is related to more than just being really busy. I recognize myself a lot in the stories I hear. On the other hand, I often wonder whether I’m not just overreacting, and it’s indeed just stress. I really can’t figure that out. Surely, hearing stories like this makes me feel that there’s people that have much worse “issues” than I have, but I definitely sometimes have “issues” as well.


    skoop
    May 22nd, 2014
  2. Thanks Adam, it’s useful even to know it’s not just me.


    Gary
    May 22nd, 2014
  3. Thank you. Great post.


    Anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  4. Can relate all of these situations. Thank you for sharing! My fixes are usually going for a walk at lunch. Meditation helps too.


    Amy Maestas
    May 23rd, 2014
  5. I saw @GreggyB’s talk at Laracon, now seeing this. Glad that this subject is becoming easier to talk about. I’d love to know if there are existing groups out there that talk about these things. In the mean time, might be worth doing a NomadPHP style group on dev mental health, that is language agnostic.


    Jim Cummins
    May 23rd, 2014
  6. I had no idea it was related to my profession. I’m going to have to think long on this…


    Geo Engel
    May 23rd, 2014
  7. Adam, thank you for putting this on your blog. Having just gotten out of a horrible work environment (not even 5 months ago) and I’m still feeling the horrendous anxiety from leaving the job. I found it a bit ironic that my previous employer was hitting every single item on the stressors list you created. There were a couple of other things that happened that also made the work environment more anxious for myself. Things like an open work space, with distracting background noise and lack of spaces for quiet, alone time. Or the fact that my previous employer sat me down after 3 months of working for them to tell me that the rest of the development team thought I had a body odor problem (in the meeting they seriously said “You stink pretty bad”) and that I was a “know-it-all” that was trying to make suggestions on processes/code/ideas that have been developed on in the past number of years the company had been in business.

    Sorry for unleashing my small bit of anxiety I have been dealing with on your comments section, but it is things like this that make me question my love of developing with PHP, as I’ve run in to my fair share of overbearing, overly critical bosses, and it seriously needs to change.


    Duane
    May 23rd, 2014
  8. “I don’t really have the answers, nobody does. But felt I should create this post and put it out there. Perhaps others will read it and realize they’re not alone. And sometimes just knowing that can help lessen the stress levels.”

    It is really good of you to have put this on the open web. Knowing that you are not the only one facing these problems is very comforting. Thank you.

    I would second the opinion on having some physical activity. Every time I go running, the day is just magically better.


    Ranjeev
    May 23rd, 2014
  9. Thank you so much! I am one year into my development career and can identify with everything you’ve mentioned, including the constant “faux heart attacks” at random points during the day. I thought I was the only one!

    For me personally, I was following a lot of trendy programmers and web developers on Twitter, which seemed like a good idea when I was starting out but in reality made me constantly worry that I wasn’t keeping up with the industry enough when I saw all the different new technologies they were talking about every day, when of course it was this constant worrying that would ensure I definitely didn’t have the mindset to learn anything new!

    I stopped following a lot of these programmers and instead subscribed to news outlets like ‘Slashdot’ and ‘Den of Geek’, reducing the programmer count to 2. I also added some nonsense accounts such as ‘The Onion’ and a bunch of professional wrestling journalists. This means that whenever I check Twitter now, it reduces stress rather than causing it!

    I also found a wonderful book called “Code Complete” by Steve McConnell which I have started reading in my lunch breaks. The book is basically a guide to good programming practice, and made me realise that it is possible to code in a way that is logical and orderly and reduces the potential for stress much as possible, and like you the book makes heavy emphasis on building requirements before developing.

    Stopping this comment before it becomes an article in and of itself! But thanks, this was the exact time that I needed to read something like this.


    Jonny
    May 23rd, 2014
  10. Hits home. Thank you for posting.


    Chris
    May 23rd, 2014
  11. Thanks, this was an interesting read and one I can identify with.

    I think developers, anyone who writes software that really matters, are particularly susceptible. I’m not talking about someone who codes a pretty website for a small company, I’m talking about people working on core systems that people RELY on for things like accessing their money, security systems, and engine control systems in their car. These are the projects that will keep you up at night worrying about whether you left any bugs in the code.

    The rub is that the general public have NO idea how thin the line is that these developers walk. If they do their job properly, thoroughly, then the product costs too much and nobody buys it. Or it misses time to market and the company slips behind its competitors.

    The majority of code is pushed out in barely working state. That’s why we hear of problems like cars that suddenly stop on a freeway. If developers were given more time to finish their work, higher quality of code was prized over speed of development, then a whole industry would be less stressed and society would benefit as a whole. But everyone just wants the newest gadget faster and faster, and we are not patient.


    Geoff
    May 23rd, 2014
  12. Thank you for the article. It’s always good to show other developers that it’s okay to feel like that and not something they have to be ashamed of.


    Caro
    May 23rd, 2014
  13. Yup, this hits close to home for me as well.

    I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I’ve started mindfulness meditation about 6 months ago, and that has seemed to drastically reduce my anxiety. It’s the only major change I’ve made in this time period, so I think it’s working. Maybe it might help someone here.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.


    EarlS
    May 23rd, 2014
  14. Wow, I am 32, experienced engineer in a Fortune 500 and doing pretty well for myself and now I have all problems you listed out above. Phew. The biggest thing for me is the apparent feeling that I am unable to keep up with new technologies, new toolkit versions, new domain stuff to learn and it feels like I am just not good enough and falling far behind. The truth is that people around me are just the same but the feeling is hard to shake off. I was putting it on some Mid life crisis sort of a situation. Glad to know it’s out there.


    Anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  15. I think a lot of people even remotely related to the web/computer developer field can relate to this article for the simple fact that many who are drawn to the beauty of developing something so lonely are people become depressed enough to tap into their OCD to create something as they see fit. At least this is what i see in me and a lot of others around me and this article helps me to confirm that a little and also helps me feel less alone in my feelings. I wonder how many of you can relate to this.


    Jash
    May 23rd, 2014
  16. I’m a developer and have OCD – diagnosed as a teen and under dr.’s care since my early 30s.

    The way you use the term is wrong. Its a common mistake but since you’re talking about anxiety I feel compelled to call you on it.

    OCD is all encompassing. Its not a momentary feeling that is relieved by straightening your keyboard which is what I think you mean when you say we all have our OCDs.

    Believe me, I wish I could make it go away that easily.

    Its actually an overwhelming, all consuming fear that some specifically horrible, terrifying thing will happen unless you perform certain acts. Those acts can range from checking the doors are locked 50 times a day to rituals and compulsions so complex and time consuming you cannot leave the house.

    Its like a never ending panic attack. Can you imagine that? The only time it goes away is when you sleep. You wake up and its starts. You carry it around all day until you can work the coping strategies enough.


    anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  17. Thank you so much for sharing. Yes, I know exactly what you mean but felt the post would have been way too long to go into those details. You said it very well.


    Adam
    May 23rd, 2014
  18. I have suffered from Impostor Syndrome for much of my career (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome). The more developers I talk to about this, the more I realize that I am not alone, and I have to believe that a lot of you commenting on this post experience something similar (just another source of anxiety).

    There are only 3 things that work for me to manage my stress levels on an ongoing basis: exercise, meditation, and marijuana.


    Dan
    May 23rd, 2014
  19. Excellent post. One small suggestion, I’d recommend people be vary careful with licorice root, as it raises blood pressure.


    Kenny
    May 23rd, 2014
  20. So many people identifying with what you wrote. I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring as well. I’ve got over a decade worth of dev experience and recently went through a very hard bout of anxiety. So hard that I started to see a therapist — and he confirms what you’re saying: even though things for me now are much calmer, 4 months ago they were not (in a big way). In fact, everything in my life was pretty swell, it didn’t make sense that I was feeling anxious — but as you both said: it can catch up to you quickly and without warning.

    Thanks for posting this. And FYI There’s a vibrant comment discussion happening on reddit (r/programming) about this article: http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/269aai/developer_anxiety_were_not_alone/


    Doug
    May 23rd, 2014
  21. I’ve talked about burning out and not being a good enough developer and how they relate to anxiety in my personal blog. Its a very common syndrome and its wide spread to the profession. After burning out and visiting therapy i came to realize that in my particular case its related to security even though i had a great comfy job there was no reason that at the next day my boss could come and say you are done here pack your bags.

    That was my number one cause. Its not about the money it was that at the time i was determining the fact that people needed me from the needs that the job had. I’ve gotten better at it by branching out and helping others outside of work.


    alfredo
    May 23rd, 2014

  22. Anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  23. Thanks for posting this, I went through a similar experience recently and this clarifies why anxiety keeps building up months after.


    Arno
    May 23rd, 2014
  24. Adam

    You’re welcome. Happy to contribute.


    anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  25. 1. Try L-Theanine. Whole foods sells 100mg capsules. Life changing.

    2. Meditation works. Read “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana. Practice. It works.

    3. Develop a spiritual practice. Ascetic Christian literature works for me. Many programmers are monks at heart.

    4. Use the words “love” and “generous” frequently. Interestingly (sadly?), this makes lots of people squirm.

    5. Abandon all rot. Stop working for rotten people or rotten companies.

    6. If you find that you’re the cause of the rot, go to 1.


    john
    May 23rd, 2014
  26. Thank you!

    I am currently facing all the causes you mentioned (unrealistic deadline, lack of requirements, lots of distractions, and bad code) in the new project at a new company I just joined.

    I couldn’t have pointed out them better.

    I’m trying to fight distractions by trying to work from home and using noise cancelling earphones. Though, I am still feeling really stressed out and now I am realizing, why.

    Thanks again for putting this post online.


    Dmitri
    May 23rd, 2014
  27. Thank you : )


    anonervous
    May 23rd, 2014
  28. I’ve been coding since I was 16 years old, and I’m now 32. I’ve struggled with Panic Attacks off and on since I started coding.

    I thing that even if we enjoy our profession, bottom line is we use our brains much more than the average person is required to. Every. Single. Day.

    My cousin has spent the last few years getting up to speed, and is now a developer as well, and it was funny true it was when he said “basically, this line if work is like having to take a test, every day”.

    Students have to take finals. Attorneys may study to take the BAR. etc etc.

    Developers have to walk in every day, and find solutions to problems they’ve never encountered before.

    All this with no mention of the the REST of our lives, when we step away from the screen.

    The only release valve I’ve personally found is physical activity, so now Hiking is my jam. But yes, every 6 months or so, I go through a 3 week period where I have a panic attack, then go through the cycle of fearing another one, and gradually that fades and I don’t deal with again for awhile.

    Anyways, you’re not alone.


    Travis Anderson
    May 23rd, 2014
  29. Hey Adam,

    I struggled with depression and anxiety for many years, and a lot of the concerns you highlight were certainly contributors. The most helpful things for me were:

    - Exercise (I workout three days a week at least, but I started out just running 1-3 miles every other day)
    - The book “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The title makes it sound extremely cheesy, but it has great advice for getting the runaway thinking that leads to these types of outcomes under control.


    Eric Scrivner
    May 23rd, 2014
  30. Hey Adam,

    am facing Imposter Syndrome. Although I love trying out new libs, I wonder why am I not coming up with such libs, inadvertently increasing my anxiety and making me feel like an imposter as a coder. I guess it could be solved with creating something of my own. But then again, It’s a retarded cycle in itself.


    vigman
    May 23rd, 2014
  31. I ended up taking a year off after my last job because the stress built up so much. As programmers, we are always expected to be “on”. Most other jobs have down time built into them but if we are not at our desks, people think we’re slacking off. I think programmers should only work 3-4 hours today at the computer. Anything more than that pushes past our recovery limits.

    After quitting my last job, I put together http://www.programmingspiritually.com to help other developers deal with the issues that we all face.


    Matt
    May 23rd, 2014
  32. Thanks for sharing. I was the senior programmer at the company I worked for and had these same issues.


    anon
    May 23rd, 2014
  33. Take vacations and getaways,
    start running (5k then 10k then a half marathon, BE CAREFUL WITH THE FULL MARATHON)
    Go to the gym,
    Play silly videogames (like NES Remix)
    Keep in touch with your mental and physical health,
    Go to museums,
    Take a walk in a park or a green area,
    write about both technical and non technical things,

    SHARE


    rob-alarcon
    May 24th, 2014
  34. Hey Adam,

    Great post, thanks for sharing

    I would like to add: “Working on a side project”, for me I’ve tried many ways involving sport, reading , quite times but all felt like running away from the monster in the room.

    Eventually, i though about building something unrelated to work, you know like when i was at college , no deadline, no customer, no budget keeping me from exploring & wasting some time on new tools … its basically quality time of coding, and it worked!!

    - It gives back self confidence like no other success can
    - Great feel of accomplishment
    - Improved my skills & tools comfort zone (more self confidence)
    - Helped me be more productive on work projects

    ..
    - It’s just made me Happy

    but watch-out, its addictive .. soon you won’t be comfy unless you have something to work on in free times


    Nimir
    May 24th, 2014
  35. Great post Adam.

    One thing people should be very careful of is “cure evangelism.” A lot of people are doing it in the comments. It’s a habit we particularly have as developers, giving advice about how to fix problems. The thing is:

    1. There is no one solution, or set of solutions, for everyone’s mental health issues. What may work for you may in fact be detrimental for someone else. It can also be very disheartening if “the cure” doesn’t work for you.

    2. Unless you are a trained mental health professional, it’s extremely unlikely you are qualified to assess a person’s condition and offer treatment options.

    So please, please, avoid saying “this is great, do it!” You can say “this worked for me,” and that’s fine, but be very, very careful about offering advice. It in fact may do more harm than good.


    Ed Finkler
    May 24th, 2014
  36. Hi Adam.

    Thanks for sharing. Solid advice.

    Have you had your cortisol levels tested? Mine were all out of whack. I started taking Cortisol Manager. http://www.integrativepro.com/Products/Stress-Sleep-Management/Cortisol-Manager

    I didn’t realize how anxious I was until it went away. Insomnia, existential crisis, emotional flooding, etc. Now I’m a happier camper. I have no idea how or why Cortisol Manager works. Maybe it’s just a placebo. But I don’t argue with results.

    My gf also manages her adrenaline levels. The combo solved her insomnia.

    All the best.


    specialist
    May 24th, 2014
  37. So it’s not just me, eh? Thanks, Adam!

    I’d like to mention that what is helpful for me is getting out of the chair and pacing. Walking calms my nerves and steadies my approach, somehow, even if I’m just pacing back and forth.


    Mark Foote
    May 24th, 2014
  38. Excellent article. I particularly found your comment on delayed stress interesting, as that explains some of the attacks I have.


    Peter
    May 25th, 2014
  39. In fact, this is very common among developers, which is natural also. Programming is a creative art, which has no defined sure short path, only guidelines. This makes people nervous.


    Javin
    May 26th, 2014

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About Me

Adam Culp (GeekyBoy)
Adam Culp (GeekyBoy) I am a South Florida PHP developer passionate about technology and post things here I find interesting, mostly so I remember, but also to help others. I'm a PHP 5.3 certified engineer and serve on the Zend Certification Advisory Board, and currently work as a Senior Professional Services Consultant with Zend Technologies. I am very active in the national and local PHP community and organize the South Florida PHP Users Group (SoFloPHP), as well as the SunshinePHP Developer Conference in Miami. Read More >>
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