Delayed anxiety, never forgotten

Today I read a blog post from a local developer, Chris Russell, in which he describes how he is struggling with anxiety, stress nightmares, and sleeplessness due to a past job and the stress it caused. I wrote a blog post about this in the past, but will share more personal experiences here because Chris’s experience led me to recall something I deal with on a daily basis, and have dealt with for the past 17 years. (No, it never goes away.)

As we grow older the memories of the past become more and more clear, and 17 years “feels” like yesterday. Even as I say that number it’s hard to believe it was that long ago, yet here we are in 2015. So recalling this is not a problem. Well, actually it is a problem because the memories suck, though the fact I can recall it is sweet.

At that point in my life I was on the verge of closing a failed business. I was smoking 2 packs of cigarettes and drinking 2 pots of coffee each day, and dealing with the stresses of bill collectors, not being able to pay employees, and possibly being homeless soon. All while living on a single meatball sub each day because I couldn’t afford anything else to eat. My life had become one HUGE ball of stress and failure.

One evening I was trying to relax, and was sitting on my couch watching something stupid on TV (most things on TV are stupid), and felt a sudden heat in my chest. I felt as if I had a pool of warm water right where my heart was, and fully expected to look down and see exactly that. There wasn’t any pain, just a warm “oozy” feeling. Following this I was filled with sudden feelings of TERROR! No, not the scared feeling we get from watching a frightening movie or riding a roller coaster. This was sheer TERROR ripping through my body and mind. I “knew” I was about to die at 32 years old. Not knowing what else to do I called 911 for an ambulance. (I was alone, because nobody wants to be around a failure.)

After a night in the ER, of which I had a couple more in the following month as I finished closing the business, I was diagnosed as having a panic attack driven by anxiety. They prescribed some anxiety drugs and sent me home. (I only took the drugs a couple times because they caused feelings of paranoia, so I flushed them.)

On one trip the ER I had a fairly attentive doctor who actually talked with me about what was happening. He said that these attacks were likely spurred on by previous months of high stress, rather than what I was experiencing at the moment. It turns out that anxiety builds over time, and attacks can be the result of stress experienced up to 6 months prior as a delayed response. So things like divorce, job stress, fights with loved ones, unsolved problems, auto accidents, past due bills, disgruntled employees, and pretty much anything else that can cause stress doesn’t manifest itself immediately. Our minds and bodies can take up to 6 months to fully process it and manifest them in physical ways.

All of this is what led me to change my life. I stopped smoking, stopped drinking coffee (caffeine free herbal tea became my friend), got a new job, and moved in with family until I got back on my feet, and started doing things proactively rather than waiting for things to happen to me.

Times are brighter now, and I have experienced many successes. But the anxiety always remains and NEVER goes away. I opened the Pandora’s box by allowing stress to run me and will pay the piper for the rest of my life. Terror is only one missed indicator away from taking over. But I manage it by keeping stress levels low, keeping busy, staying physically fit, and recognizing symptoms before they escalate. My journey continues.

To those of you who have not experienced this, please do not let stress build up. Handle things early, because this is not the way to live. For those who do experience this, relax, it does get easier with time and alertness.

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 talk loudly and laugh at conferences speaking to large groups of people.  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, 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 you’re alone, or perhaps you’re 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.