Software development is a high-pressure industry that can seriously affect mental health. I’ve come to experience this in the form of sudden panic attacks. As developers, we need to take care of ourselves and avoid burnout. Here is my experience with burnout and the steps I've taken to look after my mental health.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, and this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional help. If you are experiencing any mental health issues or relate to any of my issues, please seek professional help. Links to resources will be provided at the end of the article.
I'm going to start off by saying that I am an open book. I'm not afraid to talk about personal topics, including my mental health. I believe that cultivating a culture of openness and honesty is the best way to tackle the stigma around mental health and to help others be vulnerable to talk about their own struggles.
Over the last while, I've undergone my own struggles with mental health. Never before have I seen a psychiatrist, psychologist or been on medication. A few days after Christmas, I started experiencing panic attacks out of nowhere. I was rushed to the hospital, to be told that I was having a panic attack and I'm fine. I was discharged and sent home, but I was still experiencing these attacks on a daily basis.
The lack of control and unknowns of what was happening to me was terrifying. After four days, I was back in the hospital, and sent to a mental health clinic for about two weeks. There I was diagnosed with panic disorder.
I'm not going to go into the details of what happened at the clinic, but there were two things that stood out to me during my experience there that I want to share with you.
Software engineering is a high-pressure industry
One of the psychiatrists that I saw at the clinic asked me what I do for a living. When I told him, he jokingly rolled his eyes. I asked what was that for and he said:
"I see a lot of you guys. I'm not gonna go into the details now, but people think you sit behind a computer all day and relax. They don't realise the high stress and pressure that your industry causes."
This was the first time that I felt resonated with, because other people found it hard to understand what I do for a living, just sitting all day, typing and having meetings.
The next day, I had my third session with my psychologist, maybe the most important session of my life. She made me aware that I have been suffering from anxiety for a long time, but that I was masking it as permanent productivity. I had also stopped doing the things that I loved, including spending time with my family, going out with friends, and listening to music.
After the whole incident, my wife said that I haven't been myself for a while, but I was so focused on the grind, that I didn't even notice. I was so focused on productivity, that I wasn't even aware that I was depressed.
Getting caught up in the grind is a common thing in the software industry, and it's not healthy. We strive to be the best, keep up with senior peers, keep up with the latest technologies, and we forget to take care of ourselves.
Burnout took a toll on my well-being
What caused my panic disorder? Complete burnout.
In a nutshell, my panic disorder was a result of years of working hard, never taking a break, and never taking care of myself. One day, my body just gave up on me.
Some people get panic attacks because of traumatic events, but I didn't have any traumatic events in my life. I was just working too hard, and my body couldn't take it anymore. Panic disorder is unfortunately the combination of a panic attack and an anxious personality, and it's a vicious cycle. You have a panic attack, and you're anxious about having another one.
During my stay at the clinic, I was given a lot of tools to help me cope with my panic attacks and to help me manage my mental health. I cannot emphasise enough how critical these tools are, and how much they have helped me. The knowledge I gained and my now developed coping mechanisms have been invaluable.
How this relates to software development
I started researching mental health in the software industry, and I was shocked to find out that it's a huge problem. I found a lot of articles and studies that show that the software industry is a high-pressure industry that causes a lot of mental health problems.
Some of the issues we face in the software industry that contribute to mental health issues are:
- The pressure and anxiety of keeping up with the latest technologies and our peers -imposter syndrome anyone?.
- Rapid-moving environments with high expectations and tight deadlines.
- We are expected to be on call 24/7 for issues that may arise.
- Working from home can be isolating and lonely, and we don't have the same social interactions that we would have in an office environment.
- We forget about work-life balance, we work too hard, and we don't take care of ourselves. It's easy to just roll from your bed to the computer.
There are many more I could list, but these are the ones that I could think of off the top of my head. I'm sure you can think of more. Just Google "software industry mental health" and you'll find a lot of articles and studies that show that the software industry is a high-pressure one that causes a lot of mental health problems.
Interestingly enough, depression and anxiety are high among accountants and software professionals (and others of course, these are just examples), because we are trained to seek out faults everywhere, and that these thought pattern creeps into your personal life as well.
What changes have I made to improve my mental health?
You will notice that all of these changes are small, and they are not drastic. But the most common theme here is that they centre around taking breaks through the day and taking care of yourself.
Daily meditation to learn anxiety management
It's really hard to explain the benefits of meditation and it feels weird the first few times, but I can tell you that it has helped me a lot. I'm not a religious person, and I don't believe in any of the spiritual stuff, but it's not about that. It's about being present in the moment and being aware of your thoughts. Being conscious of your thoughts and body and helps to reduce stress and anxiety. I personally use the Headspace app, and I highly recommend it.
I aim to meditate for 10 minutes a day, and I'm slowly increasing the time. I'll either do it during lunch or in the morning, but I try to do it every day.
Exercise and getting outside
I used to love going to the gym, but I stopped going for a long time due to an injury. I recently started just walking or running around the block, and it's been great. In the mornings the first thing I do is go for a walk, and it's the best way to start the day. In the evenings, I go for a run, and it has amazing health benefits as well.
Not only does it help with my mental health, but it also helps with my physical health. I'm not a doctor, but I'm sure that exercise is good for you. It doesn't have to be anything crazy, just a walk around the block or a run, it's a great way to take care of yourself. Get outside and touch some grass.
Journaling to limit toxic productivity and process the day.
I always hated the idea of journaling. I'm a software developer, not a writer. I don't have anything to write about. I'm not a creative person. I can type everything, why write? I was wrong. Journaling is a great way to get your thoughts and emotions out of your head and onto paper.
My psychologist explained that writing it down helps you to process your thoughts. My favourite way to do this is a variation of brain dumping right before bed, where you just write down everything that's on your mind until you have nothing left to think of. That way you can sleep peacefully and not worry about anything. I also use it to write down my goals for the next day, as it helps me stay prepared and ready for anything and limit the amount of tasks I try accomplish in a day.
Studies have shown that expressing gratitude can improve your mental health, and journaling one way to do that. So every night before bed, I write down:
- Three things that I'm grateful for
- my goals for the next day and
- all other thoughts onto a physical page (no screens before bed).
I try to limit myself to 3 realistic goals per day. This way, I don't overwhelm myself with too many tasks, and they are more likely to get done.
Therapy and medication
A few months before all of this, I was discussing mental health with a co-worker and he told me that he was going to therapy. I didn't ask why, but he said it's the best thing he's ever done. I always thought about going to therapy, but I never did. That was probably the time that I should have gone to avoid all of this, but I didn't. Silly me.
I'm not going to go into detail about my therapy sessions, but I can tell you that it's been a fulfilling experience. I've learned a lot about myself and how to cope with life. I honestly believe that everyone should go to therapy, even if you don't have a mental health problem. It's a great way to learn about yourself and to learn how to cope with life.
I'm not ashamed to say that I was also prescribed medication. The medication has dramatically improved my everyday life, and I'm so grateful for it. It might not be for everyone, but it's been a great help for me. I might also not be on it forever, but I'm on it for now. It's a band-aid to help fix wonky brain chemistry and has to be combined with other things (like therapy) to be effective.
Breathing exercises are a way to calm yourself down when you're feeling anxious or stressed. I've been using this technique for a while, and it's really helped me. There are a few different ways to do it, and you'll have to experiment with what works for you. My preferred way is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and breathe out for four seconds. This is called box breathing.
Get away from your technology
The biggest change that's made a huge difference in my life is to get away from my technology. I used to be on my phone all the time, and I would check my phone every five minutes. I would check my phone while I'm eating, while I'm in the bathroom, while I'm driving, while I'm walking, while I'm talking to people, and even while I'm sleeping. We don't live in the present, we're always distracted. Doom scrolling through social media (which I believe is the biggest brain virus to exist right now) the first thing in the morning and last thing at night is never good. At a certain time every night, put your phone away in a different room and do your wind-down routine. I personally put my phone away between 21:00 and 22:00, and I don't touch it until the next morning. The next day, I don't touch my phone until I've had breakfast and I've done my morning routine. I've found that this has helped me a lot with my mental health and getting properly ready for the day.
The point of this article is not to scare you, but to make you aware of mental health problems and to help you take care of yourself, I don't want anyone to go through what I went through.
This is a very personal story, and I'm not a doctor. I'm just a guy who's been through a lot recently and I'm sharing my story to help others. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please seek professional help. You are not alone, and you are not crazy. You are a human being, and you are allowed to feel the way you feel, and you are allowed to ask for help. Many of us are going through the same thing, and we're all in this together, we just don't know it because discussions about mental health are still taboo.
A big thank you to Chris Booth for taking the time to improve the quality of my article.
Thank you to these companies and individuals for allowing me to use their images:
Do not Google your symptoms or try to self-diagnose, it will only make you more anxious. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please seek professional help.
- Research Paper: Anxiety and Mental Health of Software Professionals and Mechanical Professionals
- We Need to Talk About Mental Health for Software Developers
Mental health resources
- Life Path Health Mental Health Hospitals
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group
- Your nearest professional registered counsellor, psychiatrist and psychologist.