Managing stress to succeed in software development
8 MINUTE READ
Stress is a reality for everyone. If you aren’t affected, you probably don’t have a pulse. Some of us may cross over into anxiety at times too.
But in a creative, problem-solving career like software development, chronic stress can cripple productivity and work satisfaction. It’s not hard to identify where this stress is comes from, looming delivery dates, customer complaints, conflict with colleagues – the list goes on.
Fortunately, we all have the ability to take responsibility for managing our stress. We just need to understand how the dynamic works.
Hardwired for stress
The problem is a design flaw in our brains that leaves us prone to false emergencies. We were designed for life-and-death struggles on African savannas, not overflowing in-boxes or unrealistic deadlines.
As stress is very much baked into our neural and physical circuitry, we all have to deal with it from time to time. The stress response is a series of physiological and mental changes that happen when our body and mind perceive a threat in our environment.
The stress response – also known as fight or flight – kicks in when we process information that indicates we’re under threat or facing a challenge.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- A sense of mental busyness
- Emotional reactivity
The stress response can be viewed as a means of preparing for a life or death situation by preparing us to meet a challenge. All of the above responses serve a purpose. We tense up in preparation for explosive movement – very useful if we’re about to escape from a lion that we’ve stumbled upon on the savannah. Not always so helpful if we’re hunched over a desk debugging some code.
Our digestion shuts down so that the energy it uses might be redirected to making our escape. The same thing happens with our immune response. Energy is conserved by shutting it down temporarily. This is why you often get sick at times of increased stress, and why excessive stress is associated with long-term, chronic illnesses.
Stress and the nervous system
Stress is mediated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for things you don’t have to think about, you just do – like your heartbeat, breathing, blinking etc.
There is also the parasympathetic branch, which has the opposite effect of the sympathetic branch when it is activated – usually when you are relaxing, digesting food, or going to sleep.
It helps to think of these two complementary systems as being like the accelerator and brakes on a car. You need both to get from A to B but too much of either and you aren’t moving anywhere or going straight off the road.
We don’t need to facing a real tangible threat in our environment for the stress response to be activated. The mere perception of a threat is sufficient. This is why having a difficult conversation can be stressful, even though there is no chance of actual physical danger.
Good stress, Bad stress
Having absolutely no stress may sound like a wonderful thing, but you probably wouldn’t ever get anything done. We need stress to get through life. Stress is that burst of energy that gets you out of bed in the morning. It helps us meet daily challenges and motivates us to meet our goals. Moderate levels of stress help us to completely tasks more efficiently and studies have shown it can even improve memory.
However, there is a tipping point where good stress crosses over to bad stress. It occurs when the sympathetic branch of our nervous system is activated excessively – you are essentially ‘redlining’ your body. You can’t keep it up for very long before something starts to go wrong.
Continuously flooding your system with stress hormones, dampening your digestive system and immune response and being consumed by excessive thinking is not only uncomfortable, but can have have disastrous long-term consequences.
The 3 pillars of stress management
If you feel that stress is getting the better of you at work, there are three broad approaches you can take to help manage it. These include:
- Remove the source
- Undo the damage
- Reduce your baseline stress level
Remove the source
In certain situations it may be necessary to work on eliminating some of the major sources of stress in your life. Sit down and think about where most of your stress is coming from, then do something about it.
Have a frank and open conversation with your manager about the effect all the overtime is having on your productivity. Drop that difficult client who seems to give you nothing but complaints and trouble. If such strategies don’t work or aren’t really an option, then it’s probably time to consider changing job.
Company culture varies widely between organisations. It is important the culture you are working in is a good fit for your own personality. If it isn’t, it will likely cause you an undue amount of persistent stress. Certain management styles tend to breed greater team cohesion and contentment than others. In a recent blog post Ben Belchak, Head of Site Reliability Engineering at Shazam outlined a helpful process his team follows whenever things don’t go to plan.
“At the earliest moment after an incident we’d hold a blameless post-mortem to evaluate what went wrong, how it was caused, and how we could make sure it never happened again the same way. We deliberately kept the process as simple as possible so that people wanted to participate and didn’t feel like it was just drudgery or unnecessary paperwork. At first this was met with resistance, but the team quickly bought into it when they saw the value and the impact of identifying and remediating root causes.”
An approach like this, which aims to identify and remove the source of arising problems as early as possible goes a long way to reducing the amount of stress the team will experience during a project.
If any relationships in your personal life feel particularly toxic, then bite the bullet and cut your ties with them. It may be a touch and uncomfortable conversation to have, but you’ll be much better off and happier in the long run.
If you are pressed for time, constantly running from one activity to the next, ask yourself whether you really need all those hobbies. In short, find some time to rest and work on applying the brakes of your nervous system for a bit. It will help to talk this over with a friend or colleague – it’s sometimes hard to take a clear perspective when you’re in the middle of a stressful period of your life.
As mentioned before, it’s simply not possible to remove all sources of stress from your life. This is not to say you can’t attempt to limit the amount of damage it does to you though. Exercise is without a doubt the best way to do this. Sometimes we may feel that we’re too busy to fit exercise into our already hectic schedule. But by choosing not to prioritise exercise, you are ultimately shooting yourself in the foot.
Exercise releases endorphins and ramps up the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. This not only makes you feel good but it also counteracts the negative effects of elevated stress hormone levels.
Whatever you do, don’t think of exercise as just one more thing on your to-do list. Find an activity you enjoy – whether it’s 5-a-side football or a meditative meander down to a local park and back – and make it part of your regular routine. Any form of physical activity can help you unwind and become an important part of your approach to easing stress.
Reducing your baseline
We all have a baseline stress level that fluctuates over the course of our lives. However, we aren’t simply at the mercy of our current circumstances. By being proactive, it’s possible to reduce your baseline stress level. Making stress reduction a priority in your life will pay dividends in the future. The less stressed and emotionally reactive you are, the more effective you’ll be at whatever you are trying to accomplish.
Embrace relaxing breathing exercises, or learn mindfulness skills which numerous studies have shown to reduce the effects of stress.
For an in-depth explanation of why and how you should fit mindfulness into your working life, check out our post where you’ll learn how to meditate in just three easy steps.
The stress response is a reasonable and useful feature of humans, moderated by the autonomic nervous system. It’s fine in small doses but becomes a problem when it’s activated too often.
Tech professionals in particular need to consider their relationship to stress as programming is a highly cognitively demanding task. It’s hard to get right if your brain is constantly flooded with stress hormones. Stress can be managed by removing its sources, watching your diet, exercise regularly and making active relaxation a priority.
How do you deal with developer stress? Join our Slack group and get involved in the conversation about optimising cognitive performance at work.