My first trip to the therapist was a disaster. I was 24 years old, suffering from crippling anxiety, and in absolute crisis. When I entered the office, the counselor (I don’t think she was a psychologist) immediately had me review what seemed like a stack of papers about insurance and how this and that wasn’t covered, confirming I would pay in full, blah blah blah, etc, etc, etc. It was all a blur. She asked me to sit on this leather chair and then poked fun at me when I said I was vegan and when I asked to sit on the floor because the chair made me uncomfortable. Did I mention I was in crisis?
It was not exactly a great first step toward improved mental health. I did not return to that therapist, nor any other until a few years later I was again in crisis and ended up at an emergency appointment with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. This visit resulted in some workbooks, a meditation cassette tape (remember those?), and some very strong drugs. No follow-up requested, and since I had no idea what was going on, I never followed up either. I felt better, so I stopped taking the medication and never requested a refill.
This pattern continued for a few more years until I finally admitted I needed continued, consistent care and found myself a great therapist. After doing a bit of work together, we determined that I was likely in need of some pharmaceutical assistance. My therapist referred me to a knowledgeable psychiatrist who took the time to understand my symptoms and properly prescribe and monitor my current regime of medications.
Why am I telling you all of this? And why am I writing about it on a technology blog? It is a pretty open secret that working in tech and maintaining a healthy life physically and mentally do not always go hand-in-hand. We can often face extreme pressure, large workloads, complicated problems, unknown knowledge areas, tight deadlines, and unpredictable environments. While these may be some of the very conditions that make tech exciting and attract us to this space, I have found that if I don’t prioritize my own health, the tech world can shut me down.
Just like with software development, it’s a continuous process of improvement. Over the years, I have put together my mental health toolchain — all the various actions I take to keep myself upright, functional, healthy, and productive. Thankfully, working at CloudBees means I have the flexibility and resources I need to put these tools into practice. I am not a medical professional, so this list is in no way meant to be a prescription for success for anyone else, rather it’s a list of suggestions of things that currently work for me. Also, I don’t think this toolchain only applies to those of us who have some sort of diagnosis or “mental illness.” We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health, so I think these are all pretty good ideas for just about anyone dealing with the stress that can come when working in tech.
Karen’s mental health toolchain
Stay medication compliant: I am not saying medication is the answer, but for me, it is one of the primary tools I have and gets me to a level state where I can access all my other tips and resources. So, it’s kind of like having the right version of the right OS on your machine. Without it, many of my other applications won’t be able to operate. One benefit of working at CloudBees is our health coverage, which helps me afford the medications and doctors I need.
Sleep: This needs no explanation. This is when your brain solidifies memories and helps the body repair itself. All-nighters are not an option. For me, red-eye flights followed by a full day of work are also not an option. I spent most of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s trying to push the boundaries on the sleep I needed, so I don’t do it now. When I find myself working late, I have to ask myself if there really is a big difference between 8 pm on Wednesday night and 8 am on Thursday morning for the task and if there is if it is worth the risk to my health. The answer is usually no, and no.
Exercise: One of the first things to go when I am traveling, at a conference, scheduled in back-to-back-to-back meetings, or am facing an impending deadline. My brain also likes to talk itself out of this one by using work as an excuse — I can’t go run/bike/walk/hike/swim because I have this very important project at work. One huge benefit of working at CloudBees is our distributed culture, so I get to work from basically wherever I need to work from as long as I get my work done. This means if I have an early call with a customer over in Europe, I can flex my schedule to take a long lunch and get a workout in. Also, I have one lovely rescue dog who works from home with me when I work from home and require walks.
Connect with people IRL: And Slack/Hangouts/Skype/Facetime/Zoom DOES NOT COUNT. Talking with other people face-to-face and making social connections has a positive chemical impact on your brain. It does. Or so they tell me…I struggle with this one big time! After a long day at work, staring at screens and hopping on and off conference calls, the last thing I want to do is to have more interactions. Many of us in tech are introverts (#INTJ4Life) and hiding away in our home office can feel so much less stressful and more productive than going into an office. BUT it can also leave us horribly isolated, stewing in our own particular juices, and crafting some crazy stories in our heads. I am lucky here to have the best of both worlds. I live close enough to the CloudBees Raleigh office to go in a few times a week and have those valuable social interactions and also have the flexibility to work from home. I have found a nice balance and have gotten to the point where I can actually feel the immediate benefits of interacting with people.
Take breaks. Take naps. Take vacation. Read books (not screens). Listen to music (or silence). Get a hobby. Unplug. If you are feeling exhausted, trust yourself, you probably need a break. Take one.
Epilogue: If you find yourself in a bad emotional place and don’t know what to do, don’t suffer silently. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member or medical professional - they want to help you. You are worthwhile. If you feel awkward reaching out to someone you know, other helpful resources are: