My Mental Health Toolbelt

Many programmers and other people in technology have shared their mental health struggles online. In this post, I wanted to share some of my own experiences with this and what I have found to be helpful.

Preface

I believe programmers, especially those that work from home, are more prone to mental health issues than many other demographics. You’re locked in your office with silence and your own thoughts and that is a prime environment for lots of rumination. Sometimes rumination about things that are distressing or depressing.

To give some background, up until about 5 or 6 years ago, I would not have described myself as someone who dealt with any mental health problems. I was generally anxiety free and felt happy most of the time. However, a combination of becoming a father and working from home surfaced some anxiety in my life. To be specific, anxiety about being there for my kids. What if I die young? What if something happens to them? What if something happens to my wife and they don’t have a Mom?

I’m sure almost everyone has these thoughts. However, when you are locked in an office alone all day there is room for them to fester further than they should. Nobody is there to interrupt you with a question or to make small talk that helps you move past that anxious moment. For me, that festering allowed my anxiety to turn into full blown hypochondria. Every normal ailment or sickness was the thing that would take me away from my family and kids. Some days the anxiety could be borderline debilitating.

However, over the last few months I feel like I’ve started to make progress on improving my overall mental health. I wanted to share some things that have been helpful for me with the hope that they will be helpful for you.

I have found these things to be most useful if you can practice them all together. They all feed off of each other and their effects can combine to give you a more powerful result.

Blood Work

First, I would strongly recommend getting blood work done by your doctor. In my case, this revealed two things that were possibly contributing directly to my problem and have been fairly easy to correct. I should have done this years ago. Instead, I only had it done about 8 months ago. Overall I feel lucky in this regard and know that not everyone can find anything quite so concrete.

Read Epictetus & Stoics

I have gained a lot from reading writings by Stoic philosophers and especially Epictetus. I think these writings were particularly helpful in my case because my anxiety was centered around things I have no control over, which just so happens to be a central point of stoic philosophy: not worrying about things you can’t control.

I have no control over events that may happen to me, but I do have control over my perception of those events and my response to them. Indirectly, this does give me control over how events impact my life.

The book I have found most helpful so far has been Art of Living.

You Are Not Your Feelings

This one is a little tough to explain, but I’ve found it beneficial to learn to separate yourself from your feelings and emotions. I am not anxiety. An anxious thought is a type of thought that can enter my brain but how I choose to respond to it and perceive it is what is going to define me.

I’ve found it’s beneficial to learn to recognize the thought and try to just let it pass. “Oh, there went an anxious thought.”… just like a passing cloud. This can be difficult if your anxious thoughts are more like a monsoon instead of a passing cloud. When this is the case, I’ve found it necessary to combine this technique with the “small wins” technique:

Clean Up Room + Small Wins

If I’m feeling down and lack motivation, I try to knock out something small. For example, maybe I’ll organize my nightstand drawer thats has gotten a little messy. This gives your brain a small win and some encouragement. Next, maybe I’ll organize my closet. With another small win, I often feel generally happier and more motivated to keep working on other things. In general, I’ve found this can help lift me out of a depressive or anxious rut that I may be stuck in.

Workout + Eat Right

About six months ago I started lifting weights three times a week. In addition, I’ve started eating simpler and healthier. Lean meat, vegetables, fruit. Besides improving myself physically, it gives me a project to focus on and think about.

Positive Visualization

Lately I’ve found it helpful to visualize the kind of person I want to be. For example, you can think about people from history who are really inspiring to you and the things about them you would like to emulate. Or, you could visualize yourself being the patient, positive person you want to be. I’ve found this alone can inspire my mind and get me re-focused on how I want to live.

Have Healthy Boundaries

These days, many aspects of parenting can feel like a competition. When you have small kids, they want to do everything with you. That’s great. However, it’s important not to lose yourself in the process.

Sometimes I just need to do something alone for a bit to de-compress after working all day and just gather my thoughts. Sure, I could do everything my kids want me to do exactly when they want me to do it, but I’m going to be more tired and frustrated, and the quality of the time isn’t going to be as good.

Lately, I’ve felt better about saying “I’ll do that with you in 30 minutes, but I need to do something else right now.” I’ve found it helpful to use this time to practice one of the other techniques (positive visualization + small wins), so that when I play with my kids I’m feeling refreshed and positive. I would rather have better quality time with my kids than a lot of tired, frustrated time with them.

Conclusion

I hope these techniques are helpful to you. There are a few more I would love to write about soon when I have more time to formulate my thoughts on them, but I wanted to get something out there as a starting point (small wins!).

Take care!

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