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Taking care of your emotional health - a dev's guide

codingmindfully profile image Daragh Byrne ・4 min read

Emotional health is mental health

It was world mental health day this month. Mental health is a blanket term that covers everything from how you think and feel (including your mood), to your behaviours and relationships, how we handle stress and making choices that are good for us.

Personally I’ve had to learn to manage chronic and acute anxiety in the past. I’ve also had a depressive episode that took me about a year to recover from. I’ve had to learn a lot about my own mental health, and the factors that affect it.

I’ve feel fortunate to have developed skills and strategies that mean my baseline level of anxiety is massively lower than it was even five years ago, and when I do encounter anxious periods, I have to tools to cope.

I’ve been supported in this journey by many people - friends and family, therapists, teachers of all kind have been kind enough to gift me their expertise over the years. This article is an attempt to give some of that back.

I’ve structured my life so that my emotional health and mental well-being are my priority, and part of the reason I set up CodingMindfully.com is to share what that wisdom with you.

One thing that I’ve learned is that I’ve got to take care of my everyday emotional health. If I spend extended periods carrying excessive unprocessed emotions, that can compound and I can get into tricky territory.

Of course, there is no cure for the human condition, but what I present here are a few strategies for taking care of your emotional wellbeing on a daily basis.

The emotional life of a dev

Being a (neurotypical - I'm writing from my own perspective here, so sorry if this doesn't entirely apply to you dear reader) developer can be an emotional rollercoaster. A typical day can feel like:

  • Curiosity - when I’m presented with a new task or challenge
  • Self-doubt - when I realise the magnitude of the task I often freak out that I won’t be able to do it (often presenting as impostor syndrome)
  • Determination - as I fire myself up to get stuck into the task
  • I tend to cycle through flow and self-doubt as I’m working on the task. There can be moments of joy or satisfaction at this point. Sometimes this turns into self-blame if I’m particularly stuck though, which is nasty
  • Hope and confidence make an appearance as the end is in sight
  • Demo day - depending on how this goes I feel nervous or even anxious, maybe successful or even disappointed or angry.

I’ve identified at least thirteen emotional states in that one simple example.

Here are three strategies for emotional self care that I use every day. Try them and let me know how you go.

  • Recognise and regulate
  • Emotional Expression
  • Non-identification

Recognise and regulate

This is an essential skill that helps me daily. It’s got two parts:

  • Recognise that I’m experiencing a particular emotional state. This involves giving it a name - anxious, joyful, sad, angry and so on.
  • If I’m feeling particularly disturbed by my emotional state, I regulate using a number of different strategies

Emotions are complex responses that involve patterns of physical sensations often coupled with particular thought patterns. I’ve learned to recognise that I’m in a particular feeling state through learning the types of sensations I’m likely to feel.

For example, when I’m feeling anxious, I get a nauseous feeling in my belly. Or when I’m feeling sad or down, I get a heaviness behind my eyes.

Being able to identify an emotional state using a word can often lessen its impact.

Regulation refers to your capacity to return to a stable state after an intense emotional response. I use a variety of breathing exercises for this task (you can see an example in the video on my homepage or I'll send you some recordings if you download my free guide to meditation for developers).

Emotional Expression

Expressing how you’re feeling in words is a great way to process emotions. It shifts us out of the emotional response and into the cognitive part of the mind. Putting words on our experience helps us to make sense of them.

I do this in two ways.

First, I journal. I write down the details of the event that caused me to feel upset, the people involved, my interactions, the type of thoughts I felt and the physical part of the emotion (where I felt it in the body). This serves to help me process, AND helps me to build a catalogue of my typical responses, which leads to greater self-awareness in the long run.

Secondly, I talk it out. I’ve developed a network of close friends who I can call on to talk to when I need it. It can be quite challenging to be vulnerable like this, but it’s a skill, and people are more willing to listen than you might think. I also have a therapist that I can call on when I need to (less often these days, but it’s good to know they are there).

Non-identification

One of the reasons emotions can be so consuming is that we completely identify with the experience, as if it was us rather than just a complex set of bio-psychological sensations.

Learning to step back a bit and become a mindful observer of your emotions is a superpower. Here’s a neat trick that helps.

Imagine you are angry. Instead of saying

“I am angry"

Try saying instead

“Anger is here"

“You” are no longer angry. Instead, anger is something that is “just happening”. This little shift can create a bit of distance between yourself and the emotion - just enough to step out of the experience and begin to regulate.

Of course one of the purposes of meditation is to train your mind in how to take this dispassionate stance toward thoughts and feelings. I’ve written extensively on this before.

Learning to take care of your emotional health

So there you have it, my three hot tips on emotional self care. I’d love to know more in the comments about how this plays out for you!

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Discussion

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I can't explain this, but...this post reach to me in the right momemt.

 

Remember: don't stay alone if you have problems.
You don't have to do it here, but find another human being and talk with him.

 

Yes, please reach out to anyone nearby who will listen. Try a few people and don't get discouraged if someone doesn't listen, there are a range of responses people have to other people's worries. Some of us are great at it, others not so much. So please keep trying till you find someone.

There is a beautiful video from the school of life about asking for help:

The basic contradiction if human nature is that we are terrible at noticing that others need help, but at the same time we are ready to do whatever is necessary when we finally notice it

The School of Life make such excellent content on this topic.

 

As a two-time survivor of suicide attempts and an individual livin' my best life in spite of bipolar disorder, I cannot overemphasize the importance of having someone to reach out to. It can be a friend, a trusted therapist or doctor, or even some kind soul online.

I can't speak for the entire world, but here in America if I was not fighting for my well-being on the job, no one was. If a company isn't keeping your best interests in mind, there's lots of companies out there. It's still a scary and stressful journey, but my experience has been that after many toxic jobs and heartbreaking startup failures, I was able to find a job I love and where my employer has my back.

If anyone reading this is struggling, please don't think twice about contacting me. I'm here to listen.

 

Thanks Scott. Yes, there are tons of different places to work - as much as it might be difficult to change while feeling unwell, it can be a great catalyst toward improved mental/emotional health. I have worked in toxic environments before and the toll it takes can be huge.

I'm fortunate to work with humans who I know have my best interests at heart - they explicitly say it's ok to not be ok, and have called me out on potential burnout situations before. It requires learning to set boundaries, which is a journey in itself, but its worth it.

Other humans can be great in providing you with perspective on your life situation and help you find your way out. If you can find an employment situation where there are people like that around you, that's a big win.

 

I have an experience similar to Scott's, and "if anyone reading this is struggling, please don't think twice about contacting me."

Just follow me on dev.to then you can send a private message.

 

I think, that mental well-being is too underestimated. I had a lot of personal problems combined with work chaos from the start of the year and it took me over 6 months to get to a semi-stable state(still working on it). The lowest I've reached during this period was when nothing I loved doing gave me any pleasure, I was constantly at home during weekends and even some suicidal thoughts came to mind. We(as people, not as devs/qas or any kind of techies here) must always put ourselves first, especially our mental and physical health, and everything else must be secondary.

Thank you for the great article and for bringing up this huge lurking problem to light.

 

"We(as people, not as devs/qas or any kind of techies here) must always put ourselves first, especially our mental and physical health, and everything else must be secondary."

  • This is exactly it! Well phrased. I'm sorry you had such a difficult time of it, but I'm glad you are finding a way through. I hope you've found appropriate supports for your journey.