🌦 Living With Anxiety as a Software Engineer

I have been working as a professional software engineer for more than 10 years. For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been a part of my life. Over the years I’ve made peace with its existence and sometimes I’m even able to harness it as a useful tool.

Despite the experience I’ve built up in both my professional career and from living with and managing anxiety, there are many things in an average day as a software engineer that are sources of anxiety to me.

I want to share a list of common sources of anxiety for me as a software engineer to demonstrate that these are completely normal things to experience at any stage of your career, regardless of your level of experience. Although everyone’s anxiety is unique to them, perhaps there are some things here which you can identify with.

👔 Team or organizational changes

Any kind of team change, e.g. a person leaving or perhaps a more significant organizational change gives me anxiety to different degrees.

When you find your comfort zone, anything that feels like a risk to that can be a potential trigger. The bigger the change, the more uncertainty and the higher levels of anxiety it brings.

A new member joining my team might bring a small amount of anxiety, whereas a complete team restructure is sure to bring with it a higher level.

🤷 The fear of not knowing enough

Going hand in hand with Imposter Syndrome, the fear of not knowing enough is never far away in my day-to-day work. This often comes with the unrealistic (self) expectation of trying to know everything that is possible as a software engineer.

This can also be triggered by working with people you look up to or who are seen as knowledgeable themselves. What if you don’t know as much as them - what if they realise you don’t know much?

In reality, this is simply not the case - working with people who know more than you is an excellent opportunity to learn, and people are not trying to “catch you out”.

👩‍🏫 Being seen as being knowledgeable in an area

Completely at odds with the fear of not knowing enough, I derive fulfillment and a sense of satisfaction of becoming a subject matter expert (SME).

However, I do not relish the additional attention that it can bring. Being asked to share knowledge, give presentations and coordinate discussions around a topic that I’m considered to be knowledgeable in is pretty much guaranteed to cause anxiety.

📅 Deadlines

Deadlines. Deadline is a scary word with negative connotations. The historical meaning is “a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot”. Sounds like something you don’t want to miss, right? 🔫

Nonetheless, a useful and essential part of many software projects is having a target to aim for. A deadline is set, looms on the horizon and creeps ever closer. Typically the closer the target, the higher the degree of anxiety that I experience, especially if I am personally involved or responsible for the delivery of the project at hand.

🚧 Starting a new project

Greenfield projects can be amazing! A blank canvas. No technical debt to speak of. The chance to try new ideas and technologies and learn new things.

On the other hand, new projects bring with them uncertainty. A potential whirlpool of unknowns, turbulent product requirements and new stakeholders to appease.

A bitter-sweet combination for an anxious engineer.

🤝 Most meetings

That’s right. Pretty much every meeting. Not all meetings cause me the same amount of anxiety, but generally any kind of meeting whether in person or virtual is going to cause me some degree of anxiety.

Here are a few different examples of meetings and the level of anxiety that can often come along with them:

  • Meeting anyone new - high anxiety
  • Meeting anyone “important”* - high anxiety
  • Status updates with people I frequently meet with - low anxiety
  • Meetings with a large number of participants - high anxiety
  • Situations where you have to introduce yourself one by one - off the scale anxiety
  • Any meeting where I will be presenting something - off the scale anxiety
  • Interviewing candidates - high anxiety
  • Meetings where a contentious topic will be discussed/difficult conversations will happen - high anxiety

*Who is deemed to be important is entirely subjective and is determined by my subconscious, but typically includes senior company employees or “noteworthy” people.

As meetings are a essential and regular part of being a software engineer, this is the #1 source of daily anxiety for me.

🧠 Anxiety and Me

This is a small and simplified selection of the sources of anxiety that I experience as a software engineer. However, whilst challenging at times, I have developed skills, techniques and mental resilience to help me surf the waves. Here are a few things that have worked for me*.

*important: if you feel your anxiety is out of control I strongly encourage you to seek the support of a professional.

  1. 💪 Lean in to the discomfort: they say that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I’m not here to convince you that this is true, but I can say that from anecdotal experience that anxiety became easier for me to manage by leaning into it and embracing the fear. Resisting sources of discomfort has never worked well for me and I’ve broadened my horizons of what I thought was possible by feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

  2. 💡 Apply your curiosity: as a software engineer you probably have a curious mind. We love to think and to learn new things. This is a great skill that you can apply to your anxiety. Next time you encounter anxiety, try and be curious about it: what exactly is causing it? How does it feel? What are the physical sensations? It’s not a magic solution, but it can help change your relationship with anxiety.

  3. 🖼️ Reframe the source of your anxiety: imagine that you are tasked with giving a presentation to the entire company. Your first instinct might be to do anything you can to get out of it. A technique that I find especially useful is to reframe the situation. Sure, it may fill you with dread and make your hands tremble, but giving a presentation is also an opportunity to share your knowledge, develop your presenting skills and is directly beneficial to your colleagues.

  4. 🏃🏻‍♂️ Ground yourself with exercise: I’m a big fan of exercise as a way to deal with stress and anxiety. A way to burn off the adrenaline and cortisol. Run, cycle, swim, push, pull. I can’t promise it will work for you. I just know that I’m my best self when I prioritize exercise as a core part of my day-to-day routine. Cycling is my favourite way to exercise, although I also love running and CrossFit - it’s been an anchor for me throughout the global pandemic. I also find purpose in taking time to mindfully clean, rebuild and maintain my bike.

Anxiety weaves its way into my day-to-day life. It’s part of who I am. Sometimes it is just a low background grumble in my mind. Other times, it is a raging fire that burns relentlessly.

However, I have learned to accept it and even to harness it as a useful tool at times. Everyone’s anxiety is unique to them - this article is a short insight into mine. I hope you found it helpful and feel free to reach out 🙂