Author Topic: How can I get better at managing stress?  (Read 1167 times)

xiv

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How can I get better at managing stress?
« on: August 27, 2023, 09:42:41 AM »
About a year ago I was promoted from a Senior Engineering role to a Lead Engineering role. This came with a huge increase in responsibilities: I went from working on one small part of a software application to leading the redesign of a complex site that gets over one million page views per day. I also have direct reports now.

I felt extremely overwhelmed soon after getting promoted. I had never been in a position to make several important technical decisions as an engineer and then implement them. And I had minimal management experience. I became more anxious and stressed. I started having panic attacks. My psychiatrist now has me on medication to prevent panic attacks. Thankfully that stopped the panic attacks, but I still feel stressed out. I feel completely burned out at the end of each work day. At this point every meeting I have is a huge pain. It's tough to get work done on time. I don't want to do anything during the weekends because I'm just too tired. The only thing I really do on weekends is exercise.

Here's what I've tried so far:

- More exercise. I do cardio every single day now and lift weights 4-5 times a week.
- Meditation. I meditate two or three times most days.
- I saw a therapist for several months. Unfortunately that didn't seem to be helpful.
- Improving the quality of my diet.

I feel like I shouldn't be this stressed out. I'm 34, single, and don't have kids. Any ideas?

Laura33

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #1 on: August 27, 2023, 10:44:21 AM »
Find another job.

Don't get me wrong, I suspect you're entirely capable of handling that job.  But people don't just intuit how to make the jump from sole contributor to management responsibilities, and it sounds like your company followed the "throw them in and hope they swim" approach.  Which doesn't give me a lot of hope that you can get help in learning how to do all of that by asking for help in-house. 

IOW, it's the job, it's not you.  You are doing nothing wrong.  You are reacting entirely normally to a situation that is beyond what you are prepared to handle.  The anxiety means that you really, really care about doing a good job, but you do not have the resources or knowledge or time to do so.  The biggest source of anxiety is feeling powerless about something that really matters to you.  That is a structural problem with how your company is run, not a personal problem.

You have also done all sorts of very good things to try to manage the anxiety -- certainly everything I'd think of.  Those are all reasonable things to try, to see if you can find a way to adapt to the new job and calm down your stress response while you're learning what you need to.  But they're clearly not working -- well, they're helping, I'm sure, but they're not enough.  Which brings me back to:  find a new job.  When you've done all you can to adapt to a situation, and you are still miserable, the answer is not to keep looking for some magic pill that will make everything better.  It is to change the situation.  GTFO. 

Before you jump, though, I suggest you do a little thinking/planning to help yourself realize you are in a position of strength.  You are on the MMM boards, so it's reasonable to assume that you have decent savings and reasonably low expenses.  That's great, because that means you don't actually need the promotion to get by.  Question:  how long would your savings last if you walked in to the office tomorrow and handed in your resignation?  How could you cut back on your discretionary spending to make that last longer?  It may not work for you, but for me, realizing that I could quit and not lose my house made a huge mental shift and gave me my power back.  Once you do that, update your resume and think about the parts of the job you like and parts you don't.  Start looking around to get a sense of opportunities of interest.

Once you have all that lined up, go to your manager, tell them that you appreciate the opportunity but don't feel prepared to make that giant leap into the new position, and ask for help -- transfer to another job, management training, mentoring, an assistant/second in command to help the trains run on time, etc.  Would you be happy to go back to your old job?  If so, ask for it back.  Is there a position that has some management responsibilities but not as much as you have now?  Investigate, research, see what all your options are -- both within your current employer and without.  Then choose one and go for it. 

Good luck.  This all really sucks, and I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with it.

scottish

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #2 on: August 27, 2023, 11:33:38 AM »
I remember going through something very similar at about the same age.   I went from being an engineer with no reports to a "group leader" with a team of 8.   It was a software project, and I didn't really know much about software project management.    Back then the idea of daily builds, si pipelines and stand up meeetings didn't even exist.   Software was primarily designed using the waterfall model, with lots of chaos at the tail end of the project.

The management team wasn't much help providing mentorship, either.   I was pretty stressed out and I eventually left the company for a managerial position in another city.    The new company was much better at managing projects - and product development in general - and I stayed there for about 9 years

What type of work do you *want* to do for the next 10 or 20 years?    Do you want to be a developer or a manager?   Or an architect/independent contributor?   Or something else entirely?

Metalcat

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #3 on: August 27, 2023, 11:45:00 AM »
If I were in therapy for this issue, what I would be focusing on would be less on figuring out how to handle stress better, and more on figuring out if my stress response is reasonable/proportional to the situation, and if the situation is pushing me too far out of my adaptive capacity.

You can't meditate or therapy your way out of a situation that you cannot handle.

So the question is: is this a manageable amount of stress or is it not? Is your adaptive capacity enough to manage it or is it not? Can your adaptive capacity be expanded or can it not?

Going into therapy with the goal of finding a way to handle more stress than your system can possibly handle is like going to a doctor and asking to get taller.

I'm kind of curious why your therapist didn't communicate this with you, but it's possible they just weren't a good fit for you. It's not unusual at all for therapy to go nowhere if you don't find someone who really resonates with you.

Intuitively, do you think the stresses of your job are something you can manage?

What do you think the source of the negative stress for you?

Because a job being really fucking hard isn't necessarily a source of negative stress. There are two types of stress: positive/healthy stress (eustress) and negative/unhealthy stress (distress).

Your body is screaming at you that the stress you are experiencing is negative/unhealthy stress. But why? What are the key features of the stresses that you cannot reasonably cope with? Are any of them things within your control?

Basically, is there a path forward or should you be looking for a healthier situation?

Dreamer40

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #4 on: August 27, 2023, 01:42:15 PM »
I know someone who was in a similar situation. One thing that helped him was getting more management and leadership training. That helped him feel more confident and made the role easier overall. Useful for learning to handle direct reports without it making you insane or guiding your projects—whatever part of the job causes you the most grief. His company actually provided a good management course but I’m sure there are other options available if yours doesn’t. And there are effective leadership coaches who are sort of like therapists for people trying to find their way in a role like yours. This can be expensive but also worth it if it makes you happier in your position.

Ultimately, he took all these management skills and experience and found a new job back as an individual contributor. You don’t have to do it forever and it can be an asset when you’re ready to switch things up. Your future managers will love you.
« Last Edit: August 27, 2023, 01:44:18 PM by Dreamer40 »

xiv

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #5 on: August 27, 2023, 02:44:20 PM »
Find another job.

Don't get me wrong, I suspect you're entirely capable of handling that job.  But people don't just intuit how to make the jump from sole contributor to management responsibilities, and it sounds like your company followed the "throw them in and hope they swim" approach.  Which doesn't give me a lot of hope that you can get help in learning how to do all of that by asking for help in-house. 

IOW, it's the job, it's not you.  You are doing nothing wrong.  You are reacting entirely normally to a situation that is beyond what you are prepared to handle.  The anxiety means that you really, really care about doing a good job, but you do not have the resources or knowledge or time to do so.  The biggest source of anxiety is feeling powerless about something that really matters to you.  That is a structural problem with how your company is run, not a personal problem.

You have also done all sorts of very good things to try to manage the anxiety -- certainly everything I'd think of.  Those are all reasonable things to try, to see if you can find a way to adapt to the new job and calm down your stress response while you're learning what you need to.  But they're clearly not working -- well, they're helping, I'm sure, but they're not enough.  Which brings me back to:  find a new job.  When you've done all you can to adapt to a situation, and you are still miserable, the answer is not to keep looking for some magic pill that will make everything better.  It is to change the situation.  GTFO. 

Before you jump, though, I suggest you do a little thinking/planning to help yourself realize you are in a position of strength.  You are on the MMM boards, so it's reasonable to assume that you have decent savings and reasonably low expenses.  That's great, because that means you don't actually need the promotion to get by.  Question:  how long would your savings last if you walked in to the office tomorrow and handed in your resignation?  How could you cut back on your discretionary spending to make that last longer?  It may not work for you, but for me, realizing that I could quit and not lose my house made a huge mental shift and gave me my power back.  Once you do that, update your resume and think about the parts of the job you like and parts you don't.  Start looking around to get a sense of opportunities of interest.

Once you have all that lined up, go to your manager, tell them that you appreciate the opportunity but don't feel prepared to make that giant leap into the new position, and ask for help -- transfer to another job, management training, mentoring, an assistant/second in command to help the trains run on time, etc.  Would you be happy to go back to your old job?  If so, ask for it back.  Is there a position that has some management responsibilities but not as much as you have now?  Investigate, research, see what all your options are -- both within your current employer and without.  Then choose one and go for it. 

Good luck.  This all really sucks, and I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with it.

Thank you for the response. They really did throw me into the deep end of the pool -- one of my managers even described it that way.

Thank for pointing out the fact that it's a structural problem. I didn't think of it this way, but now I see how this is true. I've received very little support from management. My company doesn't have a formal training program for new managers. The project I'm on is also understaffed. I'm managing people, making key technical decisions, and still writing code. It's a lot to juggle.

I do have decent savings and reasonably low expenses (though far from early retirement). I could live off of my savings and investments for several years without a job. This is a relief to realize.

I've been with this company for over three years and things were fine until this last promotion. I may be able to do an internal transfer. I need to sort this out relatively soon. It's taking a toll on my mental health.

xiv

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2023, 02:48:45 PM »
I remember going through something very similar at about the same age.   I went from being an engineer with no reports to a "group leader" with a team of 8.   It was a software project, and I didn't really know much about software project management.    Back then the idea of daily builds, si pipelines and stand up meeetings didn't even exist.   Software was primarily designed using the waterfall model, with lots of chaos at the tail end of the project.

The management team wasn't much help providing mentorship, either.   I was pretty stressed out and I eventually left the company for a managerial position in another city.    The new company was much better at managing projects - and product development in general - and I stayed there for about 9 years

What type of work do you *want* to do for the next 10 or 20 years?    Do you want to be a developer or a manager?   Or an architect/independent contributor?   Or something else entirely?

You ask questions that I don't really have answers to. Right now I'm a manager AND a developer. I'm still writing lots of code. I think I'd do well if I continued in management and only management, not this current overload I'm dealing with.

xiv

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #7 on: August 27, 2023, 02:58:46 PM »
If I were in therapy for this issue, what I would be focusing on would be less on figuring out how to handle stress better, and more on figuring out if my stress response is reasonable/proportional to the situation, and if the situation is pushing me too far out of my adaptive capacity.

You can't meditate or therapy your way out of a situation that you cannot handle.

So the question is: is this a manageable amount of stress or is it not? Is your adaptive capacity enough to manage it or is it not? Can your adaptive capacity be expanded or can it not?

Going into therapy with the goal of finding a way to handle more stress than your system can possibly handle is like going to a doctor and asking to get taller.

I'm kind of curious why your therapist didn't communicate this with you, but it's possible they just weren't a good fit for you. It's not unusual at all for therapy to go nowhere if you don't find someone who really resonates with you.

Intuitively, do you think the stresses of your job are something you can manage?

What do you think the source of the negative stress for you?

Because a job being really fucking hard isn't necessarily a source of negative stress. There are two types of stress: positive/healthy stress (eustress) and negative/unhealthy stress (distress).

Your body is screaming at you that the stress you are experiencing is negative/unhealthy stress. But why? What are the key features of the stresses that you cannot reasonably cope with? Are any of them things within your control?

Basically, is there a path forward or should you be looking for a healthier situation?

Thank you for the response. I think there is the biggest source of negative stress is that I've been tasked with making important technical decisions and building off of them. But I have very little confidence in my decisions since I've never worked with the new tools and frameworks I've chosen. What if it fails? In the end, I made the call so it falls on me. I tried to build consensus with the team and get support from management, but no one I've talked to has much experience with these tools so the best I've gotten is a "it should probably work."

Metalcat

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #8 on: August 27, 2023, 03:17:14 PM »

Thank you for the response. I think there is the biggest source of negative stress is that I've been tasked with making important technical decisions and building off of them. But I have very little confidence in my decisions since I've never worked with the new tools and frameworks I've chosen. What if it fails? In the end, I made the call so it falls on me. I tried to build consensus with the team and get support from management, but no one I've talked to has much experience with these tools so the best I've gotten is a "it should probably work."

Lol. Yeah, I'm a medical professional, I totally get the "no one can help me with what to do and if I fuck up, it's really bad and all my fault" stress.

Been there, done that, lost sleep over the possible lawsuits.

That type of stress is best managed by truly understanding the competency required for the job and an honest self appraisal of whether or not a reasonable and competent peer would possibly make the same kind and magnitude of mistake that you could possibly make.

Do you feel in over your head because you simply are not qualified for the job, or do you feel in over your head because you just haven't yet learned how to be comfortable with making hard decisions with unclear answers?

What do your direct superiors say? Have you broached your concerns with them? Do you have a full understanding of what the consequences of failure would be? Do you have any idea what your superior's reactions would be if you were to make a reasonable call that turned out poorly?

I worked for an unreasonable employer who viciously scapegoated me every time something went poorly and my mental health was in the fucking toilet from the constant fear and distress. I spent my first week of my honeymoon having panic attacks from being away from the clinic for too long.

My awesome therapist looked at me and flatly said "yeah...mentally healthy people don't feel that way about their jobs." And before the end of that session I had realized that there was no way to maintain mental health in that role.

My next employer was almost unflinchingly supportive no matter what went wrong. She understood that we both would have poor outcomes from reasonable calls, and we would both need to have each other's backs when handling the fallout.

The pressure was still very intense, but it didn't damage my mental health and I learned to respect the risks inherent in the difficult decisions I needed to make, but I was no longer afraid of failure. Failure was just a normal part of my job and something that needed to be managed with clear-headedness.

So what is your situation?

Are you simply underqualified for the tasks assigned to you, or are you excessively afraid of failure? If so, is that fear coming from somewhere internal or is it coming from external expectations, or both?

I am personally now not even remotely afraid of professional failure. I don't take on tasks I'm not reasonably qualified to do, and I expect that poor outcomes are a normal part of competent work. I also don't take on risks with probable negative outcomes that I can't handle. I now see reasonable failure as a critical part of learning. The key is to assess what failure is reasonable.
« Last Edit: August 27, 2023, 03:20:05 PM by Metalcat »

xiv

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #9 on: August 27, 2023, 05:15:57 PM »
Do you feel in over your head because you simply are not qualified for the job, or do you feel in over your head because you just haven't yet learned how to be comfortable with making hard decisions with unclear answers?
I think it's both. I've been in the tech industry for over a decade but I still feel underqualified to be leading the redesign of a complex site that gets over one million hits per day. I've just never done this before. In all my previous engineering roles I was responsible for a small slice of the pie. Now I'm responsible for nearly all the core technical decision making for the project. I haven't learned how to be comfortable with this. I lost a lot of sleep over this, and then the panic attacks started.

What do your direct superiors say? Have you broached your concerns with them? Do you have a full understanding of what the consequences of failure would be? Do you have any idea what your superior's reactions would be if you were to make a reasonable call that turned out poorly?
My direct superior, an engineering director who came from Google, said that my ideas should probably work. He'd seen my approach work successfully, but his experience was limited to much simpler applications. I haven't even thought through what the consequences of failure would be. There have been large failures in the past on this project. I think I'll ask one of the old-timers how that went.

Thank you for your responses, by the way. This has been extremely helpful.

TreeLeaf

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #10 on: August 27, 2023, 08:10:14 PM »
I've worked as a senior / lead level software engineer for nearly two decades.

What you describe just seems like business as usual to me. Tech leads often get thrown into the deep end, there's always some new technology where no one is really sure about it, and engineers are almost always thrown into situations where they are solving problems that have never been solved before and/or they have no previous experience in.

It's also common for a lot of people to have imposture syndrome from time to time, for projects to be delayed, cancelled, poor technical decisions to be made, silly design choices, bugs, drowning in technical debt, production issues, etc.

I mean - the list goes on and on. We're all sort of flying in uncharted territory all the time. If someone has already done what you're doing, specifically, then there would be a library your company could buy to solve the problem instead of paying you to design a solution.

I don't know why people have this idea that we're all sure all the time about what we're doing or that everything is perfect...

It's not. It never is. And things are often pure chaos on the best of days.

This is all pretty normal.

Just do what every other tech lead does and make the best decisions you can make, delegate what you feel you can delegate to the people who report to you, beg management for more funding if they ever complain about projects not being done on time, manage expectations from upper managers/other managers, seek constant feedback about technical decisions from your team, thank them for their work and give them positive feedback, and do the best you can.

Then, of course, you have to let everything else go, or else the constant mental stress will kill you.

Metalcat

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #11 on: August 28, 2023, 04:26:32 AM »
I've worked as a senior / lead level software engineer for nearly two decades.

What you describe just seems like business as usual to me. Tech leads often get thrown into the deep end, there's always some new technology where no one is really sure about it, and engineers are almost always thrown into situations where they are solving problems that have never been solved before and/or they have no previous experience in.

It's also common for a lot of people to have imposture syndrome from time to time, for projects to be delayed, cancelled, poor technical decisions to be made, silly design choices, bugs, drowning in technical debt, production issues, etc.

I mean - the list goes on and on. We're all sort of flying in uncharted territory all the time. If someone has already done what you're doing, specifically, then there would be a library your company could buy to solve the problem instead of paying you to design a solution.

I don't know why people have this idea that we're all sure all the time about what we're doing or that everything is perfect...

It's not. It never is. And things are often pure chaos on the best of days.

This is all pretty normal.

Just do what every other tech lead does and make the best decisions you can make, delegate what you feel you can delegate to the people who report to you, beg management for more funding if they ever complain about projects not being done on time, manage expectations from upper managers/other managers, seek constant feedback about technical decisions from your team, thank them for their work and give them positive feedback, and do the best you can.

Then, of course, you have to let everything else go, or else the constant mental stress will kill you.

I'm not in tech, but this is my impression of senior decision makers in just about every industry I've ever seen, we're all kind of flying blind.

Confidence at the senior level doesn't come from knowing that your decisions are correct, it comes from knowing that most people in the same position would likely be as unsure as you are.

But that doesn't mean that that kind of stress can't be extremely unhealthy for someone.

That's why it's necessary to assess both the external and internal factors that contribute to the nature and severity of the stress.

GilesMM

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #12 on: August 28, 2023, 08:01:38 AM »
How about yoga?

TreeLeaf

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #13 on: August 28, 2023, 12:55:43 PM »
I've worked as a senior / lead level software engineer for nearly two decades.

What you describe just seems like business as usual to me. Tech leads often get thrown into the deep end, there's always some new technology where no one is really sure about it, and engineers are almost always thrown into situations where they are solving problems that have never been solved before and/or they have no previous experience in.

It's also common for a lot of people to have imposture syndrome from time to time, for projects to be delayed, cancelled, poor technical decisions to be made, silly design choices, bugs, drowning in technical debt, production issues, etc.

I mean - the list goes on and on. We're all sort of flying in uncharted territory all the time. If someone has already done what you're doing, specifically, then there would be a library your company could buy to solve the problem instead of paying you to design a solution.

I don't know why people have this idea that we're all sure all the time about what we're doing or that everything is perfect...

It's not. It never is. And things are often pure chaos on the best of days.

This is all pretty normal.

Just do what every other tech lead does and make the best decisions you can make, delegate what you feel you can delegate to the people who report to you, beg management for more funding if they ever complain about projects not being done on time, manage expectations from upper managers/other managers, seek constant feedback about technical decisions from your team, thank them for their work and give them positive feedback, and do the best you can.

Then, of course, you have to let everything else go, or else the constant mental stress will kill you.

I'm not in tech, but this is my impression of senior decision makers in just about every industry I've ever seen, we're all kind of flying blind.

Confidence at the senior level doesn't come from knowing that your decisions are correct, it comes from knowing that most people in the same position would likely be as unsure as you are.

But that doesn't mean that that kind of stress can't be extremely unhealthy for someone.

That's why it's necessary to assess both the external and internal factors that contribute to the nature and severity of the stress.

Right.

I guess I will add that - I was in almost this exact situation years ago.

How I handled it was to resign and find an individual contributor role somewhere again. Which was significantly less stressful, but then eventually I wound up *back* in a technical leadership position again somehow.

Which for me is more stressful, but now I see chaos and dealing with unknowns as normal, so current role has been less stressful than previous role, simply because now the chaos and unknowns seem normal to me.

I guess my point for OP is: this is just what it's like at a lot of companies as a tech lead, in my experience.

If you can't handle this level of stress it might be best to accept an individual contributor role again.

No amount of money in the world is worth sacrificing your health for...

MayDay

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Re: How can I get better at managing stress?
« Reply #14 on: August 28, 2023, 01:37:53 PM »
You mentioned being the decision maker a few times.

Do you perceive that you are the sole decision maker? Does your company have a framework or culture around how decisions are or should be made?

I would as a senior engineering manager at a medium size company. For bigger projects like you are describing we have a gate review system for formal approval of project milestones/direction, and would also hold stakeholder reviews if a big decision needed to be made outside of a gate review. The team would present the situation and a recommendation (possibly presenting multiple options and recommending one). They would present the risks/benefits. Everyone would metaphorically put their hands in the middle and say "we can't be 100% certain but we all decided to make this decision".

I'm wondering if a lot of your stress is coming from feeling like you are alone in the decision making rather than supported by all your stakeholders.