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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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!