1. Stress


Types of stress

It is obvious that the IT world is a stressfull work environment. But what is stress really?
Sheldon stress
Stress is a state of being under pressure by physical, mental or emotional factors or "stressors". Physical stress can be induced by heavy physical activity like work or sports, by illness or cold. Mental stress occurs in situations like high levels of concentration or fatigue. Emotional stress is induced by negative emotions such as worry, fear of failure, or anger.
Mental and emotional stress often go hand in hand. Also, and this is an important point which we will return too, all stress has a physiological effect on us.
In the IT world, the most common stress factors are mental and emotional, but there are physical stressors as well. Of course, many work environments can be highly stressful, but the IT world does seem like the perfect storm when it comes to stress-inducing factors.
The following list is by no means exhaustive:

physical stress

  • working long hours
  • prolonged sitting
  • bad diet
  • overconsumption of caffeine
  • lack of sleep

mental stress

  • intellectually challenging work
  • fast-paced environment
  • constant change

emotional stress

  • demanding clients
  • strict deadlines
  • small margin for error
  • high responsibility
All of this is only exacerbated by the fact that the IT world still has a long journey ahead when it comes to mental health and well-being. I'm sure FAANG will have all kinds of programs, but for regular folk like us, most companies offer next to nothing in this area. And let's be honest, a one-day course in non-violent communication, mindfulness or assertiveness is not going to cut it...

Stress reflex

It is important to understand that the human reaction to stress is generic. This means that it is the same for all types of stress. This is what we call the "stress reflex", which involves a number of physiological phenomena, such as:
  • high levels of sympathetic nervous system activation
  • release of adrenaline
  • increased heart rate
  • increased respiration rate
  • cessation of digestive processes
  • pupil dilation
  • arteriole dilation
  • constriction of veins
In short, all of these are physiological responses that activate our bodies to undertake "action" — the so-called "fight-or-flight" response. That's why it is so difficult to relax when we are stressed!
2-Minute Neuroscience: Sympathetic Nervous System


Why we need to handle stress

You'll sometimes hear people say that experiencing stress can be a good thing, as it keeps you sharp and focused, and may even stimulate our immune system.
However, research has shown that these benefits are only true for short-term stress, like deliberate cold exposure (cold showers) or intense weight-lifting and such. It is not true for middle- or long-term stress, which is really bad for you.
A good indication that stress is middle- or long-term is if it affects your sleep. Such stress is directly related to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and auto-immune diseases.


What doesn't work

The fact that the stress reflex is a physiological reaction already tells us a lot about how we should and should not handle stress.

Cognitive techniques

What doesn't work, when dealing with a physical reaction, is cognitive techniques. Telling someone or yourself to "calm down" when they're feeling stressed or anxious, is not helpful at all. There is even research data that suggests this only exacerbates things. A similar version of this is trying to reason about stress with maxims like "this too shall pass".
Another cognitive technique is sharing our stressors with friends and family. This might come as a surprise as you'll often hear people say that it's good to share your problems. And don't get me wrong: it is smart to look for outside help if you find yourself in a situation you can't resolve yourself. But even then you shouldn't burden your friends and family, but seek out expert help.
What I'm talking about is people trying to cope with stress by talking about it to their loved ones. This is almost never constructive. It might feel good for a moment, but usually both parties end up with a feeling of frustration. One because they can't help the other person or get agitated themselves; the other by recounting stressful situations without an adequate emotional discharge.

Social techniques

Sharing your worries with others is also a social reaction to stress, and there are various other manifestations of this. A common example is people going out to relieve stress. You know the saying: "Work hard, play hard". This can be helpful, for instance, when there is laughing (a proven stress reliever) and dancing involved (we will talk more about movement later on), but there are also dangers involved. Going out with people can, again, induce complaining, and for some people, there is also the danger of alcohol or substance abuse, or meaningless sexual encounters.

Anti-social techniques

The opposite reaction of dealing with stress socially also exists. In fact, it seems to be getting more and more prominent. Some people try to deal with stress by withdrawal from the outside world and immersing themselves in watching a movie, playing video games, reading or scrolling through their phones. However, you should know that engaging in a lot of these so-called "dopaminergic" activities will actually cause a drop in your dopamine baseline. Ironically, this then has the opposite effect of what's intended: lack of enjoyment, decreased motivation and, eventually, burnout.
In a way, the anti-social reaction is again a cognitive technique, as the goal seems to be to deliberately ignore stress and make yourself "forget" about your worries. However, the body does not forget so easily. In order to get the body to come along, some resort to more extreme, antisocial behaviour, in the form of addiction. Nicotine, alcohol, cannabis and opioids all have stress-relieving effects, but to what cost? And the same can be said about other addictions, like online gambling or pornography.

What does work

When we were discussing the "stress reflex" we already mentioned that it involves the activation of the so-called sympathetic nervous system. This is the network of nerves that helps our body be active and turn on its "fight-or-flight" response. So this system's activity increases when we are in danger, physically active, or, indeed, stressed.
The counterpart of the sympathetic system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stimulation of "rest-and-digest" or "feed and breed" activities. This causes:
  • constriction of pupils
  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased blood pressure
  • constriction of broncial muscles
  • increase in digestion
It is no coincidence that this list looks like the polar opposite of our body's physiological reaction to stress. Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system is the most effective stress relief there is.
2-Minute Neuroscience: Parasympathetic Nervous System


One of the easiest ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is movement — especially the kind of movement that physically stimulates the areas of the parasympathetic system. This start at the brain stem, goes over some facial nerves and the mouth, to the heart, lunges, stomach and intestines, all the way down to the pelvis and sacrum.
Tai chi, which is very wide-spread in China, is a very good example of such movement, as are other variants like Qi Gong, or yoga. However, simple activities like walking or dancing have much of the same effect. It might sound like a cliché to tell someone to go for a nice walk when dealing with stress, but have you tried it yet? More brisk activities like running, swimming or martial arts also work on the parasympathetic nerves, but these also involve a stimulus of the sympathetic nervous system.
Another excellent movement technique for stress-relief is bouncing. This is simply the act of standing up in a straight but relaxed fashion, closing your eyes (optional), and bouncing your shoulders up and down in a shrugging movement, while lightly shaking your body. This has a proven relaxing effect on your body and stimulates the parasympathetic system. Try it! Even bouncing for a minute or so can make a real difference for your stress level.
Qigong Shaking for Stress Relief


One of the key elements of yoga, tai chi or, indeed, walking, is breathing. In fact, every breathing pattern that is exhale-dominant has a proven effect of stress relief. Exhale-dominant means that we are exhaling more and longer than we are inhaling, at least to a degree and for a certain time (otherwise you'd hyperventilate). Its effect on stress is easily understood.
When we exhale, our diafragm goes up, therefore slightly pushing on the heart. This push constricts the heart, which means the heart's size is slightly smaller than before, but it still holds the same amount of blood as before. This makes it seem to the heart as if there is more blood available than before. This immediately triggers a signal from the heart to the brain that it needs less blood, therefore slowing down our heart rate. Hence, the stress reflex diminishes.
There is a special technique to trigger this effect, popularized by Andrew Huberman, which is called the physiological sigh and which has been studied specifically for its beneficial effects on stress. It is something that we do instinctively in sleep or when crying, but you can also do it on purpose. It involves two sharp, short inhales through the nose, followed by a long exhale through the mouth. This also rids our bodies of any excess CO², which also has a calming effect.
Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety | Dr. Andrew Huberman on the Physiological Sigh

The physiological sigh is an excellent, quick technique for stress release, which you can use in all sorts of settings, including situations like meetings, in the office or during your commute where other options of movement are limited.


Mindfulness and other forms of meditation have been steadily gaining in popularity when it comes to handling stress. They have a proven effect on stress-relief, even if recent research concedes that earlier studies were overly optimistic about its effect.
Mindfulness is a form of "quiet" meditation, as opposed to "dynamic" meditation which we will talk about in the next chapter. It involves self-observation, for instance, by watching one's breath, or turning your attention inwards.
A good example of a mindfulness technique that has a noticeably positive impact on stress is what is known as body scan meditation, whereby you direct your attention to various areas of the body and note the bodily sensations that happen in the present moment.
Body Scan Meditation Guided by Dr. Jud Brewer

Classic meditation practices (meditation as focussing one's attention) can also help with stress reduction, provided you choose the right kind of meditation for the person you are or the mood you're in. If you are interoceptively biased (i.e. aware of what is happening inside of you), you will find focussing on something in the outside world (e.g. a flower or the palm of your hand) more relaxing than focussing on your (already overactive) thoughts and inner world. If, on the other hand, you are more exteroceptively biased (i.e. aware of the outside world-, a more traditional meditative practice, like a third-eye meditation (focussing on the spot just behind your forehead), will help you shut out external stimuli and calm down.
Should You Do Interoceptive or Exteroceptive Meditation ? - Andrew Huberman

Relax first, engage later

To summarize, we can state that succesful stress management is a question of prioritizing body over mind, which, for most people, is a complete reversal of what they are used to doing. However, if you take care to first relax your body , you can then safely engage in some of the cognitive, social and other activities we mentioned earlier.
For instance, if you first deal with your stress physiologically, chances are you'll have a much more constructive and enjoyable conversation about your day with friends or family. Or, if you succeed in relaxing physically, you'll enjoy a movie or a video game much more. You'll be able to have a drink without perhaps lapsing into overindulgence.
Even then you should be aware that things like conversations, social gatherings, or watching a movie can also be triggers that can very quickly bring back a previous stress response. If that is the case, be aware of what is happening and use one of the techniques we discussed to return to a state of calm before going to bed, for instance.


Stress journal

This chapter's assignment is designed to help you become aware of stress and build better stress-relief habits.
For awareness, I want you to keep some sort of stress journal for a week. Don't worry, this won't take too much of your time. Even a simple "X" for every time you feel stressed during the day can tell you a lot about how much stress you experience. Ideally, you should make entries like this:
  • 08:34: kids take too long getting ready for school
  • 09:01: realize I put out the wrong trash can yesterday
  • 09:11: ticket with a bug for a new module I deployed last release
  • 09:45: discuss bug at today's standup
  • ...


Keep the journal for a whole week, but on Wednesday start pairing every (or every other) journal entry with a stress-relief exercise. The physiological sigh is a good, quick technique, but so is getting up from your desk and stretching, stepping outside for just a few moments or playing some air guitar to your favorite song! When you've finished the technique, ask yourself "Where was my stress level before and after this exercise?". Add a note to the entry in the stress journal like this:
  • 07:04: annoyed that the shower head is broken; physiological sigh; 6 → 4
  • 08:45: IDE update causes OS to reboot; stretching exercises for lower back; 5 → 2
  • ...


From Wednesday onwards I would also like you to fill your spare time and/or evenings with relaxing activities that have a positive effect on your stress levels. Bear in mind the things we have discussed about what does and what does not work. If you still lack inspiration, here's a list of things you may find enjoyable and help you relax:
  • swimming
  • taking a hot bath
  • visiting a spa or sauna
  • getting a massage
  • getting a haircut or nail job
  • going for a long evening walk
  • taking dance lessons
  • playing a musical instrument
  • jumping on a trampoline
  • gardening
  • going to a comedy show
  • playing with a pet
  • cuddling with your partner and/or kids


If you are looking for some additional inspiration or information about stress management, you can check out the following excellent resources:

Tools for managing stress and anxiety
Tools for managing stress and anxiety

Resilience to stress

Greater Good in Action. Science-based Practices for a Meaningful Life. Resilience to Stress

Calm archives
Mindful: Calm Archives