I work as a software developer in a small company. I graduated from university a year ago, and have been in this role for about that time. Periodically (about once a month), I become very stressed or anxious about something at work, and I can't decide what to do about it.

The exact nature of my job changes sufficiently often that I think I can't blame the stress on any particular task. My boss is very reasonable, and has offered repeatedly to help in any way he can. I work hard, but I don't work crazy hours (not often more than 45 hours per week, and never more than 50). So I can't see anything specific about my job that causes this stress.

But I can't shake the fact that this behaviour often manifests as a reaction to something happening at work. And intuitively, I often imagine that "all my problems would go away if only this responsibility did not exist". But when I think carefully about it, I know that if I did not have a stable routine then I would probably degenerate quite rapidly, and I cannot imagine why having any different job would make me feel differently. So quitting is not obviously the right thing to do either.

How do I determine whether the stress is caused by my job, or something else particular to me?

Updates to answer questions: The stress (as in, my reaction to it) is quite severe. I eat healthily. I've tried exercise and had good experience with it. All my out-of-hours hobbies tend to be quite 'cognitive', I was a maths student and still dabble in that, and I have programming projects that I try to work on too (although I don't tend to get very far with them). Exercise is good advice, I try to run at least once a week and it definitely gives me a dopamine hit but it doesn't seem to prevent these outbreaks. I took a week off in the summer, and took some time at Christmas.

Work hours: I'm based in the UK, my standard work day is 8:30-5:30, with a 1 hour lunch break and unscheduled coffee breaks whenever we feel like it (usually a long one in the morning and a short one in the afternoon).

Holidays: There are quite a lot of bank holidays in the UK, so I have been able to enjoy some long weekends. My holidays at uni were very long, so adjusting to that certainly might be a contributing factor.

"Maybe you find the work uninspiring": This is actually a particularly sore spot; the job actually has a surprisingly close link to my academic interests, and it's a sufficiently experimental environment that I have an opportunity to try out my ideas in a real life setting. But I have made very little progress in this direction because of my anxiety relating to the work.

ADHD/Introvert: I don't know about ADHD, I definitely display introvert-type behaviours from time to time, but that was a much more accurate description of me when I was a teenager than it is now. I don't identify with as many of the descriptors of "Introvert" as I used to.

Caffeine: I really doubt it, I have been on a steady drop of two cups of coffee a day for about 9 months now. If you had said this during my degree I would probably have believed it but I don't drink an abnormal/irregular amount of coffee these days.

Regularity: I think that if I measured this it would probably turn out to be more like 3-6 weeks for really bad episodes (ones which are followed by a depressive few days rather than going away after sleep).

Stress vs. Anxiety vs. Depression: The feeling I am describing is definitely most closely described as "Anxiety brought on by frustration". I experience this relatively frequently (one of the answers describes "fidgeting, sweating, heart rate increase, breathing faster" as symptoms of a panic attack, this happens to me a few times every week at this point; I don't remember when it started). The "particularly bad" instances I'm referring to are characterised by a very depressive mood that comes on afterwards, makes me cynical and unpleasant to be around, and hangs around for a few days usually.

Update after a day: I have spoken with my boss about this issue in the past, but found it difficult to deal with the conversation because he would always ask me whether there was anything he could do to help, and I would honestly have no idea what to tell him. Similarly speaking with close friends or family makes them worry, and it's hard to articulate exactly how you feel under those circumstances.

I had a pretty bad day yesterday, which was what prompted me to post this question, but today was better. I'm quite surprised at how much traction this question has got - I certainly hope it isn't because there are many people feeling the same way (but if it is, then I guess it's good that it has been seen). I am very grateful to the people who ahve provided their comments and answers. I'll try to select the one I identify with best before the weekend.

I'm going to book an appointment to see my GP tomorrow morning, and hopefully I'll be able to see someone quickly. I think I knew really that I should have done that a while ago, but seeing all this written down and reflected on has certainly made the urgency more obvious.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user44108
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 15:48
  • Just how regular is this? You say "about once a month". Does it vary slightly (every 26-30 days), or wildly (sometimes 7 weeks apart, sometimes 2 weeks apart)? If you're not sure, talk to friends (esp. GF/BF/spouse, if appropriate); before I got treated for depression, my wife noted a definite monthly pattern.
    – RDFozz
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 20:59
  • have you considered that you m ay be experiencing Impostor Syndrome?
    – ColonD
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 12:19
  • How is your relationship with your coworkers? Do you have natural light coming into the office? Where do you take your lunch break? Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 2:05

17 Answers 17


My honest advice is to talk to a professional psychologist about it. You show early signs of burnout and anxiety disorder. It could be caused by your work or by something entirely different, but we won't be able to tell you what it is.

The sooner you start treatment, the better your chances are to recover completely.

Taking a break (be it 10 minutes or 10 months) may eliminate the immediate symptoms, but the real cause of the problem is still there. Your post lets me assume that you don't know what caused the stress reaction in you, but you have to find the cause in order to find a cure.

If you think "but I'm not anxious, I'm just stressed", let me explain the root of many anxiety disorders:

  • You feel some amount of pressure at work, deadlines are approaching, things just won't work
  • This causes a stress reaction in your body. Your system is flooded with adrenaline in preparation for a fight-or-flight reaction.
  • Since you are a desk jockey and neither fight (physically) nor flee, your body cannot burn all the energy the adrenaline released. The stress reaction doesn't stop and the system is kept at high alert.
  • Your body and mind associate certain situations with this kind of stress reaction and release adrenalin in similar situations. Your heart starts beating faster for no apparent reason, you start sweating, you are restless and cannot relax or have trouble falling asleep. This is called an anxiety attack or panic attack. It doesn't mean you are afraid, it means your body is reacting to a non-threatening situation with an inappropriate panic reaction.

Please seek professional help before the problem gets only bigger and bigger and impacts your life in ways that destroy your happiness and career. It won't go away on its own and there is no shame in seeking someone's help to preserve your health and future.

What can and should you expect from a treatment?

  • Medication should not be the first step.
  • A psychologist should talk with you and help you analyze what is really stressing you and what causes your symptoms.
  • They should explain the processes going on in your body during a panic attack. The knowledge alone helps many people rationalize their bodies reactions and cope with them better.
  • They should give you advice to change certain aspects in your life. That would most likely entail some or most of the solutions given in other answers.
  • They give you instructions how you can effectively incorporate those changes into your life.
  • Depending on the therapy, you may get the chance to try out several coping mechanisms like sports, music or art without high personal investments.
  • They monitor any positive or negative developments and can find more effective treatments if one doesn't work.

Why should you get treatment?

I've seen too many people dear to me slip into the spiral of stress -> trying to cope with it -> not being able to remedy it on their own -> feeling more stress. They told themselves "It's just stress, it's not bad enough to go to a doctor for" until the anxiety disorder was so bad that they couldn't cope with it anymore and were unable to work or lead a "normal" life without constraints. The longer you wait to get effective help, the longer the recovery will take. I personally know someone who has been in early retirement for 10 years now and still hasn't recovered completely from their anxiety disorder.

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    Strongly agree with this answer. It's worth noting that it is possible to work through it on your own, but given that OP seems quite adrift I would also recommend that they see someone who knows what to do! Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 22:41
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    I have experienced similar problems to those the original poster is describing, I couldn't agree with the advice of seeing a professional more. Sometimes feeling stressed or down for no reason can by a symptom of depression, being closely related to anxiety. I'm not a professional, it's really important to talk to a doctor about this, I really think you should avoid taking to heart any diagnosed as resultant answers from your post, go chat to a professional.
    – Phill
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 9:20
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    Panic attacks and anxiety attacks can occur with no obvious trigger and no obvious underlying problem. They are also very common. The good news is that you can learn more about them by discussing it with a professional AND doing some research on your own (with the guidance of a professional), and then overcome them. These attacks are pernicious in that they can be self reinforcing, but the good news is that once you understand their process, you can overcome them using will power. But you should do it with the help of a professional, in case it might be due to something else.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 19:41
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    I think this is my favourite of the given answers, although they address a variety of aspects to the problem and can't be directly compared. Anxiety is definitely the correct word for what I'm experiencing. I have been experiencing those panic attack symptoms very frequently, and hadn't really noticed (if you don't know what you're looking for, it's easy to just brush them off as "feeling uncomfortable").
    – anon
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 16:26
  • @preferred_anon You might "accept" this answer. It is a very high quality one. Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 17:47

How do I determine whether the stress is caused by my job, or something else particular to me?

I am not a doctor, but based on what little I can glean from this post, your work is not causing you undue stress.

I would suggest you try one or all of the following:

  1. Unplug from work outside of working hours. Don't answer or even look at emails after hours if at all possible.
  2. Take shorter more frequent vacations. Instead of one or two big vacations, take shorter ones, even if they are just extended weekends.
  3. Exercise. This one in particular has made a huge difference in dealing with my life from a mental health perspective.
  4. Sleep, or lack of it will definitely hurt your mental health. Make sure you are getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly.

If the above suggestions don't work, I would suggest you discuss this situation with your doctor.

  • 42
    It's hard for some folks to adjust to the 9-5 work life immediately after school. Good advice to follow by disconnecting yourself from work. Try to stay away from computers after hours, even for personal projects. Set up a few days a week where you don't use any computer devices. It really helps with #1.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 17:55
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    I can say that 1. & 2. helped me too (but I didn’t need any help in a sense of OP)! Just ignore everything unless you are on paid overtime. For the exercise I try to run in the mornings and bike in the evenings; while doing the exercise I listen podcasts, call family members etc. Siri can do stuff.
    – Kyslik
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 6:45
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    Personally, exercise is a huge help for me, sleep I need to work on ... Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 8:46
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    I think this is all solid advice. Sleep was a problem for me for a long time (there was a period where I was regularly getting less than 5 or 6 hours of sleep, but now I almost always get at least 7). Exercise is a big help, and I've been trying to do a long run at least once a week. With respect to unplugging from work, a lot of people have pointed out that having complex hobbies is not a good idea - I am very reluctant to give them up for reasons that are relevant but probably not in scope for this question. I'm going to speak to a professional in the next few days.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:14
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    This! Do something completely unrelated to work outside of work hours. Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 12:27

Periodically (about once a month), I become very stressed or anxious about something at work, and I can't decide what to do about it.

I often imagine that "all my problems would go away if only this responsibility did not exist".

How do I determine whether the stress is caused by my job, or something else particular to me?

If this stress is quite severe as you have mentioned, then seek professional help. A session or two with a counselor could help you determine the cause and come up with effective coping mechanisms.

If this stress was not too severe, then you could just talk about it with a trusted friend, family member, or colleague.

Sometimes, discovering that you now have a real job with real responsibilities is jarring for new graduates. It can take a while to adjust. Sometime professional help is needed to get over it.


Since it hasn’t been mentioned in other answers yet: I agree with gnasher729 in the comments, 45 to 50 hours of work per week is a lot. A single week of vacation in a whole year is very little.

This is especially important since you are relatively new to the job and probably take it very seriously. So you are probably not taking enough breaks during work, not enjoying small talk with colleagues from time to time etc.

I think it takes some time and experience to become comfortable with taking breaks, declining meetings if you are busy, leaving on time even when there is still work to do and so on. It’s almost never as urgent or important as it may seem and even if it is you have to ask yourself if it’s more important than your happiness and health.

  • This is not a lot of hours. Many many of us work /have worked (sometimes much..) longer hours and are not feeling stressed in the ways described. He should likely consult professional help to navigate his situation. Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 17:49
  • @WestCoastProjects many people also smoke and don't get lung cancer. That doesn't mean it's not unhealthy.
    – Ivo
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 11:35
  • @IvoBeckers Poor analogy. Smoking is unhealthy. Period. There's nothing inherently unhealthy about 45-50 hours. It sounds specific to the OP. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 11:38
  • @WestCoastProjects: Few people can work 45–50h weeks (consistently) and still lead a healthy and happy life. Even if you are able to avoid mental problems your life is going to consist mostly of work, sleep, exercise and other necessities (cooking, buying groceries, occasional doctor visits etc.). Not much time or energy for fun, family or hobbies. I certainly couldn’t do it.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 12:38
  • @Michael That's honestly surprising to hear. There aren't that many positions that I've been around where < 45 hours happens in my experience. I consider consistently over 50 hours to be heavy. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 18:35

I don't want to alarm you since this probably doesn't apply to you. But I want to put it on your radar because it might just save your life.

What you describe is exactly how my epilepsy started out. My mental health would, from time to time, have a hiccup for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Out of the blue I felt overwhelmed and had strong emotional reactions and it "felt" like I was too stressed at work. I was eating healthily, getting exercise, sleeping well, and really enjoying life.

It's this "major problem from time to time" thing that is really characteristic of epilepsy.

As it progressed, my episodes became more frequent and more intense, my memory fell apart, and my ability to perform complex tasks approached 0.

The majority of epilepsy cases don't manifest as convulsive seizures. For obvious reasons, non-convulsive epilepsy is massively under-diagnosed. I never had a convulsive seizure. For this reason it took around 6 years to get diagnosed. I saw around a dozen mental health professionals and nobody was able to help. It was hard to explain what was going on since it was so all over the place. Things were really, really bad for a long time. Even so, my first few tests for epilepsy came back negative before they "caught" it (which is quite common, although unfortunately many doctors assume otherwise).

But now I'm on epilepsy medication. It's a miracle. I had forgotten what a normal life was like.

I really wish someone had shared such an experience with me 6 years ago. Epilepsy awareness is unfortunately pretty low. Hopefully I can help someone.

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    Agreed, and it's not just epilepsy. Lyme disease, Wilson's disease and tumors can cause anxiety symptoms. Also nutritional supplements, allergic reactions and hormone imbalance. Key point is to see a doctor. Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 16:04
  • As you say, this is very unlikely to be the problem. But I'll follow it up, thank you for mentioning!
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:17
  • @Keeta yes, and I did a lot of reading about these and others like Lupus, Addison's, testosterone deficiency... the trouble is, epilepsy doesn't show up on a blood test and often doesn't show up on an EEG either. (Ironically it "showed up" in my daily blood sugar tests—it made my type 1 diabetes rather unpredictable but doctors said "oh well" and didn't dig deeper.)
    – Artelius
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 21:21

I have been a software developer for 29 years, and your complaint seems familiar to me. Software development is difficult, and "other people's black boxes' can cause no amount of hair tearing and stress.

Some strategies that I have developed may help.

  • I read a paper once entitled "Strategies for getting unstuck". The primary strategy was to talk to someone else. You obviously can't run off and ask for help with everything, but if you are stuck on the same issue for more than 1 day you definitely should consider asking for help. The answer may be that there is no immediate help available, but often I find that talking to someone else spurs an idea that I can chase down that will move me along.
  • Along the lines above you can use "Rubber Ducking" or explaining the particular problem to yourself while pretending you are talking to someone else (e.g. rehearse as if you were going to discuss it with your boss).
  • From the book "Deep Work" by Cal Newport, alternate 'deep concentration' time where you do not allow yourself to be interrupted (especially by email or chat apps, or the internet) with walks outside to access your 'default network'.
  • Luck favors the prepared mind. Study new things always.
  • Ask yourself "how much will this matter in five years".

You are good enough. Trust yourself, know that this is hard (That's why they pay you the big bucks). As one of my colleagues once said "Some days's I'm worth a lot more than they pay me. Other days, well..."

  • 6
    The "rubber duck" trick and similar works. I tend to start making a MVCE for a question on stackoverflow and in the process it kinda just solves itself most of the time.
    – ivanivan
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 3:35
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    @ivanivan Indeed, that's 80% of the reason we ask for one ;) It's a way of prompting people to perform that step of their own debugging that they skipped for whatever reason. It also has the benefit of producing a much higher quality question, which is how we can wrap up the request in terms of Q&A curation and likelihood of an answer. Overall, win-win all round. The importance of doing this during problem solving just cannot be understated. Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 11:33
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    +1 for the last phrase. Loved it, and it rings so true. Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 11:37
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    @ivanivan I've done that so many times. When I first started programming I was really bad at rubber duck debugging (rather, it was never very helpful). But after about 2 years I stopped asking as many questions on StackOverflow. It's always annoying to have typed a bunch of stuff out only to trash it (unless it's useful to be self-answered), but it does feel nice when you arrive at the solution! Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 10:58
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    "Some days's I'm worth a lot more than they pay me. Other days, well...". +1 for that! :-)
    – spodger
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 13:25

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, so seek medical advice if you feel it is warranted.

This sounds very familiar to me. From what I understand this is not uncommon in software development. The personality that makes software developers good at software development seems to also carry some challenges in dealing with stress and mental over-stimulation, including frequent mini burnouts that don't correspond to the actual amount of work done.

Listen to your body

My advice? Listen to your body. Do you have any physiological stress indicators that regularly lead up to the full-blown stress response (e.g. tightness in your chest, increased heart rate, sweating, fidgety feeling)? If so, then when you start to notice them occurring, try to force yourself to take a break from work (if you can) for at least 10 minutes (a half hour is better) and take a walk, or do something else that isn't mentally taxing. After your break, if the idea of restarting your task is stressful at all, don't. Do another task instead.

Figure out what recharges you

Does exercise lower your stress? Time outdoors? Time in the sun? Talking with friends about non-work related activities? Something else? Make sure to do these things daily. It's easy to neglect them, especially as you enter a stress/anxiety cycle. NOTE: some things can feel in the moment like they recharge you (e.g. watching t.v.) but may leave you feeling more stressed or drained afterwards. Whatever they may be, try to limit these activities, and try not to use them to recharge, as they are actually draining even though they may not feel like it at the time.

Don't push past your limits

When you feel yourself hit a wall (meaning you can't bear the thought of more work), if at all possible end your day in terms of mentally-taxing work. Instead catch up on mindless tasks, whatever they may be (e.g. cleaning your office space). If you keep pushing yourself, it won't end well, so don't.

The goal is to ensure that you can work effectively in the long run, not just in short bursts. You're of no use to your employer if you can't work effectively in the long run, and the good news is it sounds like they understand that and should be supportive of a healthy pace of work that includes frequent small breaks. By the way, taking a break can often help you solve a problem or improve a solution, so it's not just down time; it's legitimate work.

This includes your mentally-taxing hobbies

And now the bad news. The same rules apply to your mentally-taxing hobbies like programming and math. If you hit the end of your day and are done, don't go home and program or do math unless you find them to not be stressful at all (paying attention to your stress indicators). If you do have something left in the tank at the end of the day by all means indulge your hobbies if you want, but remember that if you overdo it, you might have a harder time at work the next day, so exercise self-control and keep some in the tank.

Things that may help

In addition I recommend trying to develop a healthy perspective about work. If you're like me you get into the "I have to get this done", "this will never work", "I'm going to miss the deadline", "I'll get in trouble", "I'm so stressed", "I have to get this done" spirals. This only makes things worse. Try to remind yourself that it's just a job (really!), that unless you're controlling the space shuttle or working in the ER or fighting fires, it doesn't HAVE to get done now, no one will die, and there's not THAT much at stake (jobs can be replaced). This helps a lot, but probably won't solve the problem. One thing that really helps me recharge is time outside in the sun, doing exercise. Not sure why, but it does help. But nothing beats breaks. Nothing.

  • Fantastic answer, particularly the last paragraph.
    – Neo
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 11:53
  • Best answer IMO, really understanding. THIS is how you escape a burnout and have a healthy work-life.
    – GlorfSf
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 7:36

Could it be that full-time software development is not for you?

I used to stress a lot when doing full-time development. I then decided to return to academia to further my education. However when I made a lateral move to sysadmin and network administration and then consulting, things went so much smoother.

I eventually realized over the years, that although I loved to program as a hobby, full-time software development was not for me.

  • What was your process for getting into consulting, and what do you mean by consulting? Like freelance development work? I feel the exact same as the guy who posted this thread and am in software dev as well. Going nuts here.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:16
  • @KingDan Technical consulting, was working for something like PWC...but then went working for ISPs and much more happy, people are more my type. I also did some freelance and it was ok. I need more challenge, variety and stimulus than a dev position brings. Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:18
  • Very interesting. In terms of getting into that - was it just a matter of searching job boards as usual but for consulting positions?
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:25
  • @KingDan They were the ones searching for me....was working previously for two years as one-man-show managing the computing center/Internet core/Unix center of a group of Universities. My dev experience of 3 years was before that. Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:29
  • @KingDan Maybe it is easier linkedin.com/pub/rui-ribeiro/16/ab8/434 Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:32

Since no one else has touched on them, your hobbies may be part of the problem.

You need to give your brain a break at times, and this includes outside of work. If your hobbies are just your own personal version of work, then you aren't getting the rest you need. I'm not saying you need to stop your hobbies, it might just be that you need to occasionally switch to some different hobbies.

I know this from experience. After my day job, I run my own business for 30-40 hours a week. Sometimes that includes programming, which is also my day job.

I get the most mental relief when I get into the wood shop or metal shop. There, I can just follow a design (in my head or on paper) and just build something. For me, building takes considerably less mental resources, or at least different mental resources. My mind can "take a break" as I need it less than when debugging software.

When I think about how to explain what kind of mental load programming puts on us, I think about explaining it as doing crosswords, Sudoku, logic puzzles, and other similar puzzles all at the same time, for 8 hours a day, every day, with deadlines and interruptions, plus references to other puzzles that you have to figure out before you can finish the other 3 that your're already working on. Unfortunately, I don't think that's a strong enough description.

Even when I'm not programming, but rather designing a new product, doing a write-up for a product, or doing something else that requires a lot of mental load, I get stressed or even burnt out. At different times, I'll just leave the workshop and go home to watch a movie. When I "veg" in front of the TV is when my mind can relax, the stress starts to go away, and then I feel better when getting back to work. Sometimes I go outside and juggle for 1-2 hours. Most of the time, I don't get enough down time myself.

Caveat: you simply can't treat that down time as wasted time. That only adds to your stress. You have to realize that rest is just as important as work (probably more important). It's sometimes hard to realize this, but it really is important. Otherwise, you'll be a nervous, burnt-out wreck by the time you're 40. Vacations are great, but you need those mini-vacas that someone else was talking about, too.

  • A bit off topic but what's your business? I've toyed with the idea myself and am always curious as to what other business owners are doing.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 22:18
  • @KingDan, I do laser cutting and etching of wood, acrylic, and other materials. I also use a CNC machine to do some of the same. My Etsy store also includes items not made with a machine, like juggling equipment, TV stands, and more. http:Etsy.com/shop/EricGear and www.EricsGear.com If you want to know more, we can try to setup a chat room/session. Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 13:12

I am a software developer too. I think that stress, and especially handle the stress, is part of the job. Also I don't like the fact that people always suggest that one needs to seek professional help, especially without knowing the exact situation. IMHO, this is putting down the person even more.

I experience stress during work e.g. for the following reasons:

Delay in project

Software developing is a project work. A project has a time plan. It is quite usual that the time plan gets delayed. Still I blame myself for the delay, because e.g. a sub task took longer than expected. This causes stress.

"Wasted time"

Also a part of the work as a software developer is, that sometimes your turn around in circles. It happens that you spent a few days on a problem, just to figure out that there is a super simple solution, that you've overlooked, or maybe that it is even a dead end. I feel a strong dissatisfaction after that which causes stress too.


Since you seem to be periodically experiencing this, and that you're fresh out of college, you may be experiencing Impostor Syndrome

From Wikipedia:

The impostor cycle

The impostor cycle, as defined by Clance, begins with an achievement-related task. An example of an achievement-related task could be an exercise that was assigned through work or school. Once the assignment has been given to the individual, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and worry immediately follow. The cycle accounts for two possible reactions that stem from these feelings. Either the individual will respond by over-preparation or procrastination.

If the individual responds with procrastination, this initial response will turn into a frantic effort to complete the job. Once the task has been completed, there will be a brief period of accomplishment and feeling of relief. If positive feedback is given once the work has been completed and turned in, the individual will discount the positive feedback.

If the individual responded to the task with over-preparation, the successful outcome will be seen as a result of hard work. If the individual responds by procrastination, they will view the outcome as a matter of luck. In the impostor cycle, gaining success through hard work or luck is not interpreted as a matter of true, personal ability. This means that it does not matter which mechanism the individual used to complete the task. Even if the outcome results in a positive response, the feedback given has no effect on the individual's perception of personal success. This leads to the individual to discount positive feedback.

This sequence of events serves as a reinforcement, causing the cycle to remain in motion. With every cycle, feelings of perceived fraudulence, increased self doubt, depression, and anxiety accumulate. As the cycle continues, increased success leads to the intensification of feeling like a fraud. This experience causes the individual to remain haunted by their lack of perceived, personal ability. Believing that at any point they can be 'exposed' for who they think they really are keeps the cycle in motion.

And don't worry, It happens to a lot of people, especially during a transition in your life:

The feeling of being a fraud that is emphasised in the impostor phenomenon is not uncommon. It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life. This can be a result of a new setting, academic or professional. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result to an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower self confidence and belief in abilities.

I had this too when I was fresh off college too. Try seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, and they may suggest anti-anxiety medicine, which was what worked for me personally. Other than that, make sure you have a good diet, periodic exercise and good sleep, which will all help boost your mood

  • 1
    That excerpt is interesting. I am aware of Imposter Syndrome, we were warned about it when we started uni. But I had always thought of it as a self-esteem problem ("I don't belong here, the person who let me in made a mistake"), which I never identified with, because I think (hope) I have a pretty honest idea about what I'm good or bad at. But the line "If the individual responds by procrastination, they will view the outcome as a matter of luck." resonates with me very strongly, particularly looking back on work I did while at university. I'll bear it in mind.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 15:52

In addition to the great answers mentioning unwinding which is fantastic advice, as well as exercise and proper sleep, I also recommend you find a book about stress and read it. I don't want to go into too many recommendations, but just something like Stress Management for Dummies is fine.

It's important to realise that stress is actually good for us. It's become such a buzzword that we think stress and we immediately think bad, but stress in small doses actually helps motivate us. Not all stress is bad. As long as you are only feeling stressed for small periods of time than you probably have nothing to worry about. It's only the continuing sense of stress that should be concerning.

I realise this answer is simply just a recommendation for a book, but this is all from personal experience. I too am a software developer, and found myself stressed at work sometimes. Once I'd read the book I definitely felt better and even find myself stressing less.

Some of the bigger things the book helped me with:

  • Acceptance: simply acknowledging that something is
  • Catastrophizing and awfulizing (making mountains out of molehills). How important is this stress really? Will I remember this 3 years from now? 3 months from now? 3 days from now? In 30 minutes time?
  • Changing my attitude. For example:

Situation: I'm stuck in traffic
Thoughts: I'm going to be late, my boss will talk to me about time management, I'll have less time to do something
Feelings: Upset, frustrated

You can't change the situation or your feelings, but you can change how you think about them. Acceptance ties in here as well: you're stuck in traffic, you simply need to accept it. You can't do anything and there's no point thinking about how you should've left earlier etc. This is the time to start doing some breathing exercises, or thinking positive thoughts, and putting on a scented candles, all which the book talks about.

  • Agreed, acceptance of one's situation is key to release underlying stress and focus on positive thoughts. However, some are able to manage stress by focusing on their anger instead and, if they are able to, they manipulate the situation with it (e.g. I have seen taxi drivers shouting out to other drivers in order to get a clear path quickly)... Karma may kickback with this approach though.
    – CPHPython
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 8:53

To Mister Positive's answer, I'd personally add a 5th point that personally helped me as much as proper sleep: meditation.

In really stressful days, half an hour or more of meditation allowed me to relax my mind in a way I had never experienced before I started practicing it.

There is no right method to practice mediation, each person may prefer a different approach (walking in a relaxed pace can be one of them). On one hand, when I want to focus particular thoughts, I personally prefer to avoid listening to any sound/noise (sometimes using head muffs). On the other hand, guided meditation/music has also proven very useful, especially in order to clear my mind or getting back to proper sleep.

Smart devices have all sorts of meditation helpers that may do help guiding meditation periods, but I have noticed that they often distract me more than help me with meditation. Airplane mode just prevents outsiders from interfering, but the greatest challenge lies within one's own mind (e.g. stop worrying how much time you meditated already, just use a simple alarm when you need to go).

Regarding professional help, drugs prescribed by professionals may have a quick effect in relaxation but they may do more harm than good in the long term. An holistic approach, for example, by improving one's life and diet may have a greater impact than any prescription (here's a dialog between a neurologist and a psychiatrist explaining this point).

  • I have been advised to try out meditation and mindfulness. I tried apps for guided meditation but never really stuck with it as I found it a little cheesy. I'm behind the idea, although I should note that taking long walks and listening to relaxing music sometimes has a detrimental effect if I'm feeling depressed.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:02
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    @preferred_anon constant stimuli does have a detrimental effect in any living being. Especially if dopamine is constantly being produced (the body will require more and more to have the same pleasurable effect). It could be the music you listened to that set you in a depressive mood, but there's a withdrawal effect when people break the dopamine cycle similar to sugar withdrawals. They may feel the need to have that constant stimulation back (whether is pleasure or stress). Meditation stimulates the production of serotonin which is called the "happy hormone", it does not get the body addicted.
    – CPHPython
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:34
  • @preferred_anon Yes, guided meditation is cheesy. A quality meditation instructor gives the meditation instruction before the meditation, and does not speak during the meditation. Meditation apps are often not made by serious meditators. The fancier and frillier and more verbose the technique is, the higher the probability that the author is not a meditator at all. If you can't find a good meditation instructor who you can meet with in person, learn it from a book. "Mindfulness of breathing" is a classic time-proven meditation technique, good for stress reduction.
    – Chozang
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 13:55
  • @Tharpa if you know about hypnosis, many guided meditations are just a form of hypnosis or self-hypnosis. Some of them just teach how to go through the steps yourself for your brain to go into low frequency wave patterns (these are documented: alpha, theta and delta), and you don't need to hear it more times in order to perform that particular kind of meditation. I will probably never stop learning about different types and I agree that some are mainstream and may sound cheesy, but I do not agree that the only way to do proper meditation is with absence of sounds/words.
    – CPHPython
    Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 9:10

As an introvert, I felt the same problem when I started working in the software industry (16 years ago). The stress was the forced contact and nature of working in a cubicle with people's eyes on me every day.

I had a very good starting job and very good boss/work mates, but ultimately I searched for an acceptable exit (went back to school for a M.S.). I even declined the job's offer to get an M.S. at their expense - because I couldn't honestly tell them I wanted to leave (I really hate and avoid conflict).

You should be honest with this to your boss. Your boss can be aware of it and potentially help you. You should request a mentor. A mentor can listen to you and help guide you through stressful events.

Don't rule out that a job change (within the same business or a different business) to a smaller team or slower paced industry could help.

I eventually went back and interviewed (and was offered a new job) at that original business. However, after working happily in three other businesses, I realized that the environment of that first business did not suit me. It was too 'sterile', large, and impersonal.

  • I used to consider myself an introvert, but I identify with that less as I get older. "Hating and avoiding conflict" resonates very strongly though, and I sometimes (not always) feel like the reason I've stayed is to avoid inconveniencing my colleagues. I'm already in a small team, and the culture is quite a good one as far as I can tell. Job change is still on the cards in the medium term, but I think speaking to a professional will be my first course of action.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:08

You said "I work hard, but I don't work crazy hours (not often more than 45 hours per week, and never more than 50). So I can't see anything specific about my job that causes this stress."

It is politically incorrect to say this these days, but just about anything over 8 hours a day and/or 40 hours a week, unless it is RARE, is HARD on you. The fundamental unwritten contract is for those limits.

There have been any number of studies done on this, over the course of the last century or more. After about eight hours of work (even with lunch break and mid-period breaks, fatigue sets in RAPIDLY. When people start getting fatigued, they start making mistakes. That contributes to stress. Compensating for the fatigue, doing extra checking to keep from making mistakes, also contributes to stress.

Take a long, hard look at what you are doing and how you are doing it and why. Find ways to do it smarter, so you get it done sooner and you can go home sooner.

As a software engineer, despite what some managers believe, you are not paid for butt-in-seat hours. You are paid for results. If you can get their results, on schedule, in less time, with less trouble, that's a win for everyone.

The guys who have suggested talking with counselors are right. In your current situation, you are headed for a serious breakdown if you don't fix something.

  • 3
    “Take a long, hard look at what you are doing and how you are doing it and why. Find ways to do it smarter, so you get it done sooner and you can go home sooner.” Some things just take a certain amount of time. Don't punish yourself just because something took longer than expected or you (seem to) make slow progress. I also think it’s a bad idea to work overtime just to meet some deadline, unless it’s really only for a short time.
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 12:17
  • The things that "just take a certain amount of time", when examined closely, take that amount of time because somebody else screwed things up royally, and all kinds of double-checking and extra signature steps were added. SOME of those can be reworked. Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 0:45
  • That happens, yes. But while these things could often be avoided they still happen from time to time. Humans just make mistakes. I think new programmers often suffer from the delusion that other programmers are somehow more experienced, more clever and never make mistakes. I think a problem with our profession is that if you focus on the code itself it’s merely a bit of text which could be typed out in a few minutes or hours.
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 6:51
  • I've clarified my work hours in the OP. I sometimes do overtime (which I'm compensated for, and usually have the option of exchanging it for some of my other hours back, and I usually take this option), which I don't know off heart but reckon amounts to less than 5 hours a month. Is this really as bad as you say? Given that 9-5 is the kind of "standard" idea of a full working week, I'd be surprised if there was a very sharp drop off for going slightly beyond it. (N.B. this is my first job and have little to compare it to)
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 15:59
  • @JoeStrazzere, back in the day, the work day and work week was longer, and the scrap, rework, and injury and damage rates were higher. The first companies to adopt the 8-hour workday and 40-hour workweek saw their scrap, rework, and injury rates decline dramatically, which sent their profit margins through the ceiling. This allowed them to undercut their competitors. Their competitors saw what was happening, realize that this was a survival situation, and copied the innovations. The labor movement gets the credit, but this is what really happened. Commented Sep 15, 2018 at 4:09

Adding to the great response from @Mister Positive and @Joe, I would suggested you take regular break if possible from work, such as walking or something around the building or outside.

For myself, I do pomodor "sprints" for 25 minutes, then breaks for 5 or 10 minutes outside to get some fresh air and exercise. I also take lunch breaks if able to.

That makes a difference for me, hopefully it does for you!

  • Not every 25 minutes, sometimes I keep going if I'm in the zone, but generally I try to do at least a few minutes every 25 or so. I should probably add to the answer that I don't follow Pomodoro to the letter Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 17:57
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    @JoeStrazzere In the UK, we have official guidance (from the government's Health and Safety Executive) for "VDU operators" taking breaks. From their FAQ: "short, frequent breaks are more satisfactory than occasional, longer breaks: e.g., a 5-10 minute break after 50-60 minutes continuous screen and/or keyboard work is likely to be better than a 15 minute break every 2 hours". By law, your employer must let you take breaks as required, in the same way as a building site must give you a hard hat, and for the same reason - employee health.
    – Graham
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 10:39
  • 1
    Timeboxing is a good idea (I know pomodoro is supposed to seem counterintuitive but I agree with Joe that that sounds like more breaks than I would expect). I've had some success with this, but only really when I'm in a stable work pattern, and unfortunately the problem I'm asking about is precisely what tends to destabilise that.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:05
  • Sometimes it’s a break from the screen, other times outside, and sometimes its after 3-4 pomodoros. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t effective at my job. YMMV Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 2:40

Whilst I'm not an expert, three things I've noticed coming up together more than once in the management literature on employee wellbeing are autonomy, competence and relatedness (or social support).

Autonomy means having control over how you do your work and your environment, whereas competence is about being effective in producing results. Too much detailed instruction in your job might compromise one, too little the other.

Things like conflict between work and family obligations will also cause you stress (but I guess you would know if that were happening to you).

Another thing that I know can raise my own stress level (and is now to reduce performance and have a physiological effect) is office noise - people will tell you that they get used to the noise, and maybe they do at some level, but that doesn't mean that the physiological effect goes away.

Perhaps you could try evaluating your job in those terms in case there's something useful there. In particular, if office noise or low control over your physical environment are a problem you could see if you could work at home some of the time (or even look for a work-at-home job the next time you're job-hunting).

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