How to manage stress when your brain is your tool?

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Stress.

Engineers know stress.

IT professionals know stress.

Students and researchers alike know stress.

And stress kills.

Modern medicine is remarkably unanimous about that. Heck, even traditional/alternative health practitioners agree on the fact.

Even if you ignore the risk of dying in the not-so-distant-as-you’d-like future, being chronically too stressed flat-out sucks. (Mind you: short-term stress does have some performance-enhancing benefits. But the key to that is short – like stepping on a competition stage or taking an exam. Not anything in the range of weeks.)

Okay. I get it. It’s baaaad.

But what can we do to not get stressed? Or, if it’s too late for that, how can we get non-stressed again?

There a million tips. If you want a deeper understanding, read a book.

But before you get to that, here are some tips I’ve personally observed to work well.

I’ll begin with the easiest one.

Tinker. Or tailor.

…just leave the soldierin’ and spying to professionals. Ha-ha.

In simpler words, do stuff with your hands.

In all seriousness, using your hands for purposes other than typing can be immensely relaxing for a couple of reasons at least.

  1. It takes you mind out of work, studies, or whatever it is that’s bothering you. It’s amazing, really. Even tasks that require no mental input whatsoever – like dusting your apartment – tend to carry you away somehow. Try it.
  2. It gives you a tangible sense of achievement. Our brains are simply somehow hardwired to derive more satisfaction out of things you can touch. So writing the most awesome piece of software ever written, versus doing the dishes – both tend to rank almost as high on the hormonal level of happiness.

Below are some examples from my own personal life. If they manage to inspire even one of you, I’ll be happy.

Scale models

They require an eternity of gluing together pieces of plastic that are hardly big enough for you to see. Buy a cheap one and chances are they won’t even fit together right.

And the painting. Oh, the painting. Small parts are simply hard to get right. Small parts with more than two colors are simply nightmarish. Believe me. You manage to paint one fighter plane tire and you feel like you’ve just conquered the world.

And the big parts are no easier – they require roughly 15 atom-thin layers of paint to look right.

Picture related.

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Scale model of a Bf-109G I assembled. 1:15 I think.

Crafting of Any Kind

Really, any kind is fine.

But, I’ll use myself as an example.

Below are some Christmas cards-in-the-making, by yours truly plus my wife.

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At the moment, they consist of exactly two parts:

  1. A piece of red cardboard as a base.
  2. A narrower piece of textured cardboard, glued in the middle of part 1.

That’s it. But, even that requires:

  1. Spreading out the glue (the messy kind that gets everywhere)
  2. Sticking the two pieces together
  3. Covering them with tissue paper on both sides
  4. Setting them to be pressed under a pile of books (otherwise, the glue won’t stick).

All combined, that’s like a one-hour-job.

And that’s one hour during which you simply can’t think of work – otherwise you’ll fuck your cards up.

I’d call that a win.

A win for relaxation, that is.

Gingerbread houses

’nuff said.

That thing

Those well in touch with their inner teenager probably snickered immediately once I uttered the words “doing”, “stuff”, and “hands”, in that order.

But yeah, that also has some stress-relieving effects.

Just Start

Bringing their work home – be it intentionally or accidentally – is a huge problem for people in the tech and IT fields.

Problems at work rarely have the courtesy of staying there after 5 pm. Instead, those little pervs follow you home and do stuff with their hands in your closet… Okay, I’ve officially taken that metaphor too far by now.

But my point still stands.

Work should stay at work. When it doesn’t, things get ugly.

I have a simple solution to this problem. Not easy, but simple.

Just start thinking about something else than work.

Simple as that.  And please notice my wording. I didn’t tell you to stop thinking about work – that hardly works. I mean, it’s quite difficult indeed to consciously not think.

Instead, it’s fully within your power to choose what you think.

So, make a mental pact with yourself. The second you step out of the office, decide to think about anything else for the next 16 hours. And the moment you feel yourself slipping (that will come), remind yourself.

Repeat to yourself (aloud, if you like weird looks)

“This is my time off. I will take this time off. I will think of that snowflake there instead.” -You-the-weirdo in the subway, gathering all kinds of looks.

Oh and by the way – notice I didn’t use any negatives there. It’s actually been determined that this type self-reinforcement works significantly better when positive phrases (do this) are used rather than negative ones (don’t do this).

Moving on.

Be Present

Mindfulness is no longer instantly associated with the kind of new-age hippie pseudoscience it may be once was. Instead, it’s become a legitimate relaxation and wellbeing technique, with a growing body of scientific evidence to support it.

It also ties closely to my previous point.

Remember how I told you to think about something other than work? That something might be quite hard to come up with when some pesky little code bug or hardware problem is haunting your thoughts. Luckily, there’s one topic that’s always valid.

That topic is now. Simply take a few seconds to completely focus on what’s happening right now. It can be the sound of some Autumn leaves rustling in the wind, or how your breathing makes the small little muscles between your ribs work.

Or it can be something more everyday-like. Like actually listening what your spouse or flatmate is telling you about their day. Understand why it would be a good thing?

In other words: my definition for mindfulness = not being an absent automaton.

Consistence Prevails, Again

Like most scientifically-probably-valid approaches, mindfulness is no magic bullet. By contrast, consistent effort is needed for it to yield any significant benefits.

In a recent study, the participants took daily meditation sessions, each several minutes long, for a total of six weeks.

In our case, you’ll probably feel your attention slipping away from those rustling leaves and back to the realm of engineering, in approximately 15 seconds or so. But worry not – simply yank your thoughts back! No remorse.

Then keep that up. It’ll get easier. Promise.

Conclusion

Long term stress = bad. Here are some tips to manage it, aimed at STEM professionals:

  • Do mundane tasks with your hands. A weird one, admittedly, but it works.
  • Work following you back home?
    • Stupid approach: trying to not think about work.
    • Smart approach: choosing to think about something else.
  • Preferably, focus on whatever’s happening right now.

Do you have any more tips? Let me know in the comments!

-Antti


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Stress Management – Don’t Let Engineering Kill You

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