The Programmer’s Guide to Health & Well-Being in Challenging Times
Staying physically and emotionally healthy during challenging times is never easy. And it's safe to say that the past few years have been nothing if not challenging. Between the pandemic, war, climate change, and an inflation rate that's managed to hit a 40-year high, there have been plenty of external stressors going around for everyone. And, if you're working as a programmer, chances are you've dealt with some stressful career challenges too—at least from time to time.
Research has shown that unmanaged stress leads to various health problems, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and accelerated aging. So, your focus should be on protecting your physical and mental wellness, especially during trying times.
But even if you're not going through a difficult time at work right now, keeping your health in check is essential. Studies have shown that IT professionals tend to score lower than average when it comes to their well-being. In fact, a 2015 study surveying 1,000 IT professionals revealed that:
- 56% had musculoskeletal symptoms
- 22% were diagnosed with hypertension
- 10% suffered from diabetes
- 36% had high cholesterol levels
- 54% suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia; and
- 40% were obese.
And, if you look at more recent data about employee well-being, you’ll find that the top three causes of long-term absence in the UK in 2021 included mental health issues (affecting 50% of respondents), musculoskeletal injuries (48%), and stress (48%). Minor illnesses and COVID-19 also contributed to employee absenteeism over the past 12 months, but their impact was felt mostly on a short-term scale.
The good thing is that people (and employers) are beginning to realize the importance of staying healthy. The wellness market is rapidly growing (valued at $4.37 trillion in 2020 with a projected growth of $7 trillion by 2025). Additionally, more than 50% of people are looking to prioritize health-related issues over the course of 2022.
But what, exactly, does it take to maintain (or even improve) your overall health in challenging times?
Well, it could be argued that the best way to go about it is to make gradual changes and address each of the six aspects of your well-being so your body and mind are prepared to deal with the stressors life keeps throwing at you.
This post includes suggestions for how to do just that—optimize your wellness in a way that will help you mitigate the consequences of stress, whether you know you’ve got a challenging period ahead of you at work or just want to be prepared for whenever life decides to throw a curveball your way. Moreover, it provides some helpful tips for assessing your overall wellness, dealing with large amounts of stress (both at work and home), knowing when to push or take it easy, and achieving a work-life balance while working a high-stakes job.
The first step toward making positive changes to your overall well-being is getting a clear image of the current state of your health.
Generally, the recommendation is to have a routine checkup once every three years, increasing the frequency to once per year after age 50.
Every time you go in for a checkup, your doctor will run the necessary tests to determine your overall state of health. And more importantly, they will give you recommendations regarding what areas of your physical well-being you need to address (along with prescribing any necessary therapy or medication you may require).
However, if you regularly encounter high-stress situations, your priority should be safeguarding your well-being. And there’s plenty that you can do yourself in case you don’t always have access to quality healthcare or simply prefer to stay on top of the state of your physical wellness.
The best way to improve your overall health is to become actively involved in your physical well-being.
- Measure your BMI with freely available online tools.
- Set up your wearables to track your heart rate and alert you of any irregularities.
- Track your blood pressure (with a home blood pressure monitor or at your local pharmacy).
These activities will only take up a few minutes of your time per day. Yet, they'll give you valuable insights into the state of your well-being, allowing you to take better control of your physical wellness.
Track Health Issues
The second easy thing you can do to get a better idea of your overall physical well-being is to set up a health tracking system. This will give you an in-depth database regarding the state of your physical health and, more importantly, will help draw attention to recurring symptoms, allowing you to track their root cause and seek any necessary medical attention on time.
Notion has a few detailed health and wellness-oriented templates you can use to track your well-being. However, any note-taking app (or the generic health app on your phone) will work equally well for recording daily health metrics.
Be Open to Acknowledging Your Body's Limitations
Lastly, as you endeavor to invest time and energy into boosting your physical well-being, don't forget to account for the fact that you're only human. And that means your body is not perfect.
Yes, most of us will deal with some acute or chronic health issues (especially as we pass the age of 30). Accepting the fact that the third cup of coffee after lunch, a three-hour training session, or that extra glass of wine aren't doing us any favors is crucial in ensuring that our physical condition is the best it can be.
Physical activity is essential for health and well-being. Yet, have you noticed that the moment you start experiencing high amounts of stress, the first thing that seems to go is your fitness regime?
If you have, you can rest assured that it's not just you. In fact, a literature overview that looked at the results of 168 studies examining the influence of stress on physical activity concluded that “psychological stress predicts less PA (behavioral inhibition) and/or exercise or more sedentary behavior.”
But even though putting exercise on the back burner to allow yourself time to cope with life's challenges may seem logical, science suggests that it's the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
Physical activity is an excellent way to de-stress; research suggests that some forms of exercise might actually be the key to properly managing stress.
According to Harvard Health, aerobic exercise reduces adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates the production of endorphins—the hormones making you feel relaxed and optimistic.
So, if you're dealing with overwhelming situations at home or work, why not put on a good pair of walking shoes and go for a 30-minute stroll around a nearby park during your lunch break or after work? Even a short stroll will get your creative juices flowing.
Plus, a study from 2018 discovered that walking in nature was one of the most effective ways to lower cortisol levels, more helpful than just exercise or viewing nature scenes through a screen. So, if you’re looking for ways to de-stress, perhaps you should put down your phone and choose to go to a nearby park instead. Or, better yet, incorporate walking in natural settings into your weekly routine and reserve the weekend for a fun hiking adventure.
If walking, running, or a HIIT session doesn't feel appealing while you deal with life's challenges, you can still reap the benefits of physical activity while taking things a bit slower.
A quick way to slow down during high-stress situations and soothe your anxiety is to do a few minutes of breathing exercises, which you can even do at the office. If you have an Apple Watch, make sure to check out the stock Mindfulness app that was introduced in the 2021 software update. Or, if you don’t use wearables, you could play around with an app like Endel, which uses neuroscientific data to create relaxing and focus-boosting soundscapes.
Finally, understand that physical activity isn't just about preventing physical health issues or managing stress. It's a key component in keeping depression and anxiety under control, which is crucial seeing as many programmers are affected by mental health issues. So, knowing that stopping exercise can result in increased depressive symptoms, according to a study from the University of Adelaide, do your best not to neglect your physical fitness, even when things get tough.
If exercise isn't currently a part of your overall well-being routine, try to incorporate it into your everyday life by starting slowly and adding activities you enjoy.
Most people engage in some sort of unhealthy eating behavior when stressed or overwhelmed. For example, the American Psychological Association has found that almost 40% of adults overeat or eat unhealthy foods to deal with stress, and 30% skip meals due to the same factor.
This, in itself, is worrying enough.
Now, consider the stereotype of the programmer who lives off junk food. It may not always be true, but it’s—at least partially—rooted in real-life experience. So, it becomes evident that developers need to pay particularly close attention to their nutrition. Even more so, considering that their profession strongly encourages a sedentary lifestyle.
And remember, unhealthy eating habits aren't just a symptom. They can also be the underlying cause of several physical and mental health issues.
For instance, we know that high sugar and fat intake comes with a list of severe consequences to our physical health. And one research article from 2016 discovered that eating a predominantly Western diet could lead to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and heightened stress response.
So, as you explore ways to take care of your health and well-being during challenging times, don't forget to pay attention to your nutrition.
- Start by determining exactly how much you need to eat. An online macro calculator can give you a good idea of what nutrients to look for in a healthy and balanced meal without limiting yourself to a specific diet.
- Track your calorie intake with an app such as Lifesum or MyFitnessPal. These will give you a good overview of the types of food you're eating, stop you from eating too much or too little, and encourage you to take a more proactive approach to stick to a healthier diet.
- Prioritize foods that fight the negative consequences of stress. These include foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (nuts, avocados, and fish oils), vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals (like leafy greens), and high-fiber foods. For more information on this, we highly recommend you read The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition by Bonnie J. Kaplan and Julia Rucklidge.
- Limit your intake of stimulants such as caffeine and sugar, as these inhibit your body's ability to relax. Moreover, when consumed in excess, they can cause you to feel overwhelmed even if you're only dealing with small amounts of stress.
Most people don't view their physical appearance as an indicator of their overall well-being.
But if you want to holistically improve your physical and emotional health—and your ability to handle high-stress situations—you should consider all the ways you could invest in yourself. Even if that only includes something as “superficial” as how you dress, style your hair, or your skincare routine.
Now, the fact that stressful situations directly affect the way we look isn't a new concept. For example, we know that long-term stress exposure makes acne worse and speeds up the process of skin aging. Similarly, a study from 2020 found that acute stress causes the depletion of melanocyte stem cells, which results in gray hair. And one research study even found that stress and depression impact people’s choice of clothes.
But what, exactly, does investing in your physical appearance have to do with maintaining your health during challenging times?
Well, one study from 2019 discovered that how people see themselves, i.e., their level of appearance judgment, directly impacts their cortisol response, self-assessed stress levels, and depressive symptoms. In other words, the worse we feel in our skin, the lower our chances are of being able to deal with pressure.
So, if you want to make sure that you’re doing everything in your power to prepare your body and mind to deal with stressful situations, invest in your appearance. Play around with skincare products you like, make salon appointments, or book a spa day every once in a while. As long as it makes you feel better about your appearance, it's guaranteed to be beneficial in helping you handle life's challenges.
It's not exactly news that going through trying times has a disruptive effect on sleep quality. Feeling stressed can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Plus, it can cause you to wake up during the night. And, sure, feeling groggy after a poor night's sleep may not seem like that big of a deal. But because chronic sleep deprivation weakens the metabolism and disrupts endocrine function, it's safe to say that ensuring you get plenty of rest makes for a super-important aspect of staying healthy during challenging times.
Unfortunately, most IT professionals aren't that good at prioritizing sleep.
According to data published by Core in 2020, 74% of IT professionals get less than eight hours of sleep per night. And according to the APA, adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who pay attention to healthy sleep hygiene. From this information alone, it becomes clear that prioritizing rest could be an effective strategy to help you stay healthy during high-stress life events.
But what does it take to get your sleeping patterns under control when dealing with work-related stress? Well, there are a few easy strategies you could implement to ensure you get higher-quality rest each night.
Blue light emitted from computer and smartphone screens directly affects your circadian rhythm, delaying your body's natural production of melatonin. But, something as simple as limiting your screen time in the afternoon and at night can give you a chance to wind down and fall asleep more easily.
If you have to work late due to a looming deadline or an emergency, dim your screen. Furthermore, set the color temperature to be warmer, or even wear a pair of blue light blocking glasses to minimize the consequences of working before bed.
Another great thing you can do to improve sleep quality is to ensure your bedroom is a sleep-only zone. Many of us are guilty of bringing our laptops into the bedroom—especially when working from home. This lack of boundaries makes it more difficult for our brains to associate rest time with the bedroom, which is often enough to make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
You could also try to optimize your physical space for maximum sleep performance. Try to sleep on a comfortable bed to prevent body aches. Set your thermostat to somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees. Add a couple of plants to your bedroom to ensure better air quality. And invest in some blackout curtains to limit light and noise pollution at night.
Finally, as you attempt to maintain your health during stressful times in your life, don't forget that wellness doesn't just relate to your physical state. Much more than that, well-being should also incorporate emotional resilience, which is crucial in allowing you to take on professional and personal challenges and get through them without becoming overwhelmed or burning out.
So, whether you're dealing with tough times or want to prepare yourself for future trials, invest time and effort into building mental strength and developing healthy coping mechanisms for stressful situations.
One of the easiest ways to invest in your mental health is to make time for your hobbies. A recent scientific study examined the connection between long working hours and mental well-being. What's fascinating about the results is that having hobbies helped workers mitigate the effects of a stressful work environment.
So, it's clear that taking the time to do what you love like working on puzzles, practicing mindfulness while paddleboarding, or playing video games—represents an excellent strategy for safeguarding your emotional health. However, considering the fact that, as a developer, you probably spend the majority of your work hours sitting in front of a screen, try to choose hobbies that will encourage you to incorporate more movement into your day or spend some additional time in a natural setting.
Another excellent way to invest in your well-being during challenging times is to seek more opportunities to spend time with friends and family. According to Psychology Today, the benefits of having an active social life include longevity, a stronger immune system, lower levels of depression, and improved memory and cognitive skills.
When dealing with high-stress situations, our most common reaction is to push through. But while putting up with some stress may be necessary at times, doing it all the time takes a toll on our overall well-being. This is why it's so important to know when enough is enough.
For one, do your best to limit how many hours you work. Block out hours in the afternoon to practice your hobbies. Enforce a hard-stop time at the office. And try to commit to viewing your free time as non-negotiable—without sacrificing your commitment to work, of course. Or, if you’re looking for a more advanced approach to work-life balance, take inspiration from Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek.
Secondly, take regular time away from work and, ideally, try to change your physical environment. A well-planned vacation is a great way to de-stress, become energized, and boost your happiness levels. However, to reap the benefits of stepping away from work, do your best to avoid travel stress by learning to find affordable flights, staying at a highly-rated hotel, and planning your visit in advance.
Finally, as you explore strategies that will help boost your emotional well-being, don't forget that a lot of the pressure you feel comes from your own expectations. So, assess whether you could be more forgiving toward yourself.
Do your best to prioritize what really matters in life. And consider whether giving yourself the freedom to take things slow most days might just give you the energy you need to push hard when it's actually necessary.
Take Your Health and Well-Being Into Your Own Hands
At the end of the day, taking care of your physical and emotional wellness is a responsibility. But, it's also an investment worth making.
Not only will being happy and healthy allow you to feel good in your skin, but it will also ensure that you are productive and satisfied at work. Plus, it will enable you to tackle any challenge without it becoming too much too soon.