Dealing with anxiety & panic attacks in crunch mode


#1

I work for a web consultancy and we use the Agile process for our projects. Unfortunately, as a front end developer, that means I usually get hurt by “crunch mode” the most. As delays cascade down the line, my timeline shrinks but the deadline stays put (which is not how Agile is supposed to work, I know). I end up having a panic attack at least once during the week before a deadline, sometimes more than once. This is my first time working for a consulting company with so much focus on time and deadlines so I was hoping I’d get used to the stress, but a year later that’s not the case. Just curious if anyone else has this same issue and can offer ways to deal with it. 99% of the time I love my job, it’s the crunch mode part I hate and I worry about the toll it’s taking on my mental health.

Related to this, here’s a good blog post about why we should get rid of this “crunch mode” mentality: http://chadfowler.com/blog/2014/01/22/the-crunch-mode-antipattern.


#2

Yeah, the agile methodology (as I understand it) kind of falls apart if you have strict, immovable deadlines since the whole point is to keep the development cycle fluid and flexible. It’s not fair that it ends up getting piled on you if people earlier down the chain are slow. Slowness / blocks in the first part of the chain should mean (in true agile) a revised deadline and negotiation with the client/stakeholder. Agile, ideally, should MITIGATE crunch mode.

Have you talked with anyone about this? Do the other people their respect your position and know that it takes a set amount of time and craft too? (I’m a front end dev too, and in my experience both designers and back end people are usually happy to steamroll us because we’re just css monkeys or something.) If you’re really good at holding it together in front of people they may just assume you’re an awesome rockstar who can handle anything they throw at you (and honestly, you probably are if you can get through all these!) but that shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental well being.


#3

I like @hugeguts points about communicating the concerns with others, and the potential downsides of “holding it together.” I’ve been mostly a back-end developer (and later manager) for most of my software career so I’ve been guilty of making assumptions of what front-end developers can do and how quickly, and until I was a manager I didn’t really see the toll on front-end developers that the back-end instability caused.

One thought is along those lines, of being open about the impact of delays as soon as they start happening (the earliest ‘point’ in the cascade, if that makes sense) and see how it is regarded. If with respect, perhaps you’ll find others more considerate of the impact of slips. The other thought is about being able to set boundaries clearly and openly in advance, and be willing to say “no” or present an alternative when the boundaries begin to be crossed. Some folks won’t like this, but in many cases like this, your health and the health of the project will both pay off in the long run.

I don’t know if you’re seeing a therapist or counselor right now, but another thought I had regarding the panic attacks is that you might benefit from working through these with a good therapist in your area. Putting on my therapist hat for a sec, there’s usually some combination of working to reduce external stressors building new stress coping skills that is optimal for each individual’s situation. While you work on the former with your team, it’s possible you might really get something beneficial out of the latter too.

take care!
-David


#4

Yeah, I know if we were truly following the “rules” of Agile, the deadline would get pushed back when other things got pushed back, but that’s very rarely the case. I’m fortunate to have a kickass, understanding boss who I’m always totally honest with regarding my stress level, and there have been ongoing discussions about this [systemic] problem, but not many concrete takeaways. I’m often asked how I can start my work earlier in the process, but I don’t know how to answer that, nor do I really know if that’s even the right solution. Some of my co-workers think (and I’m starting to, as well) that Agile doesn’t work with a consultancy, it always leans toward the waterfall side.

@dnoor, yes I do see a therapist regularly, and she’s helped me immensely with the panic attacks, both noticing when they’re starting to happen and working through them if they gain traction. But as you all probably know, taking control of your mental health is an ongoing process and takes practice, and sometimes anxiety is still able to creep up on me, especially when I get sucked in to computer work.


#5

I’d like to get some tips on how you guys deal with anxiety in crunch mode.

I have a deadline in about 3 weeks. I’ve been struggling lately to crunch as i’ve been working at least 60 hours/week for the last 3-4 months.

I’ve talk a couple of times with my boss about it and I can’t get any slack from him. I’m working at a startup and budget doesn’t allow hiring another web dev.

I’ve tried to reduce the scope of the project, putting on hold features that I don’t think are critical, without success.

In the past, I’ve worked with another startup where I would rarely get into crunch mode. The CTO was a former dev with a wealth of experience and it was really easy for me to work with him. This time, my boss has no experience with web development. It’s almost impossible to discuss issues.

I’ve been talking to other companies as I’m planning to leave in january. Hopefully, I get an offer soon. In the mean time, I would really feel bad leaving before shipping.

I’m making efforts to eat well and sleep but my personal life as been non-existant lately. I’m wondering if there is something else I could do to be more productive.


#6

@sarahconnor @monkeypatching

I saw this thread and just wanted to offer some tips on panic/anxiety attacks that my counselor gave me. It may not work for everyone but it’s worth a try. I used to have panic attacks at my desk as well as asthma attacks and although I “loved” my job, it took me several years to realize that even when the job wasn’t in crunch mode, there were some unhealthy mindsets in that work place that contributed to the build up - so by the time crunch mode did happen, the attacks came. I’d advise to take a careful look at your workplace and ask yourself if it’s really just crunch time or could there be other factors that build up your stress little by little so when crunch time approaches, it’s what “makes the pot boil over” basically.

Anyway, ever since I took a remote job, and with a company with some more understanding people, I’ve had less attacks. When I do have them, I find I’m able to pull myself through them better than before. This is what my counselor has worked on with me.

She told me that when we have an attack, it’s like our “fight and flight” instincts reacting, and all “logic” flies out the window. Our bodies are reacting to this threat whether it’s real or not, and if you let your body win, your “logical” side loses. So to help calm down attacks, you have to force your logic to kick in. The logic side of your brain is the side of you that does math, reads, makes sense of things versus just instincts. So when you’re in the middle of an attack, you can try techniques that force you to think away from the attack.

  • Name objects around the room one by one
  • Count your breathes and slow them down - this doesn’t work for
    everyone, I have a friend that says this makes her worse so it
    depends
  • Read, do a math problem, anything that forces you to think

I had an attack a week ago and found reading the keys on my keyboard helpful while I focused on breathing. She also advised me that when these feelings or thoughts kick in, address the anxiety, not the feelings/thoughts. She recommended activity for anxiety. Sometimes I’d have attacks and just getting up for a walk helped. Activity doesn’t mean you have to exercise and go crazy, just need to move. If you’re not eating or sleeping right, tend to these too. Take care of your body and mind so instead of thinking of it like “how can I fix this anxious thought?” think of it as “my body is anxious right now, what can I do to help fix my body reacting this way?” Sometimes you just need to walk, or to grab some tea, or to have “me time” or call a friend.

She also recommended meditation. I’ve never meditated before but I’m definitely going to look into it. She said to try guided meditations so I can learn first so if that’s something you want to try, go for it.

As for your job, know your limits. I know it’s hard bc for years I put the job first. Before my health both mental/physical and before my family/life. This was a mistake. After my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I started wanting to actually live my life. So ever since, I’ve been trying to make sure I put me first. If a job compromises me taking care of myself or those I love, then it’s not the job I want to stay at.

Hope that helps a bit! Good luck! :smiley:


#7

Thank you for your advice @Rachie

I’ve dealt with full blown panic attacks before. I had to go to the hospital once, many years ago. Bad ones are rare and I know how to deal with the symptoms (moving is good). For some reason the movie theater is a place where I get mild panic attacks… something about being trapped in a dark room I guess…

And you’re totally right about recognizing what is rational or irrational thought.

Your last point about knowing your limits is an important one. I’ve talked with my councellor about listing my priorities on paper: what do I want from job.

I’m trying my best right now to find another job that would be a good match… I talked to a tech recruiter a couple weeks ago and when he described the job, I thought to myself “hell no”. I guess I know what I want… :smirk:

I do think a big reason why so many people here are having issues is because the industry has become toxic, to a certain point. At least in web development, I’m supposed to do a lot more than when I started, 15 years ago. The fact that we now have to support multiple devices doesn’t help… And we can’t really disconnect… emails come in at nights and during weekends.

Unless you work for a fortune 500 with a lot resources, chances are you are underpaid, stressed out and burnt out.

I’ve realized that I can no longer work for web agencies, small teams or start ups. I tried to make it as consultant and failed. It seems that I always end up putting a lot more hours than I want.

So I’m hoping to join one of the biggest tech company in my area, which has a great reputation on Glassdoor (great salaries, lots of vacation time). Hopefully it works out.


#8

@Rachie: Thank you, though I do not have panic attacks I will try them to calm down the next time I get angry or frustrated.

@monkeypatching: unfortunately my experience is that those fortune 500 companies can be as toxic as small ones. They may pay better, but I managed to get several major depressive episodes in there due to bureaucracy, responsibility ‘gaps’ and red tapes all over the servers.


#9

@monkeypatching I’m glad you have a counselor to help out! It took me a little over a year since my mom’s diagnosis and dealing with toxic work enivironments for me to admit I needed someone to talk to. It has really made a difference. :slight_smile:

Definitely communicate with your recruiters. There are a LOT of tech companies who will run their developers dry. On the outside, it seems like a friendly place and then when you’re working for them, you slowly get drawn into toxic mindsets and expectations. Companies try to cover those things up with “perks” like “catered lunches” or x y z benefits but definitely do your research. If the employees aren’t happy and their work/life balances aren’t being respected - no perk or salary raise is worth it in the end. I hope you find something awesome!

I also agree with @Mart in that even Fortune 500 companies can be toxic. I used to work for one and they were a start up who grew at a crazy rate within less than 5 years. I left it and a year-ish later, it’s a sinking ship. Everyone either being let go or quitting and it had to be sold. It won a bunch of awards and trophies, but on the inside, it was falling apart.

@Mart Hope the tips help with being angry and frustrated! Believe it or not, if you’re always angry or frustrated and you don’t know why, this can be a symptom of something else as well. For me, it was part of the “grieving process” my counselor called it from my mom’s diagnosis and my depression re-surfacing. I would wake up angry because I no longer understood the purpose in waking up every morning at some crazy hour to commute and go to a job that I didn’t feel like I belonged at - nothing made sense to me anymore. I had a lot of “whys?!” in my life all of a sudden and I just didn’t want to do anything - and at the same time, I wanted to just do what I want and not be tied to this nonsense of waking of every morning, going to this job and rinse repeat. I knew it was time to leave that Fortune 500 company when one day I just got up from my desk, and practically ran outside for a break. I was so upset, and so angry, I was almost at tears and I couldn’t describe it. I think it was partially a panic attack as well and every fiber in my being was screaming at me to leave that place. Like just sitting at that desk was like lava erupting from my ears even if I had no real logical direct reason for it like someone pissing me off or a bug I couldn’t resolve. It was just too much build up - and I was done.

So definitely look into that a bit. I wish you luck! :slight_smile:


#10

@Rachie, you are right about anger and frustration. In my case, not addressed emotional trauma definitely was a big part that caused depression and anger. Having a counselor/therapist definitely helps to cover up such causes.


#11

Does crunch mode ever actually end? Or do you always just get burned out, quit or get fired, and go into another job where you get put into a new crunch mode? I’ve started to think crunch-mode is like the war in Eastasia, it’s not meant to be won, it’s meant to be continuous.