Tackling Depression in IT

yana-petrova-wceu-2014

One of the most unique sessions I attended at WordCamp Europe 2014 was Yana Petrova’s presentation on Depression in IT – Why Sometimes Happiness Requires Effort. Petrova, a marketing expert and long-time food blogger, is a member of both the WordPress community and the larger tech community in Bulgaria. She has also worked as an organizer for many local technical conferences over the years.

Her motivation to address the widespread problem of depression in IT grew out of personal experiences with friends and co-workers who were struggling with it. This put her on the path to research the disease and find ways to raise awareness on the topic. I had the opportunity to interview Petrova after the event, and it’s easy to see why she is a person to whom people would come for advice. Her warm, empathetic personality is combined with a rare willingness to listen to others.

Petrova’s experience in food blogging gives her a format for talking about depression in a way that people can understand, which helps to mitigate the stigma that surrounds the issue. We’ll take a look at some of the recipes she shared in her presentation, but first it’s important to have a basic understanding of depression.

Understanding Depression

Nearly everyone knows someone who is suffering from depression, as it afflicts more than 350 million people of all ages worldwide and is the leading cause of disability. In the most extreme cases it can lead to suicide.

Clinical depression is the most severe form, which is often treated with psychological and pharmacological therapies. However, many more people suffer from milder forms of depression from time to time.

In his TED talk, titled Depression, The Secret We Share, writer Andrew Solomon said, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.” He describes his own dark journey of struggling with depression, which he noticed when all the normal activities of life and work began to seem like too much.

One of the things that often gets lost in discussions of depression is that you know it’s ridiculous. You know it’s ridiculous while you’re experiencing it. You know that most people manage to listen to their messages, and eat lunch, and organize themselves to take a shower and go out the front door, and that it’s not a big deal.

And yet you are in its grip and you are unable to figure out any way around it. And so I began to feel myself doing less and thinking less and feeling less. It was a kind of nullity, and then the anxiety set in.

Solomon notes that people tend to confuse depression, grief, and sadness, but understanding the trajectory and duration of these feelings will help to clarify the situation. While grief is explicitly reactive and related to loss, depression doesn’t always have an easily identifiable cause. Some forms of depression will require professional help for the person to regain a semblance of normal living.

Sources or Triggers of Depression in IT

photo credit: Code & Martini by Ivana Vasilj - cc license
photo credit: Code & Martini by Ivana Vasilj – cc license

Depression in the IT industry can be more difficult to address, as many tech workers are intelligent, independent, and in high demand. Three years ago, when Yana Petrova and her colleague first proposed a presentation on depression for a local tech conference, she experienced a great deal of resistance.

“There were a lot of discussions surrounding it and people in the organizations were hesitant to include it,” she said. “They believed that people who are in IT are earning very well, the people who are suffering should just go to the doctor, there’s no need to discuss it at a technical conference.” The presentation was so impactful, however, that some of the top Bulgarian psychologists heard about it and encouraged them to continue raising awareness.

The IT industry has several unique factors that seem to contribute to depression and anxiety. Many people in the WordPress community, in particular, work alone at home as freelancers or with distributed companies. Unless the individual is motivated, this work environment can severely limit healthy social interactions. Additional pressures can also lead to periods of depression, including:

  • Client work and relationships
  • Pressure to always be connected
  • Interaction with the larger development community
  • An industry emphasis on high competency forces workers to continue building skills on top of ever-changing technologies, while also completing daily work
  • Not understanding the limits of your body/emotions

“I think that most of the time they are trying to become really good at what they are doing, which requires most of their attention and most of their time,” Petrova said, commenting on the lifestyle of many developers with whom she is connected.

“When you are reading code, coding most of your time, and doing things related to coding, then a social part is missing – the part related to relationships, self-esteem, knowing yourself. You’re just not going deeper into that, because you are giving your time and attention to something else, trying to be good at something else. Our brain resources are kind of limited.”

Client interaction is also a major cause of stress and anxiety for self-employed professionals. When you work from home by yourself without a team, criticism from clients can have a severe impact on your feelings of self-worth. If you don’t have a healthy reservoir of outside interests and hobbies, you can easily become mired in client negativity.

During Petrova’s presentation at WordCamp Europe, she received questions about how to deal with clients who can damage a developer’s self-confidence. Sometimes clients don’t understand that they are not working with machines but rather real people with families and lives.

“Because a lot of people are working from home, what the client thinks and what the community thinks about their work can be a source of depression,” she said. “Actually, a lot of people have mentioned that clients are sometimes rude in explaining how incompetent they were.” This can have a devastating impact on a developer who is lacking self-confidence, outside social connections, and restorative hobbies.

“Questions about clients wasn’t something I expected, but it’s another vertical to explore,” Petrova said. It has inspired her to start working on a talk about relationships, clients, teams, and how to preserve your team.

Petrova has observed that many people working in IT don’t prioritize knowing themselves and understanding their reactions, although this is not unique to the IT industry. They are often blind to their mental health issues and don’t know when to seek help.

Tips for Dealing with Depression and Anxiety

Petrova’s presentation centered around ways to prevent depression and successfully cope with work-related stress and anxiety. “Depression is not something that defines you for a lifetime,” she said. “It might be just a problem, and it might be that, at this time, happiness requires more effort for you.”

She believes that depression is an important mechanism in the human consciousness. “It’s a signal for us that change is necessary – changes about us or changes somewhere around us.”

Petrova compares cooking recipes to recipes for coping with depression, noting that it’s important to adapt those recipes to work with your preferences and needs. Her presentation highlights five ways that you can discover and create your own recipes for preventing depression from setting in.

1. Take deep breaths.

Deep breathing practices help you to regain calmness and perspective. “They say that graveyards are full of irreplaceable people,” she said. “Actually, we all are, but it’s more important that we are alive, we are here, and we are happy. We can never control everything in the world, and we should never try to take responsibility for all the things here. We often tend to forget that our bodies have their limits and we are fragile.” Deep breathing reminds us that we are not machines.

In addition to breathing, Petrova suggests finding other activities outside of work that will help you to gain perspective on life. “Dedicate special time for your recipes,” she said. “Start spending an hour in the morning with your coffee. Spend Sunday afternoon with someone or with friends,” she suggests.

“But never give away this time. Never give it away for work. Never replace it for something, never sacrifice it. It’s important that you keep this thing and slow down.”

2. Make lists.

Petrova advises people to make lists of recipes that work for them in preparation for moments when it’s difficult to think clearly. “Think of those lists as emergency plans. When the grey veil of depression comes, your rituals may not seem as important or as life-saving as the day before,” she said. “You might not enjoy them as you did before, so you should have a list of things.” Perhaps it’s a list of movies you wanted watch, or places you wanted to visit, a restaurant or recipe you wanted to try.

At the beginning you won’t be willing to do anything from this list. Those things will look silly and you say no this is not the time to do this. You will be preoccupied with all of your worries right now. Force yourself and just pick a thing and start doing it. Start those lists today and obey them frequently.

Petrova shared a few simple items on her own list – i.e. eating avocados, making herself a chai latte, enjoying a local spicy soup. If you maintain a clear list of things that make you feel better, you have some activities to turn to when things start to become stressful at work.

3. Provide small wins.

Make goals for yourself that put you on the path to success with frequent, small milestones. This will help to keep you oriented towards fulfillment. “Another recipe of mine was to keep an editorial calendar,” Petrova said. “Even if I am not feeling well, I already had something planned, so I can keep moving in that direction.”

4. Think about your thinking.

People who excel at solving some of tech’s most complex problems can also be notoriously masterful at avoiding introspection. Petrova approaches the topic of introspection with the idea of “debugging yourself,” a concept with which many in tech are familiar.

She suggests writing your own user manual to document how you work and what keeps you healthy. “Write your own user manual. Start writing a user manual for yourself and imagine you are giving it to someone else. This will help you think more about how you are thinking,” she said.

“You can see that there are a lot of small hacks that can help you feel better. Just imagine how empowering it might be to discover more,” she said.

“This requires a lot of patience and dedication. It usually takes time for reading and time for writing. It takes time to debug your mind.” Petrova suggests writing down all of the things that help your mind work better so that you have that manual for when depression tries to settle in.

“Debug yourself, but if you can’t do it yourself, then try to talk to someone,” Petrova said. “We cannot resolve anything by ourselves.”

5. Learn to listen, learn to share.

You can never underestimate the importance of community in maintaining your mental health. The community is stronger when people overcome their irrational inhibitions and learn to share their stories and listen to each other.

“It’s not really easy to listen the proper way, but you can sometimes save people by listening to them carefully,” Petrova said. “You can empower them by listening to them.

People need to tell their stories to realize what is happening. Sometimes when you are keeping things only in your head, you are not realizing the power of your situation.”

When should depression lead you to seek professional help? “In some official resources, they say if you are feeling like this for four weeks then go find some help,” Petrova said.

“But I think that the more you are getting to know yourself, the more you can feel if you need to meet with someone or talk with someone. The doctor might not be the first person. The first person might be a friend or a relative or someone who is closer to you. Or just someone you see, someone you believe in and decide to tell your story to. I really believe that it’s powerful to tell stories.”

Staying Healthy and Preventing Depression

Petrova recommends a book called The Healthy Programmer, which contains the basics of healthy living for people who work most of the time in a seated position. She believes that movement is especially important for those who work from home and set their own schedules.

The first thing is related to moving/movement. Are you moving enough? Are you doing active things, sports? This is really important, because if you are living where you are working, then you can find yourself in a situation where you are staying home, ordering food all the time. You forget all the healthy things you could do to feel better, for your body to feel better and your mind to work well. It’s really related.

If you’re staying active and able to use your normal problem-solving skills to debug yourself, you will greatly lessen the chances of falling into depression. Building up these habits takes time, but you’re also less likely to be crippled by stress and anxiety. In the future, Petrova plans to start a blog called “The Happiness Cookbook” in order to encourage people to share their recipes with the community.

“Get to know yourself better and your reactions to different situations,” Petrova advises. “You really need a lot of time to know what’s happening to you and to know how to react in a timely way for prevention.

“We all have our stressful moments. We all have our sad moments. You are certain to have them in your lifetime. But you can learn how to prevent your reactions, what to do when depression happens, and the best way to overcome it. The temporary feelings can be over at some point with the help of simple tips, and then you are not going to get depressed. Otherwise, you are just digging into that.”

Obviously, there are some forms of depression that will ultimately require professional help. Petrova’s tips for prevention are intended to help folks before they reach a very dark place where they have lost interest in work completely and are struggling to find vitality.

“Depression means that you need to change something, for yourself, around yourself, about yourself,” she said. “This is the key message. Just research the pain that made you feel like this and start debugging it step by step.”

25 Comments


  1. This is a fantastic article and one that doesn’t come a moment too soon. I especially enjoyed this advice which I really need to figure out:

    Petrova suggests finding other activities outside of work that will help you to gain perspective on life. ‘Dedicate special time for your recipes,’ she said. ‘Start spending an hour in the morning with your coffee. Spend Sunday afternoon with someone or with friends,’ she suggests.

    ‘But never give away this time. Never give it away for work. Never replace it for something, never sacrifice it. It’s important that you keep this thing and slow down.’

    Lots of great tips in this article. Now if I could only act on them instead of staring at them.

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  2. At nearly 50 years old, with 15 self employed years “in the business,” I’ve found the most direct way to counter “the effects” is exercise. This is crazy important. And it needs to be strenuous. A walk in the park is not exercise. Hiking uphill, jogging, or some other strenuous sport for an unrested 30 minute period 3+ times a week is usually enough.

    Diet tends to follow exercise (and rarely the other way around). So start down the path physically and your body will soon tell you what it needs nutritionally.

    Essentially, your body is a learning machine. If you sit and remain inactive your body will simply accept the norm and tune down the things you are not using. This is were all kinds of things start to go sideways, as weight issues can lead to self confidence issues, et al. Lessons learned…

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    1. Good stuff Jim, can’t agree enough.

      I was recently diagnosed with depression and adult add. My wife and have both sort of suspected the depression for some time, and she has been pushing me for years to exercise. I would try, but in the end I just couldn’t get myself to do it. The diagnosis was the catalyst that finally got me moving.

      I’m no ultimate warrior or anything like that but I do exercise pretty much daily now and it has definitely made a difference. I still have my days but I can honestly say that overall I’m in a much better place.

      @Sarah, thanks for the cool article.

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    2. ps. one thing to add –

      .. it needs to be strenuous. A walk in the park is not exercise….

      I agree, but I’d also say that it’s important to not underestimate walks in the park. Fresh air and a leisurely stroll outdoors can also do wonders. :)

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    3. I think you are comparing to people who go for a 10 min stroll in the park. I regularly do +20 km walks and consider that just as effective as running 5 km.

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      1. Ryan, kudos man – +20k walks is awesome! I’m a walker as well but don’t cover nearly that distance. My average is more in the 5k range, but it’s been great for me.

        I’ve taken to listening to business related podcasts while walking and it’s helped me make exercise into something I enjoy.

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  3. This is a great article with great advice and tips, thanks Sarah and Yana :)

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  4. This is a pretty awesome article. I am already mailing this to a couple of guys that from my point of view need to relax a bit.

    Depression in IT is a serious things and need to treated alike.

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  5. If you think that you are depressed then yes, you are , if you think that you are happy, then yes youare happy , you are the one who decide if you’re depressed or not

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  6. Great article Sarah.. I think it hits close to home for a lot of people in our community (for me it does). Figuring out a good life/work balance was the hardest for me, and I always compared myself to the big names in our community. This caused me to try to do too much in too short of a time and neglecting my personal life and health too often. Luckily I seem to have gotten this under control during the last few years.

    I hope that their will be a follow-up or more similar articles like this on WPTavern :-)

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    1. I’d argue that you’re a Big Name, Bowe :-)

      Wellness is critically important – and when we’re all busy taking care of so many other people’s sites and web properties – it is just as important that we take care of ourselves. We must be as vigilant, if not more so, about our own well beings as we are with the work we do.

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  7. I’ve battled with depression my whole life and it’s great to see it coming out into the open like this. Ten years ago I had to leave a good job simply because of the prejudice against sufferers – in journalism you are considered washed up if you admit depression and there’s still a lot to do to educate non-sufferers.

    In my experience it hits people who care about their work and sometimes may have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Self knowledge and recognising when it’s ‘in the post’, then doing something to counter it is the key, and Yana’s recipes will help here.

    Also, for me the turning point came when I left the job I hated and set up my own business.

    Great article, sensitively done, Sarah. Thanks.

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  8. Recipes: Breathe in fresh air, soak up some sunshine, gaze at the beauty of nature, play with a pet. All very grounding, reviving, perspective giving.

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  9. This is a wonderful resource, thank you! I’m going to gently push this under the noses of a few people I know.

    In addition to exercise, fresh air, and good food — a little mindfulness can go a LONG way to help mitigate the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression. I attended a mindfulness-based stress reduction training a few years ago that changed my life.

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  10. You just can’t think yourself happy. I wish. Life balance with work can be challenging – I took on a full-time IT job a couple of years ago after spending years working freelance and it is a huge challenge trying to keep up. If I’m not learning new things, I don’t function as well in my work.

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  11. “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality”, wow, well said.

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  12. I’ve always tended to be on the anxious side of things. Meditation is a really valuable tool to manage anxiety, and rumination for me. I recommend checking out the app Headspace (https://www.headspace.com).

    I meditate daily now, typically when I first wake up. It has a profound effect on the entire day really. Highly recommend it to anyone struggling with depression or anxiety.

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    1. Wholeheartedly agree trentlapinski. Meditation or some form of it can greatly help one’s outlook. I had not mentioned it earlier as even in today’s world it (meditation) tends to qualify folks as woo-woo or a bit nutty. Culture is changing on this–but we have a long way to go.

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  13. I’ve been unhappy, sad, and heartbroken, but folks tell me that those things are not the same as depression. I’m the sort of person that will tell you that if you want to have a good day, simply wake up and smile. Life’s too short and all that. So, it can be difficult for some people (like myself) who have never experienced depression to understand it.

    In the past year, I have talked with a family member who did suffer from depression. For her, she said the things that help the most are having regular activities and surrounding herself with family/friends.

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  14. People that work alone at home are super susceptible to depression, I’ve watched it happen to a few friends and with some of the people I’ve worked with in the past. I agree, unless that person tries to step outside of their box and actually interact with other people outside of the house, it’s really easy to fall into a state of depression.

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  15. Working from home can get awfully lonely at times. And forcing yourself to sit at a desk (or at least stay confined to your home) is not so healthy. You have to get moving and learn to get away from work for a bit.

    I used to routinely respond to work emails at all hours of the night. Now I’ve learned that some things really can wait. I figure if someone really expects answers 24/7, even for small stuff, it’s probably not going to work out between us ;)

    That said, I still do struggle with stress. But if I turn on some great music, take a few minutes to play with the dog, it makes a positive impact.

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  16. Many parts of this article hit the nail on the head. Difficult clients who unload on you (and sometimes swear in their email) think that it is their right and you will not be affected because it’s done via email and they need their job done. Now. And for it to work on every device known to man.

    Well, we do get affected and usually have many emails like that come in during a day.

    Aside from regular lunchtime yoga and indoor soccer (both once a week), I also use music at work and planning to “follow” some online sporting events (soccer) things that bring me back and give me something to look forward to. Coffee with a friend helps us to talk about things which frustrate us.

    Oh, and riding my bike home in the rain. ;)

    Good luck everyone. We are not alone, thankfully.

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