May the 24th 2021
Career changes and Mental Health
Career Changes, stress and mental health by Richard Keegan
Spending years of your life in a career you don't enjoy but not being able to figure out how to make a change or indeed even knowing what the right career is can create a lot of stress. This caused me personally to spend large chunks of my life dealing with bouts of depression/frustration - I could never quite distinguish between the two. Frustration leading to anger which in turn led to feeling pretty low about things.
I was desperate to find something that I actually enjoyed and that had some sort of meaningful purpose.I realise that some could perceive this as being fairly trivial thing - that I should just grow up, be a man etc (advice various people gave me) but ultimately if your problems are real to you - then they're real. Regardless of whether there is an official medical diagnosis. They were real enough to cause various stress-related physical pain over the years ranging from heart burn, insomnia, deafness, jaw pain, tooth pain and many more.I thought I would share my own experiences of this in case it may they be of value to someone else.
Things I did to facilitate change and the coping mechanisms I developed to manage stress/anxiety. Things that I've realised I still need to do every day to feel ok - even though I've now resolved the career problem. Of course cold water and swimming play a big part in being ok but along the way I picked up a few other habits which have helped. This isn't scientific advice and anyone who is really feeling low should find someone to talk to - I'm lucky that I have an understanding partner who puts up with all my moaning/introspection.
While never suffering from clinical depression - I could always get out of bed - equally I could sulk for days about my lot in life and wonder what the point was of doing anything. From the outside I still probably looked like everything was fine, I like to think I'm a relaxed guy - funny even (on occasion) but internally in terms of work/what I wanted from life I was a mess.
There wasn't a day went by when I wasn't down about my job - it's quite hard to switch off from it when you have to go there 40 hours a week. To be clear I had what would be considered a good job - so I'm aware that I'm writing this from a position of relative privilege and although I'm not from a particularly wealthy family - quite the opposite in fact, I do have parents who always support me and told me that anything was possible.
I had a good education and Linda and I both bought houses at a relatively good time - in order for us to later use this money towards the business. However, depression/anxiety/frustration doesn't really care about any of that I've realised from my own experience. Our own personal problems are very real to us even if to others they may seem trivial as I mentioned above.
My lowest point was definitely just after our daughter was born which although was amazing - I felt more and more and pressure to be the kind of parent that our daughter could look up to. Rightly or wrongly I felt a big part of that was having a parent who loved their job - who was doing something meaningful. A parent who was willing to take risks to find that job - not one who was simply going through the motions each day to take a pay cheque. (There's nothing wrong with this by the way - happiness is a very personal thing. I just personally wanted more). It was during this period (probably not helped by many sleepless nights and the stress of being a first-time parent) that for the first time in my life I could relate to people who have committed suicide. When the voices in your head about what a loser you are won't go away and are endlessly nagging at you - you start to consider anything that will make them stop.
My mental health has been improving steadily over the last 6 or 7 years or so. Mostly since I decided to try and sort myself out and put some systems in place to help - once an engineer always an engineer. I feel lucky that I had systems/coping mechanisms in place pre-pandemic as it's helped a lot over the last 12 months particularly. We love running the business and feel like we've both finally found our passion but there are lots of downs for all the ups at the best of times and the last year just amplified that massively.
We launched officially just 2 weeks before lockdown, our dog went blind 2 weeks after lockdown, we had a baby a month or so after that and home-schooled our daughter for the best part of 9 months and I lost my Grandma - most likely from Covid. In terms of managing my own mental health it’s definitely something I need to work on daily and especially so after the last 12 months.
The Worry Box
I realised around the time that I was super low that even if I managed to resolve one thing I was worrying about something else that would take its place. I started to visualise a box inside my brain where the worries are kept - pretty stupid but it helped to me visualise what was going on. My brain doesn't like there to be any space in this box. If there's a gap my brain will find something else to pop in there to worry about. One in one out. Even if you do manage to empty the box - you’ve paid off some debt, or got your promotion. The brain will very shortly find a whole bunch of other things to put in the box. Which you’ll worry about just as much in my own experience. This box is most likely a different size for all of us - the size of it could be partly genetic, partly our upbringing or our outlook.
I think this relates to hedonic setpoints or hedonic treadmills which I was reading about just recently. We all have our own baseline level of happiness - and that whatever good or bad stuff happens to us - we tend to resolve back to our baseline. Some people are generally always happy - and some are always low. External events don't really change this baseline but I think we can work on things internally to help make our baseline level happier. I was generally happy externally at surface level but the core of me that wanted to have a meaningful career always felt pretty low. I felt like my life was going nowhere and rightly or wrongly that became quite consuming. People asking me what I did (which English people like to do) would fill me with dread and always make me feel pretty useless afterwards - sometimes for days. This went on for 20 years more or less. Intense bouts of frustration/anger/sulking/depression. I carried around so much anger/frustration/stress about this it manifested itself in various physical problems - I was deaf on and off for a year or so on one side, various jaw problems/pain, chest pains, vison problems and pins and needles down the left side of my body (I went to hospital after this one). I'm not entirely sure who I was angry with but I would blame everything and everybody for my work situation while failing to take personal accountability for it. No doubt external factors can play a part in things but we really just have to focus on what we can control - which ultimately is just our own actions.
Deciding to make a change
Deciding to make a change. I decided around 2014 that before I sunk any lower I needed to try and sort myself out - for me but also for Linda and our new daughter. Years of sulking, boozing and watching endless tv hadn't so far accomplished my goals and as Einstein said : "Insanity is repeating the same behaviour and expecting different results" Apparently he was talking about quantum mechanics when he said this - where you can get a different result from the same behaviour - you can also be in two different places at the same time - which would be handy! First of all I needed to figure out how to go about making a change. I've always had a slight obsessive compulsive behaviour, which can work for and against you. If channelled towards positive things it can be good - but terrible when pointed at destructive behaviours.
In a moment of real despair I decided I needed radical action. For me this was stopping the booze (for what turned out to be a year), starting to read and working on my procrastination habit.If you decide to skip the whole thing the main takeaway is that healthy habits are probably the single most important thing to living well for body and mind. Willpower is fine at the start but when that runs out you need systems to rely on.Our body doesn't like to think about things - it likes do do things on auto-pilot. Which is why we can generally end up stuck in ruts for a long time.
The first thing I decided to do was stop drinking. I managed a year in the end. I still have the odd drink these days but the daily drinking is no more. If I was going to change my life then this seemed like a good start. This was incredibly hard but got easier after about week 4. I wouldn't say we were alcoholics but we could get through 2 or 3 beers and half a bottle of red each every night. I think the problem with this is that the brain associates alcohol with relaxing and then thinks that it needs it. I realised after a while that a lot of the effect of relaxing from having a drink I could get from other things - playing a video game for half an hour at the end of the day, a bath, reading. Even just opening a can of sparkling water as a trigger to relax to replace the opening of a can of beer I found super helpful. I still find it a bit boring not drinking to be honest - and I definitely had a drink or two after the pandemic started but generally If I drink now it's more to celebrate things - rarely to commiserate. I can just about tolerate hangovers if things are going well; if things aren't going well then mentally I can end up in quite a dark place.
Having not read since I was maybe a teenager I decided that this was also a good place to start. It's now a habit that I enjoy but I still need to work at it. I have phases of reading a book every couple of days, and phases where it's every couple of months. I'm always happier when reading though. Mostly at the start it was self-help type books. Some of the ones I remember from the start are:- Eat that frog Brian Tracy- Who Moved my Cheese - Dr Spencer Johnson- Feel the Fear and Do It Anyways - Susan Jeffers- The Slight Edge - Jeff Olson (this one had a particularly strong effect on me - this was the first book that I read about not needing be amazingly better each day - just 1% better each day compounds to 37x better over a year. I think James Clear talks about this also in Atomic Habits - this was mainly why I stopped drinking as this definitely made me at least 1% worse each day) I think it was from these books that I read somewhere about willpower being finite -that you run out of it during the day the more you use it or the more choices you have to make. So unscientifically I thought well - if it's like a muscle - that it's get tired maybe you can train it like a muscle. Willpower and procrastination seemed like partners in crime to me.
The third thing was to start work on my procrastination which I would need to kick-start everything else. For one reason or another I decided if I could get out of bed in the morning and the first thing I did from stirring/waking was to walk straight in to an ice cold shower this would be good for my willpower/procrastinating.
I think this came from the Eat That Frog book - the title of which is from the Mark Twain quote about eating a frog first thing in the morning - doing your most unpleasant task first. You should probably check with a Doctor before doing this but it taught me a few things about cold showers but also life. Taking the first step is the hardest willpower wise but once you do you'll wonder why you waited those 10/15 minutes filling yourself with dread. For me a career change was like that - but the wait was 20 years!
Transition is hard - the body doesn't like change - going from hot to cold is never a nice sensation but once you're cold you're cold and actually it feels ok (hypothermia excluded). I think any transition generally is like this. You just need to stick with it through the bit that sucks to get to the nice bit on the other side. Learning new things can be like this also - I swore a LOT at the sewing machines at the start! - The trick to the cold showers was controlling your breathing and focus - don't panic, breathe slowly, let your body adapt with the blood flow etc.
This led to one of my most major epiphanies - meditation. I'd always seen meditation as a bit new-age and not for me but the penny dropped that if controlling my breathing and focus could stop me from panicking in the cold water - maybe it could help on dry land also. It also actually taught me that cold water is amazing for resetting mentally. I'd been pool swimming for some time but this habit was the start of my love for cold water/open water swimming. I'm not sure why this is but there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest I'm not the only one for whom it has this effect. It was the cold showers that actually changed my whole morning routine.
I used to sleep in late, wake up groggy, watch some tv etc. It was the cold showers that set the groundwork for my morning routine now which I try to start the day with: - wake up early 4/5am (admittedly the main reason I started waking up early was because I was awake anyway with worry/stress.
I also found since having kids that I need some quiet first thing to sort my thoughts out and plan the day- make a cup of green tea - 2 mins depending on the kettle! - Journal (this is on/off depending how I'm feeling) - 5 mins- Meditate - 10mins - The exercise follows at some point depending on what's happening family wise etc If I start the day with this I'm always a 1000x happier and more productive than if I skip it.
I don't always make the bed but this is a good book which covers that and other other small changes to improve life (he's also a swimmer/Navy Seal :-)).
Make Your Bed: Small things that can change your life and maybe the world - Admiral William H McRaven The Habit Epiphany. So I started to get these things working but then realised this wasn't going to be a quick fix. I would need to be working on all these things consistently - every day ideally.
What I needed was to build habits around all these things. Willpower is good but it's finite as various studies have shown - you can't rely on it every day to get you through.
There's a book called Tiny Habits when he talks about how if you can't do something it's not because you yourself are failing it's because your systems are failing. We can blame ourselves a lot for things not working out - or I did at least amongst other things. Realising that it's not you but your systems that are at fault can help alleviate a lot of the negative self-talk.
Some of the best books I read on forming better habits - that pretty much laid the foundation for everything else:
OK - Nothing new here but for me personally these all help a lot in keeping an even keel. I can skip a couple of these and still be ok but no more than that. The real deal breaker is drinking alcohol - even one beer can leave me hungover for days. For the nerdy people who monitor their Heart Rate Variability (this will be another post) it can negatively affect it for days. The key to building any system is in good habits as mentioned above - I can't recommend that enough.
It may look like a lot but I didn't start with all these. They have just accumulated over time depending on what works etc. Will try to write a longer blog post/article on each one when I get time! Half of these I try to bundle into my morning routine so they're done early and I get a boost mentally for the day that I've already achieved some things.
Cold water: I started with showers and still have a daily cold shower every morning and then in the evening after a hot bath.
Cold water swimming:
Whenever I can - much better than the shower. Both of these really help to reset everything and can give you a zing that you feel the whole day! I know a lot of the evidence for cold water is anecdotal but surely not everybody who does it can be wrong? Wim Hof is worth looking into for some inspiration.
Swimming: We have an outdoor swimming pool a short walk from the house and when you catch it right - swimming in the rain, or with the sun glistening through the water you feel like everything is going to be alright. It's the only sport I do that gives me this feeling.
I've been swimming consistently since 2010 now when I took lessons simply because I kept getting injured running/cycling. It's now my favourite thing to do in the whole world of course and I haven't looked back. Not just the swimming itself but also the community around it. No matter what peoples backgrounds are - the love for the water is a very universal and bonding thing.
Meditation: This is pretty much essential now. I think a lot of my/our stress comes from the monkey side of the brain which likes to worry about everything. Slowly learning to acknowledge this voice but not listen to it - or to not focus on it at least. Various books on meditation and the brain but I liked the following:
A good nights sleep: I do everything I can to sleep well. This is probably the single most important thing after not drinking - but can be hard with stress and anxiety. To help with sleep I've found meditation invaluable and not eating heavy foods late in the evening. I've had many sleepless nights and various stress/anxiety induced panic attacks over the years.
I have permanent tinnitus in one ear which I had to see a hypnotist for to be able to sleep properly and it still bothers me. If I don't exercise then I definitely don't sleep well. I had a phase of exercising to be the point of being exhausted when the tinnitus started - just so I knew I would be able to sleep. There are still times even with exercising when I find my brain starts to worry about stuff and this is where I try to rely on techniques picked up from the meditation to stay calm.
Daily exercise: Usually this is swimming but for various reasons it's sometimes weights/running or whatever I can fit in. I find 9 times out of 10 if I wake up feeling like I can't be bothered then 20 mins of exercise gets me back on track. Habit is the most important thing here. I try not to miss more than 2 consecutive days; I start to feel terrible and a lethargy creeps over me. I sometimes only run around the block, which is less than 5 minutes, but I've still been out and always generally feel better.
Reading - the right books can help alter your mindset. Will start to get some reading lists up on the site. Along with the long reads I try to always have something on the go that I can read in bite-size chunks during breakfast to impact positivity etc. I personally like a lot of the Stoic philosophy stuff - these two as a start: The Daily Stoic - Ryan Holiday Meditations - Marcus Aurelius - A diary from one of the Roman Emperors who basically kept notes to himself for how to handle stress and live a better life. Amazing that the most powerful man in the world at that time still had his insecurities, stress and anxieties that he was battling with. He had people actively trying to murder him which must take anxiety to another level!
Stopped drinking alcohol: Mentioned above. I still drink on occasion but the day to day drinking I used to do I stopped. It doesn't do me any favours positivity wise. When I'm not drinking, I find I'm very solution focused - when I'm drinking I'm very problem focused - dwelling on them rather than fixing them. The alcohol also takes away my clarity and ability to learn which are things that I've started to appreciate.
In general, when I'm not drinking I find I'm more positive, I'm a better parent with more patience, I have more clarity for work, my exercise is better and my sleep is better. When I do drink I sacrifice all those things for a couple of hours of switching off. That's definitely not a good deal. In terms of being 1% better each day - the alcohol definitely makes me at least 1% worse - as a parent, productivity wise, and positivity wise.
Stopped refined sugar/carbohydrates: This sounds a bit extreme. I didn't do this for weight reasons - I just started to see how much of my mood was dictated by cycling up/down from sugar highs and lows. l don't beat myself up if I fancy a croissant sometimes but day to day I generally have no refined sugar/carbohydrates now including things like date syrup, agave syrup, honey etc.
My moods are much more stable. Less peaks and troughs - the troughs could be pretty low. I've found my sharpness mentally has increased hugely when I'm strict with this. Like with most things your palate adapts and now fruit can taste amazing! Journaling/Gratitude Journal: I'm not super strict with this but when I'm doing it I find I'm much happier. It's good to appreciate the smaller things in life and find gratitude for things you otherwise may miss. Having an ice-cream with my daughter, holding the door open for someone. It's also good just to dump the worries from your head onto the paper.
Stopped reading/watching the news daily: I try to keep abreast of what's going on but have unplugged myself from the 24/7 negative feed of news stories. It never makes me feel very good about myself. I like to know facts about what's going on - but most of the news is opinion pieces which can generally have a negative/angry bias.
Conclusions: I’m (hopefully) not preaching with any of this. It’s simply what’s worked for me. Mental health is a very complicated issue and my own issues as serious as they were/are for me are very trivial compared to some. It’s a hard thing to talk about and much of the advice I was given was telling me to just get over it, that's life, grow up and that it’s all in your head.
The systems I use evolved from me being in quite a dark place mentally with frustrations about my purpose/career. I've since realised that even though I'm now doing something I love - there will always be stress and anxiety. It's learning to live with it rather than reaching a place where it's disappeared. Even with the business, any problems we have tend to scale as we grow. If a problem does get solved then another one pops straight up. There are always future unknowns.
I still have worries but the main thing I learned from the meditation is that although you can’t choose the worries popping into your head you can choose whether to focus on them or not - to dwell on them for hours/days/weeks. The more we dwell on them the more fuel we add to the fire, the more they grow.
There is definitely a lot of anxiety created from taking the leap career wise to doing something totally different. Not knowing how things are going to work out can be scary but for me it's nowhere near as scary as staying in a job I didn't like for the rest of my life. Knowing how things will turn out can be much scarier than not knowing.
I'm much happier now taking positive action towards my future and feeling like I'm making a difference than I was dwelling on all the things that were wrong with my life and sulking about them. It's a long term work-in-progress rather than a quick fix but I'm happy I've finally taken the first steps.
The name Usual Objections was sort of forged through this period of sorting myself out. The things that hold us back - sometimes physical, sometimes mental - sometimes both.
If this has helped in any small way then let me know. If I've got stuff wrong then let me know about that also! I will reply!
If you are really struggling then I would recommend speaking with an organisation like the Samaritans. They also have a list of specific organisations that could help.
For addiction problems there are also various specialist companies such as: