Sources

Anxiety is a problem for millions of people around the world and can range from being a slight unease in the chest to a full-blown panic attack. Not everyone will experience it the same way and rarely have I seen people who do not battle anxiety on a regular basis understand how it can affect someone. In my case, the strain that I feel most often is social anxiety, which generally appears almost every time I’m in a crowd without a pair of headphones on. What I don’t understand is why this feeling exists at all.

Social anxiety is a mental disorder where a person is incredibly nervous when in a social situation. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort, a tight chest, lightheadedness, and a 'negative loop' of feeling anxious about any anxious feelings. Panic attacks may also occur if the right conditions cascade into each other. I’ve yet to experience a sense of panic when out shopping at a crowded mall or even when on a train in Tokyo. Everything else, though, is a regular occurrence to such an extent that I’ve started to actively avoid going to busy places unless I am alone and wearing headphones. When in a crowded place by myself, it’s possible to push away the oppressive claustrophobia that comes with being surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people who generally stand a little too close to others. This is generally impossible when out with Reiko or the boy because both enjoy talking in a near-nonstop fashion, and not answering questions or being part of a conversation/soliloquy is not an option. So, when out and about with the family, I generally keep the ears open to keep the peace at the cost of enjoying the different environment.

This has been “just the way it is” for years, and I’ve usually associated this with my strong dislike of unstructured noise. When people congregate somewhere, conversations and other sounds blend to become virtually incoherent, which makes it a challenge to hear what anyone is saying. However, after a bit of an anxiety issue today that resulted in a feeling of oppressive claustrophobia where I wanted everyone in a crowded park to “go away”1. The feeling is completely irrational and I understand it as such, but anxiety is really hard to control.

As the feeling generally crops up when I’m surrounded by noise, I’ve been paying attention to how loud a place is in order to maintain some semblance of sanity when outside. However, Reiko seems to think that my problem is not sound, but sleep.

This past week I’ve been working pretty long hours to accomplish a number of tasks and objectives. From Sunday to Friday, a six-night period, I managed to get about 27 hours of sleep. Nozomi gets more than this in two days, and the boy gets it in three. Generally when I am not getting enough sleep I have difficulty focusing on voices and this results in conversations coming across as incoherent noise rather than communicative language. As the ears get tired2, noise increases, which leads to anxiety, which leads to lots of frowning or a strong desire to escape the current environment, even if it’s just my living room. Reiko thinks it’s better if I get to bed before midnight every day, understanding that sometimes I’ll be waking up at 4:45am for early-morning meetings.

The idea does have merit. Generally I’m battling the strong desire to fall sleep between the hours of 2:00pm and bedtime. The body or, more likely, the mind is clearly trying to tell me something. My concern is that by spending more time in bed there will be less work accomplished. Reiko’s concern is that if I’m always focused on getting work accomplished, then a serious burnout isn’t too far off.

Two decades ago I could push myself pretty hard and the consequences were minimal. I’m clearly not as resilient today, and adjustments must be attempted. So, with this in mind, I’ll set a goal for myself to be in bed by 11:30pm every night, as this will mean being asleep before midnight. The trick will be to tell the mind it’s time to shut down for the night.


  1. By “go away” I mean leave and/or give me and my family a good 50 meters of space.

  2. I know it’s not the ears, but the brain. That said, this is generally how I describe the issue.

A Place to Relax

Over the last few weeks I've been trying to remember the last time I felt really relaxed for more than a handful of hours. "Slow time" has all but disappeared since moving out of the classroom and into a development role at the day job. This isn't just because of all the new responsibilities and expectations that arose from the career shift, but a rapid series of changes at home, too.

Reiko received her master's degree in March of 2016 and almost immediately received an offer to work at a university, a dream she's had for as long as I've known her. Then I moved into my new role at the day job. A few weeks later we discovered Reiko was pregnant with the boy. Then we invested a great deal of effort into getting everything and everyone ready for a new member of the family. Then the boy was born, which drastically changed … everything. While getting accustomed to parenthood, we took on the challenge of buying a house, which I've documented on this site quite a bit.

And all the while Nozomi patiently waited for everything to slow down and return to normal. Or as normal as one can hope for, considering the new addition to the family.

One of the many things I've wanted from moving into our new home is the ability to slow down and enjoy time with the people and puppies closest to me. While there are still a lot of constraints as everyone settles into the new neighbourhood, I have made sure to set aside an extra bit of time for Nozomi. She doesn't ask for much aside from nice walks, nice tummy rubs, and a nice meal twice a day. These things are not too much to ask for and, fortunately, there is a lovely photogenic park literally 45 seconds from our front door.

Nozomi Enjoying the Scenery

Nozomi Exploring the Grass

Hopefully Nozomi doesn't mind if I use our walks to do a little photography.

It Can't Be That Bad

Over much of the last six months, I've been battling a slow-losing battle with the Demons of Self-Doubt. They sneak into thoughts and ideas, sowing the seeds of uncertainty everywhere. After a number of months, one is left wondering whether there's ever any such thing as a "good idea". Many people all over the world struggle with a ceaseless pessimism, and a high percentage of people likely listen more often than they should. When I'm feeling particularly low, one thing I tend to do is just do a random image search for simple words that describe abstract concepts, such as "happiness".

Happiness

Looking at these top search results, I can't help but wonder if the results would be exactly the same if I were to look for images that describe "freedom". This is what most of the pictures say to me, and it likely goes without saying that people who feel the most free are likely the most happy with life. I'm more like a fish in a Kool-Aid pitcher-sized bowl.

Is This Freedom?

Is this feeling of entrapment the result of life changes involving young people and large mortgages? This most likely plays a large part of it. But the intrinsic pessimism that burrows itself deep into my creative processes isn't helping matters at all.

While it's still way too early to know what 2018 might have in store1, I do know that some changes need to be made at the day job as well as with my personal time management. This coming year simply cannot be as rushed as this one, where every spare minute is dedicated to some fabricated priority. There must be time to sit down to think. There must be time to sit down to play. There must be time to shoo the Demons of Self-Doubt away.


  1. aside from moving into a new house, that is

Time and Space

The last few months have gone by in a flash, with people demanding so much time and attention that I've scarcely had time to think about myself or even sit down to read a book for fun. Just about every waking minute has been put to use for some grand purpose with deadlines that are always set in the past, giving an added octave to the sense of urgency others project when discussing these arbitrary dates. I look forward to a time in the very near future when I can just shut the world out for a few hours, sit back, and truly relax with some nice music and maybe a jigsaw puzzle. Anything is welcome, so long as it does not require a great deal of brainpower or interpersonal communication.

Open Field

Many years ago, while living in Vancouver, I would often set aside Sundays as an "offline day". In the morning I'd do laundry and clean the apartment. In the early afternoon I'd buy the groceries I would need for the coming week. Around 3:00pm everything would be done and I'd have a good seven or eight hours to enjoy as I pleased, which usually involved playing one of the many Need For Speed racing game editions. When the weather was nice, though, I'd do something different and head to a cafe in the next town over to read a book in quiet isolation. This was the time and space I would often need in order to "reset" my mind and prepare for the coming week, with all the silliness that comes when working alongside others in a corporate environment.

After moving to Japan, time and space were two things that seemed to be in short supply. That said, after a bit of adaptation, it was possible to carve out a few hours every week where I'd just "disappear" for a while during the day and recharge. This often involved reading a book, playing sudoku, or just people watching somewhere out of the path of traffic.

The schedules as they are now, however, leave very little time for rest or relaxation. I've not been able to give Nozomi her regular long walks anymore, as there simply isn't enough time in the day. This isn't just because there's a new member of the family who wants and needs attention, nor is it the fast-moving house purchase, nor is it the day job and the endless parade of emails and personality clashes that come with the work. Instead it's the expectations I have built into my weekly goals that are no longer being met that's giving me the stress that I would once whisk away with some quiet time. It's something within me that needs to be changed.

But how can I do this without the necessary room to mentally work through the reality that time and space are no longer resources that I have ample of? As someone who tends to introspect and overthink a great deal, this isn't something I can "just get over". That's not how my mind works. That's not how the Selfish Me accommodates lifestyle changes. Instead what I need to do is find a new outlet; a new way to unwind, rest, and relax without asking for several hours a week of alone time.

The question that needs to be answered now is how? … which will undoubtedly take a bit of time.

Not Doing Too Good

The last few weeks have been pretty rough as it seems there are too many people vying for some of my time, my experience, my presence, or some combination thereof. These things are often freely available in moderation. When there are too many demands for the same resources, though, constraints can drive a person's stress levels through the roof. This is where I find myself this week.

The Sacred Bridge in Nikko

Being angry and frustrated is not a wonderful thing. Creativity cannot thrive under these conditions, yet it seems that whenever a person is under the gun to deliver before a bunch of arbitrary deadlines, creativity is needed in excess. While it's not at all realistic, I'd really like to take all 26 of my banked holidays at work and go for a walk with Nozomi every morning rather than head into the office where it seems artificial problems wait and artificial priorities jostle for artificial expedition which results in a very real lack of time for larger priorities. When asked why the larger priorities are yet to be completed, people are told about the other items that managed to jump the queue … not that it matters. Apparently, when items are deemed "too important to wait", they are to be resolved alongside the larger projects, as though we all carry with us two or more extra arms that can be deployed in such a scenario.

It's ridiculous.

How many times must a person refocus during the day before they can begin to work on the things they're expected to complete? Given that very little of what any of us does today will be remembered in five years time, why is there always so much of a focus on artificial priorities?

We spend so much time stressed out over the imaginary objectives of people who pretend they own us that we ignore the very real objectives that drive us to get out of bed in the morning. Looking at all the things that are stacking up in front of me, I'm not even sure why I even leave the house in the morning.

I'm not doing too good.

Remembering to Breathe

Like many people around the world, I tend to work a little too hard when sitting in front of the computer. I'm very fortunate to be working on not one, not two, but four different projects for different groups of people to solve different objectives with ultimately the same goal. Very few people can say this. And while I might shout and holler when managers get in the way and make decisions I strongly disagree with, things could genuinely be worse. So why get worked up about things?

A few weeks ago I changed my desktop background to this one showing Calvin & Hobbes enjoying an idyllic day in a tree. The colours are gorgeous and these two friends are enjoying so much of what makes life great. When I start to feel the buildup of stress and anxiety, I make it a habit to minimize all of the applications currently open on the various computers I use to essentially stop and breathe.

Calvin & Hobbes — Chilling in a Tree

When the rage and frustration that comes from being too invested in a thing starts to get a little out of hand, it's important to step back for a few moments to ask ourselves if what we're feeling is really worth it. In my case, I need to remember to read emails twice, wait fifteen minutes before responding, and above all, breathe.

Looking For An Escape

The last month has been pretty stressful at the day job. Despite putting in a solid 50 ~ 60 hours every week, I don't feel I've actually accomplished anything as there's next to nothing for me to show for the time I've been paid for. The problem is that I'm attempting to have my software interface with the existing CMS, and the people who have the answers to my questions are either keeping quiet in order to protect their silo of information, or have left the company. As a result, I've invested close to 200 hours reverse-engineering a bunch of code that is so obfuscated for the sake of obfuscation that it's hard to see any way out of this predicament. The stress has gotten to a point where I just want to throw my hands up in exasperation and shout "If certain people in the company don't want me to write this software, then that's fine. They can write it for me!"

But this wouldn't go over very well with most people. Friction is the keyword at the day job, and the more friction there is, the happier certain people are. That said, friction is exactly what I try to eliminate when I set my mind to solving a problem. This often results in some rather heated exchanges and miscommunications. So more than anything, what I am looking for is a place where I can go to simply escape from the silliness that is corporate politics and reset my mind. It doesn't need to be anywhere exotic or far, but it does need to be quiet and well-stocked with coffee.

Hot Coffee on a Table

Back in 2003 I lived in a small place just outside Vancouver called Steveston. It's situated right on the shores of Lulu Island and had a lovely view of the Straight of Georgia separating Vancouver Island from the rest of the country. My apartment was on the waterfront, and just down the street was a little boutique coffee shop that was wonderfully relaxed throughout the week. I'd often stop by on my way home from work for a hot drink and some warm conversation, occasionally splurging for the feta and spinach turnovers they sold, as a means to "reset". There was something special about this place that I've yet to find anywhere else.

When I think about the various places I like to go now, none of them are quite like the boutique café in Steveston. There's a quiet coffee shop near the office where retired people like to congregate, but it's nowhere near as comfortable or relaxing as the place in Canada. On weekends I enjoy heading out for a nice 8km walk through some parks near my home, but this isn't really feasible during the week, especially when I'm wearing a suit and carrying a large bag. There are some smaller specialty coffee shops in town, but they are all far too loud or incredibly fake. More than this, I don't want to spend $5 on burnt coffee just to get away from the office.

Perhaps it's time to look into a new hobby? Ideally one where I am physically active. Maybe if I join a gym …

Unmotivated

The 28th day of every month is considered "payday" at the day job. Money is transferred from the corporate account to our own, and we're sent emails with links to outdated websites showing how much to expect in the bank. My colleagues tend to be pretty happy on this day, as it means bills can be paid and overtime efforts can be rewarded. Unfortunately, I do not share this same level of happiness. For most of the last three weeks, I've been able to get very little work done at the office due to various political battles, software battles, and network insecurity battles. More than this, the money I'm paid every month, which is a good deal more than I earned in the classroom, feels dirty.

Japanese Money — Not From My Actual Paycheque

Over the last few weeks I've written about my desire to escape the day to day, the summertime blahs, feeling blasé, and even working myself stupid. Heck, it's been a recurring theme on this site for nearly a decade! But these ideas are seldom far from my thoughts. Why is this?

I've been reading a number of books on psychology and motivation this year and a common, unspoken theme in just about every book is the fact that we are all ultimately in control of our emotional state. If we want to be happy, then we'll be happy. If we don't, then we won't. More than this is the idea that happiness is ultimately manufactured as a form of self-delusion to override our constant desire for "more". The people around us who are often smiling have learned this incredible skill, and the people who seem to frown incessantly have not. This second group is most certainly the category that I would fall into.

So what's the solution?

The more I read about how our mind apparently works, the more I'm surprised it works at all. We seem to build up an illusionary world around us in order to make sense of the universe and our place in it, but these convenient views are little more than smoke and mirrors. The people we surround ourselves with need to use similar illusions in order to maintain the grand ideas that we tell ourselves. One other crucial element is the verbal reinforcement of the illusion. Without this, doubt can begin to manifest itself in dangerous ways. Is this what I'm missing? Or is it something more fundamental, like physical community?

When I try to convey these questions to others, I'm often met with the "Buck up and grow a pair!" response that inspires so much nothingness. Just charging through something accomplishes nothing, and grow a pair of what? Testicles? Why would I want four of the things? Testosterone (or lack thereof) is not the reason for my disinterest in work or the asininity surrounding the various fiefdoms within corporate offices. Just the suggestion that one should do whatever this sentence is supposed to mean also goes to show that the listener is not at all empathetic with the speaker, or plain not listening. Either way, they are not the people we should be talking to.

And there are so many people like this …

So what is it that I think would make me happy? Even for a little while? A small list. Nothing crazy. I do live in a relatively safe part of the country and am doing the job I tried hard for 8 years to get. I have a lovely puppy and some good friends who live less than an hour away. But what I'm looking for is this:

  1. a comfortable home life
  2. self-agency at the day job
  3. a bit of pocket money every month

The work will be determining how to go about making these three things possible.

Clean Hands. Obsession. Madness?

This past week I've been struggling to uncover the reason for a new compulsion that seems to have crept up out of nowhere. It's not a bad problem, per se, aside from the amount of water it uses. That said, I do have concerns that it may be seeded by a deep-seated, subconscious issue that is starting to surface. My (new) problem is that I wash my hands too much.

Running Water

Over the last twenty years or so I've had the terrible habit of keeping my fingernails and toenails incredibly short not by using clippers, but instead tearing at them with other fingernails. I rarely take "too much" nail off, but very rarely will people see more than 1.5mm of whitespace at the tips … unless I'm incredibly relaxed. During incredibly rare periods, my fingernails have been permitted to grow out a few millimetres, right up until they start to cause problems when typing. But this has rarely happened since high school, though. The Demons of Self-Doubt are quite good at stirring up anxiety about just about anything, and that is part of what drives me to keep trying to accomplish things; It keeps my feelings of inadequacy at bay¹.

The excessive hand washing is a little different, though.

I noticed this over the weekend when sitting on the sofa in my living room. Like many people, I don't like the feeling of sticky things on my hand. Normally small bits of dirt can be scrubbed out with friction, but I couldn't for the life of me get my hands to a point where they felt clean. So I went to the bathroom sink and started cleaning … and cleaning … and cleaning … until I recognized the futility of continuing and returned to the living room, where I fought the urge to clean my hands. This is something that is seen in movies and books when a person is beginning to go crazy or is otherwise teetering on the event horizon, but I don't think I'm going crazy. Sure, I really want to eat sugar, I'm feeling dizzy often during the day, and I'm under a great deal of pressure at the day job to deliver results against all odds … but this is normal for many people … isn't it?

Since the weekend's excessive use of hand soap, there hasn't been a repeat of the incident. That said, it's at the forefront of my mind as I go through the day. Am I turning into a hypochondriac? Is this just a nervous reaction to the various things going on at the moment? Is this a sign of something else?

Putting all of this down in words has me wondering if perhaps it's time for a break. A real vacation away from everything² where I just spend time with the people in my life. None of the "professional" goals that I'm working on will disappear or become impossible to complete if I step away for a while. If anything, the time away would let me re-evaluate some of the decisions and directions these projects are taking. Perspective is a wonderful thing, and I mine is both narrow and biased.

The question now revolves around how to accomplish this.


  1. for the most part, anyway.
  2. a real vacation? What's that? Haven't had more than three consecutive days off work in years …

A Lackadaisical Stress Test

The effects of stress in a person's life can affect them in profound ways, propelling them to incredible heights or sinking them deep into the depths of despair. People have generally had different ways of approaching the problem of too much negative tension in their lives with vices such as drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Some lean on gambling. Others — like me — resort to food in a bid to quickly bring order back to the world despite the collapsing walls all around us. Unfortunately, since the economic collapse in the 90s, there have been roughly 80 suicides a day as the various stressors that can affect us wear a person down to believe this is the only way to end the pain.

Suicide Deaths per 100,000 People — Trends

When a country has the equivalent of a small city removing themselves from existence each and every year, governments tend to step in to try and mitigate the problem. Japan decided the best way to approach the matter was through a voluntary stress check questionnaire consisting of 57 questions that people rate on a scale of 1 to 4. While this has been available to all full-time workers in the country for just over a decade, today marks the first time I've been offered a chance to participate. After looking at the questions, though, I'm wondering whether it would be more beneficial for my employer and my family to simply lie rather than be honest. The reasoning is quite simple: if I were to answer these generic questions truthfully, psychologists would think I was either mentally unstable or my employer was staffed with managers with no concept of time or human decency.

While elements of these statements may be accurate, my subjective perception of this life is full of greys and blues. To prove the point, here are some actual questions from the form and how I would answer them:

For the "Questions Concerning Your Job" section, scores range from (1) being Very Much So to (4) Not At All.

  1. I have an extremely large amount of work to do(1) Very Much So

I'm the sole developer on a large project with lots of smart people, big ideas, and tight deadlines. Of course I have an extremely large amount of work to to. But here's a question I want to ask right back: what's the definition of "extremely large"? More than I can do alone? More than I can do 8 days a week? This subjective term skews the validity of the score.

  1. I have to work as hard as I can.(1) Very Much So
  2. I have to pay very careful attention(1) Very Much So
  3. My job is difficult in that it requires a high level of knowledge and technical skill(1) Very Much So
  4. I need to be constantly thinking about work throughout the working day(1) Very Much So
  5. There are differences of opinion within my department(1) Very Much So

I'm a software developer with a huge ego and am heavily invested in this project. Yes, I have to work hard, pay careful attention, think non-stop, and argue. My job is incredibly difficult because — if you've ever had to use educational software, you'll agree — software that's used in schools sucks. From tools targeted at elementary schools all the way up to universities, I've yet to come across software that actually looks like it was designed for the student or the teacher in mind. I'm taking 20+ years of programming experience and a decade of teaching experience and mashing them up in order to deliver tools that can be used by my peers to deliver better lessons. The stakes are high. Mistakes can result in lost revenue. Yes, this causes stress.

But there's a flip side to all this.

  1. I can work at my own pace(1) Very Much So
  2. I can choose how and in what order to do my work(1) Very Much So
  3. I can reflect my opinions on workplace policy(1) Very Much So
  4. This job suits me well(1) Very Much So
  5. My job is worth doing(1) Very Much So

I'm writing this blog post at the office during work hours on my personal notebook that is connected to the corporate network while listening to Smashing Pumpkins on headphones. Beside me is a company-supplied computer that I upgraded and installed a different operating system on. I'm surrounded by papers outlining complex data paths, transformations, RESTful endpoints, and scribbled equations to convert data from a legacy system to something I hope will bring my colleagues a great deal of efficiency. When I disagree with a corporate policy, I kick and scream like you wouldn't believe, exposing the asininity of a rule or methodology in order to overturn it or — in some cases — have it refined so that people can actually get work done.

This job suits me well because I'm an opinionated jerk with delusions of leaving a mark on society. This job is worth doing because I feel it's worth doing. "Genius programmers" around the world have had decades to to something for education and we're given crap after crap. Now it's my turn to make something less crappy.

Questions that are "concerning […] health during the past month" are scored from (1) Almost Never to (4) Almost Always.

  1. I have been very active(3) Often
  2. I have been full of energy(3) Often
  3. I have felt angry(3) Often
  4. I have been inwardly annoyed or aggravated(3) Often
  5. I have felt irritable(2) Sometimes
  6. I have felt tense(3) Often
  7. I have felt extremely tired(3) Often
  8. I have felt exhausted(3) Often
  9. I have been unable to concentrate(2) Sometimes

Some of these questions sound to be asking the exact same thing. I'm mentally active all the time and full of energy up until 8:30pm. Yes, I'm irritable and angry from time to time because I'm opinionated and the world isn't working the way I expect. That's my cross to bear, though. Extremely tired? I'm working on personal projects outside of work, too. Exhausted? Every night. If I have any energy, I get work done. Unable to concentrate? Every 3 weeks or so I need two days to recharge. This usually happens on a Sunday and Monday.

These questions taken out of context would look horrible …

Then there are more specific health questions, to which every answer is (2) Sometimes … which can be anywhere from 1% of the time to 50% of the time I guess.

  1. I have felt dizzy ⇢ this could be stress related or noise related given my ears
  2. I have experienced joint pains ⇢ I'm almost 40 …
  3. I have experienced headaches ⇢ five to six days a week since I was 18, yes
  4. I have had eyestrain ⇢ when looking at the work-provided computer for more than 4 hours, yes
  5. I have experienced heart palpitations or shortness of breath ⇢ heart struggles from time to time, but my breathing while conscious is good
  6. I have experienced stomach / intestine problems ⇢ cold drink on a hot day means I need a bathroom stat … does this count?
  7. I have lost my appetite ⇢ after cleaning up some of Nozomi's messes at home, yes
  8. I haven't been able to sleep well ⇢ it's summer in Asia. Nobody sleeps well …

In the next section there are questions about how freely I can communicate with superiors, co-workers, family, and friends … but these don't really translate well. There are some things I cannot say to superiors. There are some things I cannot say to family. There are some things I cannot say to friends. I don't think this is a stress issue so much as it is social expectations and argument mitigation.

Then finally …

  1. I am satisfied with my job(2) Somewhat Satisfied
  2. I am satisfied with my family life(2) Somewhat Satisfied

and …

  1. How many hours of overtime have you worked this month? ⇢ Today's the 13th day of the pay period, so … 32 hours.

Looking at these numbers, one would probably think that I'm some sort of overworked lunatic that is just two straws away from a broken back, but this couldn't be further from the truth. I'm just a person with a really big, really worthwhile project in front of him during the day, and an incredibly big, incredibly worthwhile project coming to fruition at home. After nearly a decade of essentially treading water, I am finally getting to do the creative things I came to Japan to accomplish … all at once.

It's only natural for a person to feel overwhelmed when everything they've sought arrives in one fell swoop. Stress? Yeah, there's a bit of that. Uncertainty and nervousness, too. But this is part of the fun. So I'm going to lie on the stress checkup. Everything's good.

Everything's good :)