Looking after Your Mental Health at Conferences
Conferences are a huge part of the tech world, from small local meetups, to global events that attract thousands of attendees (looking at you, Magento Imagine). The desire to attend these events is within all of us, and the pressure we put upon ourselves to take advantage of our presence is apparent.
There’s one thing, though, that we often take for granted and don’t talk about: Our mental well-being and overall health whilst at conferences.
Taking a few moments to think about what you may find difficult, along with potential triggers, can really help to manage any stress and anxiety that come with events. When you take care of your mental health it allows you to really enjoy the conference without freaking out or needing days to recover.
1) Know your alcohol limit
Free booze and the myriad of drinking at after-parties, which conferences are notorious for, can be difficult to avoid or refuse. Especially true if you’re feeling anxious about being in a social situation or meeting new people, at times some dutch courage can seem like the only solution. This form of ‘self-medication’ with alcohol might initially relax you, but it will generally lead to more anxiety or depression as the effects wear off.
“Everyone goes to conferences, lets loose for a weekend and ends up in situations that they look back on and think ‘I really wish I didn’t do that’” – Matthew Trask
If you know that alcohol can make things difficult for you, then you might want to minimize your drinking or avoid it altogether. That way you won’t be hungover or tired, and you can dodge that alcohol-fuelled mood dip that can feel impossible to get out of.
2) Find a quiet zone
Conferences are full of opportunities to learn and experience new things, but as well as all that intellectual stimulation they are also rich in social stimulation. All the networking, talking, laughing and smiling is wonderful, but the pressure to take advantage of these opportunities can bear heavy on your shoulders and your energy levels. Approaching new people or putting yourself out there can be scary and lead to heaps of anxiety. The constant outward facing and switched on nature of conferences is also exhausting both mentally and physically.
“Try and find an area that is less travelled… and try to treat that as a quiet space for you. Put headphones on because headphones seem to be the international symbol of: Please don’t bother me.” – Matthew Trask
We all enjoy the company of friends, new and old, but we also need to recognize when some quiet time is needed. There’s no shame in it.
3) Have your own room
This is not always possible, especially if you are travelling with work or trying to share costs, but having your own room will make a huge difference. Ask yourself, honestly, what do you need at the end of each day to relax and recharge? Your answer will probably be a space where you can go to be yourself and completely let go of any pressures. Being able to escape when you are feeling anxious, tired or triggered in any way will allow you to stay on top of your game and take advantage of everything the conference has to offer.
“You have a dedicated area where you can go and you can do whatever it is you need to do to get away. Take a nap… or call a friend or family member if things get tough.” – Matthew Trask
Also, think about where you want to stay and what will be best for you. Would you prefer to stay at the conference venue, or would booking accommodation in a different location be better for you? That way you can put some physical space between your day and ‘home’ time.
4) Don’t be afraid to take a break
You may feel like you’re going to miss out (that FOMO is real!) or that you are going to be judged, but you have to live inside your mind and your body for the duration of the conference and beyond. Missing a few talks or social gatherings so that you can fully engage with and enjoy others is definitely worth it.
“Even being a massive extrovert, I need a break from people at some point” – Sherrie Rohde
You should never feel bad for doing what’s needed to look after yourself and your mental health. Make self-care decisions based on how you really feel and what you need, then be firm in your choices.
5) The great outdoors
Fluorescent lights, projectors, computer screens, mobile phones and being cooped up inside for hours on end can make everything feel heavier, add the mental and social pressures of a conference and we humans can reach breaking point twice as fast.
“Just going for a walk, depending on how comfortable you are in stranger areas, is another way you can get away.” – Arthur Doler
Try going for a walk, being in nature helps us to relax, improves our memory, increases our attention span, and improves cognition. It’s also another way to break out from the constant interactions you face at events.
6) Spend time with friends
Travelling & spending time at events with someone you know can help relieve some of the pressures involved in meeting and engaging with new people.
“Just so you have somebody that you can be at least in a conversation with, where you don’t feel like you have to put on a face.” – Arthur Doler
We do all want to network and get to know new people but with friends you are giving yourself the chance to be social without having to try so hard. It is also a great chance to hear about their day and how they are doing, are they struggling too? Helping others is a great way to help yourself.
“There is also comfort in having people who aren’t asking you what you do with Magento… who you’re not doing icebreaker questions with. Just taking a break to catch up on their day as well is helpful. Flip the conversation.” – Sherrie Rohde
7) Talk to the organisers
Organising a conference is no easy task, but a small note from you on your concerns around mental health to the those behind the event can benefit you, them and others attending the event.
The organisers may be able to give you recommendations based on their knowledge of the venue and the event to where you can go and what you can do, when it starts to get too much.
“They might be able to say ‘Hey… the gym is empty right now, that’s a good place to go’.” – Matthew Trask
This quiet heads-up could also raise an issue that they haven’t thought of before now. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem. When you combine the pressures of attending, speaking at or organising a conference, that number is probably more like 6 in 6, and the awareness could spark them to include something that will help everyone.
“You asking could be a prompt for them to say… ‘we should set up a quiet zone’.” – Rebecca Brocton
8) Color Communication Badges
Having a subtle way to show those around you that you are not able to talk right now can be extremely useful to all attendees and it doesn’t have to be expensive for organisers either. Color Communication Badges are a system which help people tell everyone who can see their badge about their communication preferences.
“If you are feeling chatty, if you feel like you want to talk, you put it on the green side. If you don’t want to talk, you don’t want to be bothered put it on the red side.” – Matthew Trask
9) Get in touch with mental health advocates or OSMI
If you are at an event look out for OSMI shirts, hoodies, and stickers around the conference. You can find out more about OSMI at osmihelp.org and Magento Mental Health at magemh.com or by following the hashtag #MageMH on twitter.
“See if you can find the OSMI people and know that we’re there to listen and help out.” – Matthew Trask
10) Remember you are not alone
No matter where you are: at conferences, at work, at home, at the shops – you are not alone and support is available.
“Since opening up and talking to people about my struggles, as well as theirs, it has really helped me put everything into perspective and get a grasp on my own feelings. This amazing & understanding support network within the Magento community helps me feel less alone and I hope it will for others too.” – Rebecca Brocton
Feelings of anxiety, depression, paranoia, stress and other mental illnesses can be extremely destructive and isolating. Just knowing you are not alone in these feelings and knowing there are people out there who do understand makes a huge difference.
Everyone has been extremely responsive to the #MageMH initiative that I started just a few weeks ago and we have already raised over £6,000 for OSMI. There are people who are willing to help, share their experiences and offer advice.
If you’re feeling low, and need to talk to someone in confidence, the Samaritans are always there.
Tips for organisers
Mental wellbeing should be a priority for all of us, including conference organisers. Drawing from the tips above and my experiences at events I have put together 10 tips for organisers on creating an open and supportive event that has its attendees experience & wellbeing at heart:
- Set up a dedicated quiet room.
- Use colour communication badges.
- Promote self-care & wellbeing at your conference.
- Reach out to OSMI or MageMH to have presence at your conference.
- Give out healthy snacks and water over cakes, coffee and beer.
- Be as inclusive as possible.
- Put around 10% of your budget towards making your event accessible.
- Invite people to contact you with their needs so you can make sure you meet them.
- Consider a venue with an outdoor area for people to get some fresh air.
- Have at least one talk on mental illness and ensure the voices of people with mental health problems are heard.
Watch the video