Elyssa Dixon is a senior engineer at RKI in Seattle. She’s also the president of ASCE’s Younger Member Forum in Seattle and will be joining the ASCE Committee on Younger Members this fall. In this Member Voice article, Dixon writes about how she’s been able to take positive steps to counter feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
“‘The sky is blue’ is OK. It doesn’t have to be ‘The sky is blue with white puffy clouds and birds flying.’”
Four scenes from a busy life
1. I’m in third grade and sitting on my parents’ bed with my mom, talking about my vocabulary homework. Crafting the perfect, detailed sentence takes me hours sitting inside at our small red craft table reading the dictionary and writing as my younger sister plays outside.
2. Fast forward to high school. I’m on class council. I actively participate in robotics club, technical theater and multiple environmental clubs. I maintain a full schedule of AP classes. And I’m the social planner for my friend group.
I pull late nights studying and finishing school projects. It’s the perfect storm of perfectionism and procrastination. Sometimes when I go to bed at night, I have a feeling like I need to burp, but can’t. It seems so inconsequential that I don’t think much of it.
3. Fast forward to college. I’m at an Ivy League school in upstate New York, president of both the yoga club and the engineering society that I founded for environmental engineering majors. I’m an engineering peer advisor, serving on our new student orientation steering committee and working as the campus sustainability intern. Three of my peers die by suicide within one week. I’m not suicidal, but the anxiety and panic attacks are real. A doctor thinks I should see an ENT for my intermittent throat issues, and I start seeing a counselor to help manage some of my stress.
4. Fast forward to “the real world.” I have a steady job at an engineering consulting firm in Seattle, I’m super involved in ASCE (which I love), physically active and very social. I finally see a doctor who tells me that my throat problems are likely due to reflux. I have an endoscopy that indicates I should either take medications or have surgery to manage it. The medications don’t help, and the predicted surgical outcome is less than optimal, so I start to play with diet.
I know I finally have to do something.
Understanding the ‘why’
As an engineer who likes to understand the whys of life, understanding my stress turned out to be the best first step for me. The manifestation of stress varies depending on the type and duration of stress, your body chemistry and environmental factors.
Positive stress is the stress you experience before giving a presentation or taking a test; it’s that boost of adrenaline that motivates you and goes away as soon as your task is done. Negative stress, however, causes anxiety or concern and is perceived as being outside our own abilities to cope. The cause of negative stress can range from the pressure of recent events or upcoming demands to ongoing work or family situations. We can experience anything from tension headaches to heart attacks or strokes. Sometimes stress leads to suicide.
Studies show that long-term biological impacts of stress are significant. Your brain chemistry can actually change as a result of experiencing extensive and ongoing stress. You can also genetically pass the ability or inability for stress resilience to your children.
As civil engineers, our work touches everyone in our community. We care about our families, our friends, our coworkers. We care about keeping them safe, and we love the challenge of innovating solutions, pushing boundaries and continuing to learn. The desire to succeed and do well may impact us differently, but the pressures of caring are real.
We all know stress management is important and can easily recite the list of tools you can use to reduce stress. But actually implementing those skills into daily life isn’t easy. And just when you think you’ve found the right stress-fighting recipe, your stress may change, and you have to try something new.
Personally, I’ve found a combination of yoga, meditation, spending time outside in the magical Pacific Northwest, saying “no” (the hardest one for me to manage), maintaining my schedule, getting enough sleep, therapy and antidepressants to be the most useful tools for managing stress. But keeping on top of all of these tools doesn’t always happen. I don’t always succeed. I’m learning to accept that that, too, is OK.
I’ve learned a lot about anxiety and depression in the last year, and I know that it doesn’t define me. I also know that I am still a strong leader and a driven engineer.
I can be successful in my roles with ASCE, in my relationships and at my job. But I’ve also learned that taking care of myself makes me a better person. I’m more capable of bouncing back from stressful situations, I’m able to focus my energy toward people and work that inspires me, and I know that, even if I still experience stress and anxiety, it won’t stop me from all that I want to accomplish.
Here are some resources that have helped me: