stress

Mental Health & Farm Stress

red barn with fence around it
Photo: Pexels

Farming is both a risky and dangerous business. From the hazardous nature of the seemingly regular day-to-day tasks to the volatile and unforgiving markets on which many farms rely for income, farmers have no shortage of stress. Add in unpredictable weather and crop yields and you have the makings of what the USDA, OSHA, and other organizations call one of the most hazardous professions in the U.S. (UA Extension, 2016). And yet we fail to see farming make it to CNBC’s list of the most stressful jobs in America. Why is that? In recent years, there has been a push to make mental health and stress management on farms more of a priority. Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach has published their 2019 Farm Stress Resource Packet, which is filled with information on the stressful nature of farming, management strategies, and resources to help during difficult times. The below article by Larry Tranel is taken from ISU’s publication and offers farmer’s ways to deal with farm and family stress.

 

A “PRIMER” of Farm Stress Resiliency

Farming is dangerous and stressful, no doubt. Farmers have varying degrees of resiliency to deal with the physical and mental dangers of farming, leading to varying stress levels. The integrated blend of family, farming and nature can cause unique situations of stress in farm families. Stress is normal and can be healthy as it might push us to do things that can promote growth in us. But too much acute stress or piled up chronic stress can make it difficult to:

•   Concentrate, remember and process information.

•   Organize, calculate and make decisions

•   Sleep, relax and breathe properly

•   Communicate, share and bond as a family.

Stress can become a source of conflict but can also help families grow together as many farm families are strong because they had gone through a tough time together. Too much stress can lead to anxiety, doubt, depression and hopelessness. Overcoming stress overload by developing skills can help families have more resiliency to farm stress.

Resiliency can be a learned, life skill. It is a person’s ability to deal with stress, using skills, to better cope and possibly even overcome the root causes or maybe just its effects. Since stress reduction techniques are a learned skill, the aim of this paper is to assist farmers and those working with them with a “PRIMER” acronym tool to better deal with farm stress. The tool is a six-step process outlined below. The “PRIMER” Tool will then be detailed along with skills and goals that pertain to each step.

Perception – Our Thoughts under Stress

Reality – Our Environment in Stress

Identify – Our Emotions with Stress

Manage – Our Reaction to Stress

Extend – Our Communication of Stress

Resources – Our Support for Stress

“Chronic farm stress can weaken a person’s spirit, appetite, physical stamina, focus, relationships, decision-making ability and dampen happiness and satisfaction in time. Life skills can help deal with it.”

Perception is heavily related to the image or picture we have in our minds of whatever situation, coupled with any meaning or attitude attached to that image or picture. An occurrence might happen to two people and one might very positively perceive it and the other very negatively with a wide range of other “perceptions” in between.

Reality is a sum of a person’s internal capacity and external environment to understand the situation surrounding stress or a crisis event. Some situations take families by surprise or are beyond their control. If life events come too soon, are delayed or fail to materialize, the health, happiness, and well-being may be affected (Schlossberg, et. al., 1996). Intensified emotionality and/or behavioral disorganization in families and their members are likely to occur as a result (Toberto, 1991). Another crucial variable in dealing with the unexpected is family development and environmental fit (Eccles et. al., 1993).

Identify emotions of stress related circumstances. Emotions are often so intertwined and often mangled that identifying the underlying causes or emotion is not easy. For instance, an exhibit of anger, a secondary emotion, often is expressed due to another emotion. Anxiety and depression often have a root cause. Once we realize our perception and the reality of the situation, we look inward to identify causes so as not to transfer negative emotions to or onto others.

Manage through stress knowing all situations have some hope, alternatives or options. Identify what can be controlled and accept what is beyond control without blaming oneself. Understand that lack of clarity of future can induce stress as it brings worry, confusion, conflict and even shame (Boss). Assess stress symptoms–heart rate, shallow breathing, headaches, anxiety, outbursts, lack of focus and hope to name a few—to know stress levels.

Extend oneself to others as social isolation and loneliness can further add to stress. Those in family environments are best helped by family members, but introverted males often do not extend their thoughts and feelings readily to allow for healthy family support. Guilt, shame and social stigma often inhibit extending to others for help, as well.

Resources are important in life. Families that are able to make positive meaning of their stressors and use effective coping strategies as well as internal and external resources are more likely to adapt as well (Xu, 2007). This applies to individuals, too! Internal resources and coping strategies were shared in previous sections. External resource needs tend to focus on things that help develop skills in:

1) Interpersonal Communication—everyone has their own beliefs, feelings, needs and agenda to be shared. Knowing healthy/ideal versus unhealthy/common behaviors can separate success and failure in overcoming stress/conflict.

2) Family and Community Support—immediate and intergenerational families, and intertwined communities can be a source of both stress and strength—attend to self- help and other resources, and other people’s needs as family and community support is a two-way street.

3) Problem Solving Techniques—use processes to: define the problem/stress; consider pros and cons to alternatives; select a plan; take action steps; identify resources; and use group/family meetings. Be “proactive” in problem solving.

4) Goal Setting—Make them SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Based.

 

For more information on farm stress and management please visit the following links or contact your local extension office.

•   Helping Farmers Cope with Stress

•   Farming: America’s Most Stressful Job?

•   Agricultural Producers and Stress: When Do You Need a Counselor

Farm and Ranch Family Stress and Depression: A Checklist and Guide for Making Referrals