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How Do Farmers And Their Families Cope With Stress?
During the last couple decades, researchers have used discussions with farmers and families to learn how they successfully manage stress. The actions described in this guide come directly from those discussions as well as suggestions from the larger agricultural community. Stress management practices adopted by successful farmers and their families are also supported by research in human health, psychology, and public health.
Some of these actions involve preparing ourselves physically and emotionally to deal with stress. Other actions, such as planning and education, involve minimizing ambiguity and confusion. They also bolster our levels of “hope” and perceived control.
It is important to recognize that it is impossible to totally eliminate all stress in any job, but effective management is possible.
Taking Care Of Yourself Physically and Emotionally
You Are What You Eat
Eat right: It sounds simple, but we don’t always do it!
No farm operator would ever dream of feeding their animals lousy feed or heading out to the field in a combine with a half-filled tank of low-grade diesel fuel to complete harvest.
Yet when the rush season rolls around, we fill our bodies with cheap fast food and other low-nutrition junk. Or worse, we don’t eat at all! It’s worth the time to wake up a few minutes early to eat a quick breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch. Such a lunch may include fruit and vegetables to munch on during the day with limited amounts of fatty meats, added sugar and caffeine (Smith, 1998). An occasional cup of coffee or a can of soda is okay for most people if balanced with plenty of water – at least eight glasses a day.
Sufficient water intake is critical during warm weather or strenuous work activity. Here’s an easy way to tell whether you’re hydrated: check the color of your urine. If it’s anything other than relatively clear, you’re probably not drinking enough water (NIOSH, 2017).
Exercise is a natural and healthy stress reliever (Edenfield & Blumenthal, 2011). Physical activity provides an outlet for extra energy generated by the chemicals released in the body during stressful situations. Exercise stimulates and even increases the size of the areas of the brain that keep our stress response in check, as well as those needed for good decision-making and problem solving.
Exercise during the “off-season” prepares us for the long, strenuous work days during the spring and summer. If your doctor approves, a few minutes of walking or other aerobic exercise can have tremendous stress-relieving effects, and you will feel less exhausted at day’s end. An Olympic athlete or marathon runner wouldn’t tackle a grueling race without proper body preparation. The demanding physical and mental work of farming is not all that different. Timely exercise eases the strain of vigorous physical activity and brightens our perspective.
Keep Your Sense of Humor
Laughter can change our perception of an adverse situation and relieves us from the cycle of stress. It’s easier to laugh and regain perspective when we’re around other people. This is a reason why gathering places like coffee shops, restaurants, sporting events and churches are popular places during difficult times (Donham & Thelin, 2016).
Quietly working in the garden on a warm summer evening or sitting in a silent deer stand watching snow flurries dust the landscape are all effective methods to power down and throttle back toxic stress.
Avoid Unhealthy De-Stress Methods
One of the unfortunate consequences of too much stress is an increased risk of drug, alcohol or tobacco use and abuse. These substances may alter our perception in the short-term but often make challenging problems worse in the longer-term. Drug or alcohol abuse contribute to many farm or roadway injuries and incidents, and they can also damage our most precious relationships.
If you are concerned about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and your health and personal safety or the health and safety of a loved one, support and assistance are available (Donham & Thelin, 2016). Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out for help.
Talk, Talk Talk
Have you ever been asked “What’s bugging you?” only to find yourself clamming up and not wanting to talk about it? This common reaction isn’t always harmful. However, openly discussing and airing problems, concerns, fears and frustrations is constructive and healthy, This is especially true if we can move from the mode of being “cranky” to actively addressing the problem. Families and farm couples who handle stress well communicate freely. The process of admitting to worries and fears is sometimes difficult. However, when all parties have open and clear access to information and can assist each other in finding solutions, problems become easier to solve (Donham & Thelin, 2016).
It’s vital to solicit assistance, advice and encouragement from those in our community who are willing to help. Friends, extended family, church members and others in the community can often provide needed support. No matter who we talk to, vocalizing our concerns will alleviate the confusion and tensions that compound the feelings of stress.
Managing Stress Through Planning and Education
Stay Current On Agriculture Industry Trends
Education builds confidence
Attending a class or an informal workshop series might open doors to new or supplementary business and financial
As an industry, agriculture is becoming increasingly complex. Reports about big data, precision farming, complex marketing strategies, as well as the latest changes in farm programs and tax policy are now commonplace in most major farm news outlets. We should learn as much as we can. Successful operators have a handle on the latest, most effective production, marketing, and finance-related practices, allowing them to take advantage of the latest technological developments. We are never too old to learn. There are many informal educational opportunities through public institutions such as local Extension offices, universities, technical colleges, university research stations as well as private sources such as crop consultants, veterinarians, and sales representatives.
Self-education requires time, energy and commitment, but it can lower stress by providing us with a mental roadmap that directs planning and decision-making. Successful producers who participate in educational opportunities feel less stressed as a result. Education builds confidence, and attending a class or informal workshop series might open doors to new or supplementary business and financial opportunities.
Of all our resources, including land, animals, cash, fertilizer, seed and machinery, our minds are our most valuable asset
Plan To Clarify Long-Term Goals
Although we might dislike record-keeping, paperwork, and planning, well-maintained records and evidence of a long-term plan are almost always required by lenders and others who allocate resources (Brotherson, 2017). Thorough planning requires an objective examination of current resources and future goals. This process of planning, goal-setting and record-keeping can be facilitated with the support and assistance of accountants, attorneys, Extension educators, farm management specialists, state and local agencies, and lenders.
Like education, the process of farm planning provides a roadmap that reduces confusion and ambiguity which will reduce stress levels. These positive actions enhance the functioning and structure of our brains (Seo et al., 2014) and serve to create positive cycles of change and growth.
Plan For Family Time & Check-ins
Have you ever missed a special family event like a parent-teacher conference or a family reunion because you were overwhelmed with work around the farm? Many of us have. While it might be unrealistic to shut down a complex operation for a couple hours to meet with our kid’s teacher, we often miss family events because we don’t go through the effort of planning. Missing these events can result in feelings of guilt, anger, regret and loss.
By setting aside a few minutes each month to record important dates, events and meetings, we can prioritize our schedules to prevent ourselves from missing important moments. If conflicts arise, communication within the family will help everyone understand current deadlines and priorities, especially when schedules become hectic. This kind of communication establishes a team spirit and ensures key tasks around the home and farm will be managed rather than letting those tasks fall through the cracks.
Helping Yourself (And Others) During Stressful Periods
Because of the high stress levels in farm communities, people who work in agriculture experience higher reported rates of depression and suicide. The following checklist, provided by the National Institute of Mental Health (2016), lists some common symptoms of depression.
To help decide whether you or people you care about need support and treatment for depression, review this checklist and mark the symptoms that apply. If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, if you have thoughts of ending your life, or if the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, see your family doctor and bring this list with you. As a first step, your doctor or another health professional may recommend a thorough examination to rule out other illnesses or health issues.
If you’re thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one or would like support, a Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. It is free of charge and confidential. Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org
There are also resources on suicide and suicide prevention that vary from state to state and across communities.
Symptoms You May Observe In A Person With Clinical Depression
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms
Remember: Some Things Are Out Of Your Control
What about the terrible stress of having to quit farming? Change of any type is almost always a major stressor, and people who face the possibility of leaving or retiring from farming often report experiencing tremendous guilt and shame caused by a perception of abandoning or selling a farm that’s been in the family for a century or more. These feelings are real and normal, and they are part of the grieving process any person goes through when they lose something or someone they love.
Remember that many of the structural and economic factors that drive changes in production agriculture are beyond our control. If you are struggling to keep pace with these changes, request support, expertise and assistance from qualified professionals. The choice of whether or not to leave farming is likely one of the most complicated and emotional ones that many farmers and their families will make in their lifetimes, but help is available – Do ask!
There is always hope, and when you feel that you’ve lost it all, always remember to think about the assets and skills you have, the love of family, friends, and your connection to the community.
More Articles in this Topic
Barlow, D. H. (2007). Forward. Principles and practice of stress management. (2nd ed.). P.M.
Lehrer, R.L. Woolfolk, and W.E Sime (Eds.). New York, New York: Guilford Press.
Brotherson, S. (2017). Stress Management for Farmers/Ranchers. Retrieved from
Edenfield, T. M., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2011). Exercise and stress reduction. The handbook of
stress science: Biology, psychology, and health, 301-319.
Morgado, P., Sousa N. & Cerqueira, J. J. (2015). The impact of stress in decision making in
the context of uncertainty. Journal of Neuroscience Research 93(6): 839-47.
National Institute of Mental Health (2016). Depression. Retrieved from
NIOSH – National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017). Heat-related Illness.
Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/prevent-heat-illness.
Randall A.K., Bodenmann G. (2009). The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical Psychology Review 29(2): 105-15. DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2008.10.004.
Smith, A. P. (1998). Breakfast and mental health. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 49(5), 397-402.