Can practicing presence make farming less stressful?
Growing up on a grain and beef farm in western Minnesota Alma Jorgenson knew what stress looked like on her family’s operation. Her eyes were opened after getting a job at the local, small town grocery store in high school.
“I don’t think I realized that it was such a universal issue until I started working at the grocery store and had people come in and just talk and talk and talk,” she says.
Working on a dairy farm through college, Jorgenson learned about more than cows and milk production. “That helped me build connections across different areas of farming and understand some of the stress that farmers different than my family went through.”
Today, she runs a rural mental health program for Lake Superior Community Health Center fully funded by the Miller-Dwan Foundation serving 12 counties across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Jorgenson works with farmers and their families, meeting them on-farm, to provide one-on-one mental health support.
“It’s not a clinical service. I am just someone who has grown up, lived, and worked in a farming community and has some passion and understanding to work through some of the mental health challenges that face farmers and other members of the agricultural community.”
Jorgenson shared several of her tips for stress reduction on a recent Cultivating Resiliency webinar.
What does it mean to practice being present?
Farming demands thinking about the future. The next growing season, marketing commodities, and farm transitions require planning several steps ahead of what is happening today. It’s a great way of handling things head on, Jorgenson says, but it can introduce more stressors.
Living in the present may help. What does it mean to be present? “It’s about being alive without having self-judgement. Accepting the moment you’re in is not good, not bad. It just simply is.” Jorgenson acknowledges, that can be hard to grasp at first.
“We’re very accustomed to labeling things as good or bad, when really they can just be,” she explains. “Understanding that things are happening around me, but I can just accept them as they come and not have to take them in and categorize them.”
For Jorgenson, tasks that demand both mental and physical attention are when she feels like she can be the most present. Some people find being outside in nature is very grounding. For other folks it’s driving, cooking, or weeding the garden. These moments are already in your life, Jorgenson says. To start, “identify the moments where you feel completely present and find ways to build upon that.”
Physical and mental benefits of practicing presence
Presence is the base for good physical and mental health. The practice of being present and mindful can help you know your limits and accept when to ask for help. “It helps you build more awareness to what is healthy and good for your body,” Jorgenson says. “This is a big one for farmers: knowing when to go to the doctor, knowing when this is something I can’t just put a Band-Aid on. I need to get stitches.”
Mentally, practicing presence can help you become more aware of the emotions you’re feeling. You’ll be able to identify your limits before you become overwhelmed.
Practicing being present can also improve sleep. “You don’t have the constant to-do list running through your mind. You’re not thinking about all the things you have to do tomorrow.”
Increased ability to fight off illness and recover, better problem solving, feeling younger, and lowering your body’s intense responses to new stressors may be other benefits of a strong present mind-set. A 2016 Harvard study showed regular meditation may be more effective in reducing stress and depression than a vacation.
How presence can improve your work on the farm
Reducing the intensity of your reaction to stress and improving your emotional regulation can help you become a better farmer.
If the cattle get out, and it’s your fault, this practice helps you accept, “Yes, I made a mistake.” Then you’re able to compartmentalize that, and focus on solving the problem at hand, rather than being distracted, dwelling on your guilt and shame. When you’re able to set aside your self-judgement, you’ll be able to get the cattle back where they belong in a safer, more efficient manner.
How do you practice being present?
The concept of being present or mindful is very simple, but it can be a challenge, especially when you’re first beginning. The goal is to clear your mind and have no thoughts for a few minutes. It takes practice.
“Often if you’re trying to have no thoughts, you’re just thinking about having no thoughts. It’s an intense cycle of ‘I don’t want to think. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.’ That’s all you’re thinking, and that’s not the same as having no thoughts,” Jorgenson says.
Start with a deep breath or two
Deep breathing is a great place to start. This may feel silly or uncomfortable to some people, but there’s no need for that, Jorgenson says. “It’s just taking something you do every day unconsciously and finding a way to help make it benefit you.”
Studies have shown deep breathing slows your heart rate and stabilizes your blood pressure, which leads to a reduction of stress.
“It’s easy to find time to breathe as long as you’re cognizant about it,” Jorgenson says, suggesting taking a few deep breaths while you drive, make your coffee in the morning, or walk out to your truck. If prayer is part of your daily routine, adding a few deep breaths to that time can be helpful.
Strategies for mindful breathing
Step one for deep breathing is get comfortable, right where you are. “Release the tension in your shoulders for a second. Unlock your jaw. Feel some of the tightness in your body and let it go,” Jorgenson says.
Step two, be aware of how your belly moves as you breathe. You can put your hand on your belly or think about the feeling of your clothes moving as you breathe to help you focus. As you breathe in through your nose, keep your attention on your expanding belly as it fills with air.
As you exhale, close your lips slightly as if you’re whistling or sipping through a straw. Let your breath slowly escape through your mouth, as your belly deflates. Repeat these steps intentionally for each breath without rushing.
If you’re having a hard time quieting your mind to focus on your breath, adding counting might be a good strategy for you. “It’s something I can hear in my mind and focus on instead of ‘I’m trying not to think. I’m trying not to think. I’m trying not to think.’” Jorgenson says.
- Breathe in for four counts. Count in your head, “1, 2, 3, 4.”
- Hold the breath for seven counts. Count, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.”
- Release your breath evenly over eight counts. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.”
“It’s really important to hold for seven counts and then release for longer than you intake. That physiological act of holding and then releasing helps to empty out your lungs. This is what actually reduces your heart rate and calms your body,” says Jorgenson.
Ground yourself with your five senses
If you find yourself stressed and stuck in your own head, connecting to the world around you may be a good strategy for grounding yourself in the present moment. Here’s a five-step exercise you can do anywhere to draw your attention outside of yourself.
- Step one, pick out five things you can see around you. Your dog? A coffee mug? The neighbor’s barn?
- Step two, touch four things. Run your hands over your keyboard. Feel the smoothness of the table. Click your pen. Let a handful of soil fall through your fingers.
- Step three, think of three things you can hear in this moment. Even in a quiet space, there are sounds you can focus on. Do you hear the wind? The furnace kick on? The sound of a truck passing by or an airplane overhead?
- Step four, identify two things you smell. “I smell the farm does not count,” Jorgenson says. “Be very specific. It can be hard to do.” Do you smell diesel? Manure? Fresh cut grass? Well water?
- Finally, what can you taste? Take a sip of coffee or have a stick of gum.
Presence can be private
Adopting these exercises may seem uncomfortable at first. You may be concerned about what people around you think.
“No one knows you are practicing being present. It can be a completely secret thing. You can do it while lying in bed, driving, or cooking. You can make it fit wherever it needs to, and it can make a really positive impact on your daily stress levels if you do it consistently,” Jorgenson says.
Help in crisis
If your stress levels have escalated to a point of crisis, reach out for help.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or chat on their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
For more information about the Rural Mental Health Program, contact Alma Jorgenson at (218) 491-1788 or email@example.com.