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Farmers: Power Down the Stress Cycle

During boom times for farmers, stress is a silent partner. Today, stress is calling the shots – and you’re more vulnerable to its chronic consequences. 

“The downturn in the ag economy continues to create stress for farm families, workers, and ag professionals,” says John Shutske, University of Wisconsin-Madison agricultural engineering specialist. “Key services – such as health care, behavioral health, legal, and financial – often are less available in rural areas.”

Shutske helps lenders, consultants, health providers, and government employees recognize the impact of stress on farmers and the brain’s critical role.

5 Ways Stress sets off chain reaction

Stress is a response to threats to physical or emotional well-being or survival. When this response persists, it becomes unproductive and leads to anxiety, depression, or even suicide.

“Chronic stress causes biological and neurological chemicals to flood the brain, preparing us for fight, flight, or freezing up,” Shutske says. “Repeated release of these chemicals interferes with the regulation of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal axis. You could compare it to a thermostat that doesn’t shut off.”

This chain reaction makes inroads through five major mind/body avenues.

1. Physical health.

Most visits to health care providers are related to stress, says Charlotte Halverson, a certified occupational health nurse with AgriSafe Network. Physical signs include headaches, fatigue, poor sleep patterns, and frequent illness. Symptoms manifest as anger, irritability, aggression, and anxiety. Receptors in the brain lose the capacity to regulate hormone levels, leading to increases in blood glucose, blood pressure, and inflammation.

2. Cognitive abilities and memory.

Stress hampers learning, decision-making, adaptation, resilience, concentration, and long-term memory. Continued release of cortisol affects neurons and dendrites.

3. Fear and anxiety.

“Anxiety is tension and worry that continues after the stressor is gone,” Halverson says. Under normal stress, the prefrontal cortex calls the shots, but during chronic stress, cortisol causes the amygdala to grow, escalating anger, fear, sadness, and aggression. 

4. Addictive behavior and risk-taking.

Over time, stress overload shows up as low productivity, greater use of drugs or alcohol, forgetfulness, and relationship conflicts. Stress also may increase accidents, as risk-taking rises and concentration declines.

5. Communication and support networks.

Under stress, conversations and relationships become more emotional. A warning sign of depression and suicide is withdrawal from enjoyable activities and social support.

“Pride, reputation, and self-sufficiency inhibit farmers from sharing their dilemma with close friends and neighbors,” says Val Farmer, a Wildwood, Missouri, clinical psychologist.

5 steps to reverse stress

Not all farmers are affected by ag’s downturn, and this can be isolating. “Most aren’t considering these bad economic times to be normal yet,” Farmer says. “The ones who are affected likely are suffering alone.”

Shutske agrees and says, “There’s no simple solution to coping with stress. Helping people help themselves takes patience, time, and a multitude of approaches.”

Following are five proactive steps to reverse stress.

1. Rebuild a sense of control.

Chronic stress creates an out-of-control feeling. “Helping people regain a sense of positive control is critical,” says Shutske. “It requires incredible patience to sit down with someone and walk through different scenarios. Individuals incapacitated by stress may not see any other available options.” 

2. Maintain regular aerobic exercise. 

Exercise releases natural endorphins, strengthening the circulatory, respiratory, and immune systems, as well as brain function.

3. Practice mindfulness and meditation.

It’s difficult for farmers to escape work pressures because they live at the work site. Today, they are connected to work 24-7 through smartphones. This may set in motion a negative feedback loop. Mindfulness (a focus on living in the moment) can lower blood pressure. It begins with self-awareness of stress cues and devising ways to shift out of stress autopilot.

“Many farmers enjoy a walk in the woods or working alone,” Shutske says. “Think about deer hunting and being alone in a tree with only the sound of rustling leaves. This alone time is most helpful if you think of the here and now and things you can control.” 

Learn to distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry. “Religious faith, a sense of humor, and constructive leisure activities can help farmers gain emotional distance and perspective about their problems,” Farmer says. 

4. Improve communication and support.

Stress spills over to family members. “Poor communication habits between spouses lead to loneliness, isolation, anger, blame, fear, depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal,” Farmer says. “Instead of depending on one another for emotional support and care, they deal with burdens alone.” 

However, Farmer believes there’s better communication and more of a partnership with spouses today than during the 1980s farm crisis. “Women play a stronger role in relationships,” he says.

5. Seek counseling.

“We still battle a stigma about seeking help in rural America,” Halverson says. “It’s improving, but we have a long way to go.”

Bringing in a third party provides perspective and moderates emotions, says Farmer. “It reinforces positive behavior and lifestyle changes, and it offers accountability and follow-through.”

About 40 states participate in the USDA National Mediation Program. A trained, impartial mediator helps resolve legal and financial issues between producers and their lenders. 

“We worked twice as many cases in 2016 as in 2015,” says Forrest Buhler, staff attorney, Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services. 

Producers are more willing to reach out to resources today than in the 1980s, says Farmer. “I see more flexibility in accepting options, such as cutting back on acres and still feeling OK. Those who place all of their self-esteem in farming are more vulnerable to stress.”

reframe stress

The good news is that the impact of stress on the brain is reversible, and its physical health impacts can be limited with medical care.

One lifesaving strategy is to block stress at its source; specifically, your perception of it. “Reframe stress by focusing on what you can control,” says Shutske. “Recognizing and eliminating unproductive worry and tapping into social support systems can change your body’s stress response.” 

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