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Stress Takes a Toll on Health

Anyone involved in agriculture knows it’s a stressful business. Farmers and ranchers are at the mercy of Mother Nature, fluctuating commodity prices, unforgiving schedules, financial uncertainty, and a host of other factors that are out of their control.

That stress can be severely damaging to both mental and physical health. According to a recent study of 130 occupations by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, laborers and farm owners have the highest death rate from stress-related causes like heart and artery disease, hypertension, ulcers, and nervous disorders. Excessive stress can also make it difficult to focus, which can lead to accidents in these dangerous industries.

The most frightening statistic, however, comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 90 out of every 100,000 farmers commit suicide. That is six times higher than the national average. 

“Farmers know how to take care of their animals and crops, taking careful steps to ensure that they are healthy and safe. Unfortunately, some farmers don’t take the same care in monitoring and managing their own mental and physical stress and fatigue,” says Suzanne Pish, a Michigan State University Extension educator specializing in social-emotional health. “Stress becomes especially palpable when commodity prices are low, and caring for your own health and wellness in this high-stress profession is as important as caring for your bottom line.”

Finding Help

Michigan State University Extension has designed a free online course aimed at helping farmers and their families recognize chronic stress and finding ways to improve it. “Weathering the Storm: How to Handle Stress on the Farm” is broken into four sections with step-by-step instructions, interactive activities, photos, surveys, and audio and video components. The entire course takes one to two hours to complete, and it can be done all at once or in smaller increments. Find the course and other resources for managing stress at msue.msu.edu/managingfarmstress.

“We’re hoping this new digital format makes it easier for farmers and their families to access these helpful tools and to learn to cope with the ever-changing business of farming,” Pish says.

The experts at MSU also recommend farmers cultivate a more positive mindset, which can help increase productivity and resiliency. Three tactics can help.

  1. Self-talk. Tell yourself you can adapt and overcome any challenge. Remind yourself you’ve faced hard times before and you can do it again. Choose three words to help maintain your mind-set, such as calm, capable, and controlled.
  2. Breathing. Practice deep breathing to calm your mind and to help you focus. Breathe deeply five times and exhale slowly. This also can help improve sleep and can help with chronic pain.
  3. Acceptance. If things are out of your control, it may be best to just accept them and focus on finding a solution instead of getting frustrated by the problem.

Exercise is another way to help reduce stress. According to MSU, a brisk, 10-minute walk can reduce the brain’s level of the stress hormone cortisol by 50% to 70%.

Mind the Children

While hard times on the farm are stressful for adults, children are also affected. “Farm children are unique in that they are often much more involved in the everyday business affairs of their families than the children raised in other settings,” Pish says. “Consequently, it’s very obvious to them when the farm is in trouble.”

Farm kids suffering from stress may have trouble with schoolwork, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, or stomachaches. Pish says maintaining farm routines and rituals can provide children with a sense of security. She recommends reminding them that nobody is perfect, encouraging physical exercise and healthy eating, and helping ensure kids get enough sleep. She also suggests removing nonpriority items from the calendar to make more time for family activities and hobbies. 

It’s important to laugh with kids, too. “Humor helps ease almost any situation,” Pish says. “If everyday stresses are overwhelming your family or children, make sure to get them help from a health care provider.”

Learn more

Save these phone numbers and website addresses and don’t hesitate to use them if you or someone you love is struggling. If the situation is life-threatening, call 911 immediately.

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