Plan: Coping with farm-related stress

cattle in the snow

There is no doubt that dairy farmers and dairy farm families are under financial stress as the milk price continues at sub $15 per hundredweight levels. That type of financial pressure bleeds over into all aspects of a farm family’s life.

The holiday season can be an especially difficult and stressful time. Joy, peace and goodwill.

Really? Where and How? If guilt, anxiety and helplessness feel more the norm this season, recognize you are not alone and consider taking some steps to cope with the stress in your life. I’ll say up front that I am not a mental health expert or a trained counselor.

However, the articles I have read by those types of experts, as well as some of the presentations on stress management that I have heard, do provide some common management strategies that can help a person and family cope with stress.

I recently listened to a recording of a July 2018 webinar presentation on recognizing and managing stress that was part of a four-state dairy nutrition and management conference. One aspect of stress management includes understanding the stress response.

Response system

The response to stress involves our brain, endocrine mechanisms, and the release of hormones; primarily cortisol and adrenaline. This results in physical reactions in our bodies that are helpful when facing physical threats, but are not so helpful when the stress is due to non-physical threats.

A good example is that the release of stress hormones causes higher level thinking to become more difficult. While this is useful when someone needs to fight or flee a physical threat, it is not beneficial when the threat is financial stress and higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills are necessary.

Additionally, while some intermittent stress may actually be beneficial, chronic, long-term stress similar to what is experienced with our current dairy economic situation can cause detrimental physical health effects, impede decision making and memory, negatively affect the parts of our brain responsible for learning, adaptation and resilience, cause fear, anxiety and increase susceptibility to addictive behaviors.

Stress factors

John Shutske, an agricultural safety and health specialist at the University of Wisconsin, lists several factors that influence our capacity for coping with stress.

Quoting from his “Farm Stress & Decision-Making During Challenging Times” publication, they are: The presence of a social network, our skill and confidence in assessing a complex situation and then developing and evaluating solutions, personal variables such as physical health, experience, anxiety threshold, and problem-solving ability.

Research at South Dakota State University indicates that it is important for farmers to establish social support networks. Farmers need to be able to share their thoughts and feelings with persons that are trusted and understand them.

Just verbalizing concerns, worries, and problems to others can decrease depression and increase mental wellness.

While the tendency of chronic stress is to withdraw into yourself, don’t allow yourself to become isolated. Maintain your family and friend relationships and work at talking about your feelings and experiences.

Chronic stress

Often feelings of helplessness and hopelessness along with fear and anxiety characterize chronic stress conditions. One strategy to cope and manage the stress is to look for ways to achieve some level of control.

Research has shown that having even some small, albeit non-perfect, control can decrease stress. In a financial stress situation, consider gaining a better understanding of your financial situation through improved record-keeping, development of some core financial documents, and a focus on financial decision-making.

You can’t control the price of milk, but working on these tasks puts at least some degree of control back with you as a decision maker and provides you with information to more objectively evaluate your options.

Making decisions to eat healthy (or even taking the time to eat) and to exercise, even if it is just a brisk, 10-minute walk, is another example of taking control that can help alleviate stress. Research at the Mayo Clinic says that positive thinking helps with stress management.

It begins with self-talk, which is that stream of unspoken thoughts that runs through our heads. Put a positive spin on negative thoughts.

For example, if you have a thought like “this is too hard or I’ve never done this before,” try to change your thinking to, “I’ll give it a try and see if I can make it work, or this is an opportunity to learn something new.”

Mind and body

A Michigan State University fact sheet titled How to Cultivate a Productive Mindset says “The body hears what the mind thinks. So choose your thoughts with purpose.”

Many mental wellness experts talk about the importance of gratitude in mental wellness and stress alleviation. Take some time each day to name two or three things for which you are grateful.

Look for something humorous and enjoy a laugh, it improves attitudes and relieves stress. Take time for reflection/meditation and/or prayer.

Advice from that Michigan State fact sheet says, “When things are beyond your control, the most productive step you can take is to accept it.”

Raging against it costs time, energy and ends in more frustration. As you develop and practice strategies to manage and cope with stress, recognize that resources and help is available and sometimes the wisest course of action is to ask for help.


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