In the middle of a finals week in college, posted signs appeared on the walls of the mail room and in the hallways. Primal scream. Midnight. Frisbee fields. It became a finals week rite of passage for a number of my peers. I never participated. I didn’t find finals to be that stressful, and I valued my sleep. Yes, I was one of those students.
The primal scream was a ritual that popped up at a number of universities and colleges over the years. A collective roar, from groups of students communally releasing pent up stress from the weight and expectations of finals testing. A 2019 article in the Stanford University magazine described how it became a phenomenon in the 1980s. One student let out a yell. The next time he yelled, others answered him. And so the Stanford version of the primal scream began.
Jill Patton, senior editor, interviewed Robert Sapolsky, Stanford biology professor. Here is his response, reprinted online in a synopsis of the article on the university’s website: “The mere act of the screaming is probably cathartic for most people … Our stress response evolved to deal with acute physical stressors (like sprinting for your life), and part of what makes human psychological stress so miserable is that it is being chronically activated by things (e.g., finals) that don’t demand an immediate physical response. Something more physical, like screaming, probably helps by getting the body to be stressed for a legitimate reason.”
I dug a bit deeper. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, primal therapy was all the rage with celebrities and various groups. Billed as a surefire way to navigate “neuroses” quickly, by acting out the initial thing that led to the neuroses, it has since been dubbed a pseudoscience. Think: screaming, yelling, punching things. In my cursory research, I wasn’t able to ascertain if the primal scream during finals week derived from that, but it stands to reason there is some connection. Regardless, even now on university campuses, people have found catharsis in that one guttural cry to release the tension during a high stress time of year.
A good roar
I’ve thought a lot about the primal scream over the past months. I never felt the need for it in college. I wouldn’t mind standing in a field somewhere with a group of similarly overwhelmed folks and letting loose with a good roar right now. Are you there too? Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think it is. I share in this space about working the farm, along with newspaper editing. I am an only child, and unmarried. We are working on a transition, and even with the relative simplicity of the small number of family members involved, it is not easy.
There are opportunities for growth. They seemed to multiply by the hour in the height of the pandemic, and still remain to one degree or another. I would love to see them come to fruition, but I am but one person. I know there is the tendency for us farmers to do everything and not ask for help. I do not want to do that. News flash: no job or profession is worth one’s mental health. And I have learned my limits over the years. Those opportunities will only happen with the right people alongside me. Or they don’t happen. (And no, I am not assuming those people will be family members.)
As the pandemic continues with no end in sight, I am juggling the responsibilities of the farm, the newspaper and what its future might hold and also helping where I can with aging family now. As I tell people, my brain is saturated.
Lest I assume my story is singular in its complexity these days, I checked in with staff to see how things were for them. What came of it was enlightening and I suspect a rather representative snapshot of what a lot of us are dealing with.
As the lockdowns took effect last year, Aimee Tenzek, Farm and Dairy managing editor, designed and organized the newspaper every week, while supervising her young daughters, two of whom had virtual school for the first time ever. Her husband helped when he could, but grandparents couldn’t lend a hand because of the restrictions. Aimee has been with Farm and Dairy for more than a decade, and she never worked from home. She liked the separation — being able to keep work and her home life apart. Like so many folks experienced in 2020, that became impossible to maintain.
We continued to produce an issue each week, a feat that was not easy. It may have been paper thin compared to its normally robust size, but it still hit mailboxes. But even in the work that continued, nothing was guaranteed from week to week. “Looking back I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Everybody was going through this,” she told me. “I have never cooked so much in my life.”
And so she and her family have slogged through the past year. Navigating in person school again, and waiting for news of effective vaccinations for children. While she finds she likes a hybrid work schedule, there are still unknowns. It’s a lot.
Speaking of brains being saturated, I keep tabs on Rachel Wagoner, Farm and Dairy reporter, a lot these days. She is expecting her second child soon. It’s been a complicated pregnancy. At the same time, she and her husband are navigating transitions at the family farm. They worked “essential” jobs during lockdown; he was outside the home still. So, much like Aimee, Rachel went into lockdown juggling the newspaper job — which became a 24/7 news cycle — while also watching her toddler son. And helping to run the cattle and sheep operation. She began introducing rotational grazing last year for both the sheep and cattle, saw benefits and wants to expand her sheep flock.
She and I have talked of what the future could hold for our respective farms. The business opportunities. Because it is, at the end of the day, a business. When it becomes something that overwhelms everything else, it’s time for a gut check. That’s where the brain saturation phrase came from. We joke, in a gallows humor kind of way, that our brains are saturated.
Sarah Donaldson, Farm and Dairy reporter, has navigated many things in the two years she’s been with the paper. Her first professional job out of college. Getting married. First global pandemic. And, now, plans to establish their own homestead — in the middle of said pandemic. It’s a lot.
She got married in the autumn of 2019, and she and her husband had just settled into a routine when they had to become “co-workers.” Her husband is an accountant. He had to make the move to work from home at the height of tax season. Sarah rigged a standing desk in a spare room, from a bookshelf and a crock pot box and began cranking out 24/7 news coverage, particularly of the uncertainty around fairs.
By the end of the summer, she admits to being burned out. She made it through the winter of 2020 — and kept her expectations low for 2021. Having been away from church for a while because of precautions, they slowly began plugging back in, and building connections as a married couple. “For us, we’re close to each other,” she told me. “Regardless of what else happens, we know that we’ll be together, and we’ll work stuff out together.”
She’s had to learn to manage her expectations for herself though. She has goals for creative writing and music and fitness. Those things have taken a hit at various times during the pandemic. And she’s had to learn to be OK with that.
I suspect most of us can relate to parts or the whole of what we in the Farm and Dairy newsroom have juggled. And continue to juggle. Unspoken at this point is the fact that while we’ve managed to weather this particular storm, many local and regional news sources have not over the past 15 years, and especially, the past year and a half.
In short, local news has been gutted. I happen to think it’s a large contributor to the mistrust of news organizations, because when you don’t see journalists at your school board meetings, town council sessions and courthouses, it’s easy to make them “the other” — strangers and outsiders. Much like any demographic or profession you don’t interact with regularly, it’s easier to pigeonhole and stereotype, than to seek to understand them. Cough. Sound familiar, farmers?
In findings released Oct. 7, Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace discuss a 2020 survey of journalists in small market print news outlets conducted for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. A number of their findings track with what we’ve seen at Farm and Dairy, barring downsizing. We were able to tighten the belt without that. “… Newsrooms have closed or reduced coverage, patterns of coverage have changed, and jobs have been lost. Local journalism has long faced a precarious future — COVID-19 has merely accelerated and accentuated many underlying trends and exacerbated them,” they write. “However, paradoxically, the pandemic has at the same time made the importance of local journalism far more relevant. And in many cases, outlets have seen record traffic, even at the same time as their revenues were often plunging. Whatever form local journalism emerges in at the end of the crisis, it’s unlikely to look the same as it did going in.”
There’s that brain saturation again.
This week, we’ve published a story on new efforts to help with farmers’ mental health, written by Gail Keck. It’s not the first story we’ve run about such things, and it won’t be the last. I believe it’s that important. I’ve seen it in my own mental health, and I’ve seen it in my family, friends and those around me. We are not OK. And perhaps admitting it will help ease some of that stress.
It is a known fact on my farm: when it’s deadline day, the animals will revolt.
Even as the deadline loomed for this column, I woke to find a fence down, wee donkeys causing havoc in the wrong pasture and a group of ewes that should be separated no longer so. I took a deep breath and began hurriedly tackling the chaos. Truthfully, while I was threatening to drop kick every animal to the next county, I found myself strangely focused. Fix it. Finish writing. Perhaps even in the effort of writing this column I’d found catharsis? Who knows.
As I researched the primal scream, I was struck by this comment, by the biologist Sapolsky: “For my money, I’d bet that most of the stress-reducing effects come from the sociality of this. So, scream in groups.”
Huh. Maybe it isn’t that far-fetched to stage a communal farmer version. I’ve got a good field.
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