Americans report epidemic levels of stress, and for farmers facing risks from tough markets, unpredictable weather, labor shortages and other challenges, stress can be severe.
That’s why the 2020 Women in Agriculture conference focused on stress management, self-care and mindfulness as tools to build resiliency and improve decision-making under stress. Healthy farms need healthy, resilient farmers, said organizer Margaret Viebrock with Washington State University Extension.
Stress management and mindfulness experts gave presentations via video conference to the hundreds of women in attendance at local gatherings across the Northwest. From Minnesota, social workers Shauna Reitmeier and Brenda Mack explained how self-care strategies such as sleep, exercise, spending time with friends and practicing gratitude reduce the toll stress takes on the body and mind. Then, Sue Schneider from Colorado State University Extension shared how mindfulness strategies can change our brains to be less reactive to stress.
Local groups also had the chance to discuss their own stress responses and develop action plans to use more self-care and mindfulness tools. Talking about mental health together reduces the stigma and benefits the entire farming community, speakers said.
“For both males and females, the stigma in reaching out for help is getting better, but it’s not there yet,” Reitmeier said at the January meeting.
Don’t go it alone
Women farmers often wear so many hats — the financier, the planner, the mother, the veterinarian, the mechanic — but the stress of trying to be everything to everybody can be overwhelming, Reitmeier said.
“When you are under stress, it can be so debilitating that you look at your to-do list and you just don’t know how to start,” she said.
To prevent reaching that point, she and Mack emphasized the importance of self-care, to put one’s own oxygen mask on first, so to speak, as a foundation for being more resilient to stress. Mack described self-care as a three-legged stool. Getting enough sleep, drinking enough water and eating well provide the physical care we need, along with exercise, which releases endorphins that help our bodies process stress.
Strong relationships support the stool as well.
“In times of stress, we often want to be alone and hide in our rooms under the covers,” but that backfires, Mack said. “Healthy relationships and connection to others fuels resiliency.”
You might not feel up to talking about your worries, but simply getting together with a friend for coffee eases stress, she said. She urged everyone in the audience to identify the people “on their team” to turn to in hard times.
Recognizing how we talk to ourselves and swapping out negative language for positive is the third leg in this model. Instead of saying “I’m a failure at farming,” after losing a crop, Mack said, tell yourself, “I did the best I could, I did everything in my power to get the crop in.” Basically, try to talk to yourself as you would to a friend, Reitmeier said, and you’ll find yourself much more compassionate. That positive thinking sets a foundation for positive feelings and actions.
Mindfulness and gratitude
Positive thinking is easier said than done, because we are hard-wired to remember negative things, Schneider said. It’s a survival instinct to avoid getting eaten by a tiger, she said, and triggers an adrenaline response. But with “so many stressors today, our brains get stuck in that adrenalized place,” she said. “Our brains don’t know what the tiger is and what we don’t need to worry as much about.”
She wants to help people actually rewire that stress response in their brains, replacing it with mindfulness. It takes practice, but repeatedly pausing in the face of stress to take some deep breaths will calm the mind and body, changing how we react under pressure. Research shows it can literally alter the structure of our brains, she said.
“We can control our reactions, not the stressors that are outside our control,” she said. Stress activates patterns of behavior: Some people get busy and anxious, others withdraw and become depressed. Acknowledging hard feelings, such as worries or fears, rather than trying to ignore or reject them, can also help our brains process them faster.
Practicing gratitude can also reshape our thinking and make us happier, all the speakers said. Research shows that writing down three good things that happen every day or writing thank-you notes can help fight stress and create new motivation for positive behavior changes, Schneider said.
“It has a double-bang impact. The recipient of gratitude feels happier, and for the individual expressing gratitude, they feel more joy and happiness,” Mack said.
Breaking the stigma
Recognizing the high levels of stress and suicide in farm communities, about a year and a half ago, Michigan State University began developing a farm stress program aimed at bringing awareness and tools to farmers and those who work with them, said Eric Karbowski, a behavioral health educator who runs the farm stress program for MSU Extension.
Many of the stress management and mindfulness strategies the program shares are similar to those shared at the Women in Agriculture event. The stress management strategies themselves are pretty common, but speaking specifically to a farm community is important, he said.
“The farming community is a very proud culture,” he said, and it can be hard for farmers to talk about mental health struggles. “My message is: ‘Don’t listen for you, listen for your neighbor or your spouse or your child.’ And that takes away a little bit of that sense of vulnerability. Then there’s usually a couple of people that open up, and that sparks a conversation.”
In addition to stress management programing, he works to connect Michigan farmers to mental health resources and to reduce the stigma around talking about stress, mental health and suicide.
Now, a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency and partners, Farm Credit, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, aims to bring training to people who work with farmers, so they can recognize the signs of chronic stress and offer help.
Agriculture service providers need to understand that farmers often consider their farm as a member of the family, he said, especially if it’s been passed down over generations. So the idea of losing the farm can trigger profound grief, not just financial stress, he said.
Everyone handles stress differently, he added, so people need to find the management strategies that work for them and not be afraid to ask for help if they aren’t coping as well as usual.
“Don’t feel alone in the situation with the feelings and fear you experience,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who care and a lot of tools to help you as a farmer.
—by Kate Prengaman
Learn more about managing farm stress:
—Michigan State University online at: www.canr.msu.edu/managing_farm_stress/index
—The Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center webinars on cultivating resilience online at: umash.umn.edu/cultivating-resiliency-webinars