by George Looby, DVM
Farming is recognized as one of the most stressful of all occupations — much of the stress related to vagaries of Mother Nature over which no one has any control. No amount of careful planning can do much to overcome the force of a hurricane, tornado, blizzard or drought and when they hit, those affected must deal with them as best they can. John Shutske of the University of Wisconsin Extension Service has been working with dairy farmers for many years and has come to appreciate the role stress plays in their lives. Further, he has developed strategies to help them cope with many of these stressors. That which applies to dairymen can transfer to all of those involved in any area of agriculture.
Not all stress is bad. Some stress in life is necessary as a motivating force to get things done. Some individuals would have a hard time getting anything done if it were not for some degree of stress in their lives. All stress is activated by two hormones we all have as part of our make-up — adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is the hormone responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” reaction we express when startled or threatened. Cortisol and its many derivatives serve many functions. Each of these substances is a product of the adrenal glands and without them life would be impossible without supplementation.
Each individual handles stress in a little different way and stressors that may affect one individual may affect another quite differently. The way in which it is managed depends on many things and it is impossible to reduce it to one simple resolution. Many factors have been identified as causing stress on the farm. Among these are financial pressures, debt load, dependency on unpredictable weather and volatile markets, extreme working conditions, fatigue, lack of personal time, little time to talk through difficult situations, inter-generational differences, excessive work load, health, and pain or mobility issues related to years of physical labor.
As noted, different individuals react differently to stress so the question must be asked as to what causes stress in the lives of farmers, their family members and those who are closely connected with them? Another question is, how do successful people cope with stress? Finally, how do individuals successfully deal with stress and help those close to them deal with stress. This is a complex process and it can express itself in many ways. Among the physical signs that may appear are high blood pressure, increased heart rate, slowing of the digestive system and blood clotting time.
Clinical depression can express itself in many ways, either singly or in combination. Any of these listed should alert anyone associated with such an individual that some sort of intervention should be undertaken. This list may not be all-inclusive but each is important.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
- Decreased energy, fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms
Farmers under stress may easily neglect safety measures which are part and parcel of everyday farm life. Failure to maintain equipment can set the stage for accidents. Operators who would otherwise be alert to potential accidents may find themselves distracted by a host of issues they find difficult to manage or resolve and let their guard down, setting the stage for farm accidents. Managing stress is almost never a case where the affected individual can resolve the problem on their own. It calls for input from all members of the family and, in truth, most involve outside assistance. A difficult part of most such situations is for the affected individual to face up to his or her problem. Realizing it is not a sign of weakness is critical and overcoming this common hang up is not easy. Confronting the issue head-on with no excuses is probably one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
There are a number of measures anyone can take to ensure they are doing all they can to minimize the everyday pressures that are part and parcel of their particular job. Surprisingly, one of the things at top of some experts “to do” list is eating properly and, most especially, a good breakfast. This has been repeated many times and far too often goes unheeded. A good diet is essential for good health, both physical and mental.
When the impulse is to do nothing, overcome the feeling and do something which forces one to get up and exercise: even a brisk 25 minute walk with a spouse, partner, child, friend or pet. This stimulates and may even increase the size of the parts of the brain which keep our stress response in check as well as those needed for good decision making and problem solving. Probably one of the most important things anyone can do is to retain or regain one’s sense of humor. There are few situations in life so grim and overwhelming in which a good laugh cannot help. Seek out settings where there are people around who do not seem to have many cares and engage in lighthearted banter. Laughter, it has been said, is the best medicine. Talking through problems with members of the family is probably the most important thing someone in the throes of depression can do. Getting the depressed individual to actually do this is often far from easy, so persistence and insistence on the part of family members is essential. Once established, time should be set aside to have frank, open conversations on a regular basis about everything which affects any affected individual.
Sadly, drugs and alcohol may enter into the picture if a depressed person is not carefully monitored. Individuals who have never had an issue with either may in a moment of extreme malaise turn to one or the other as a means of bolstering a bleak outlook. If that individual’s support group has even the slightest inkling of a potential problem, prompt intervention is critical. Such confrontations are usually followed by denial but the stage is then set for increased surveillance. Support groups are of course available but again there has to be cooperation on the part of the affected individual.
Record keeping and long range planning are not everyone’s strong suite but in order to ensure all parties, especially lending institutions, can look at a carefully structured long range plan, it allows them to know the operation they are dealing with has a clear vision of what they intend to accomplish within a given time frame. This allows lenders and others some latitude in assisting with finances on a given farm. Scheduling for family events should be a high priority item on anyone’s agenda. Each of us goes down this path but neglecting birthdays, anniversaries, sporting events, awards ceremonies and the like can do little to promote a feeling of goodwill among the family unit, and all because of a lack of planning and scheduling. Missing out on events like these can only compound the stress felt by an individual already operating under a dark cloud.
Again, stress is a part of everyday life but when it gets out of hand know that there are resources available in every community. There is no longer a social stigma attached to depression — it is a condition that can and must be dealt with as soon as it is recognized. In most instances an individual can work through such episodes by him/herself with help from the family but when this does not work, professional help should be called on.