by Stephen Wagner

Suzanne Pish, Extension educator with Michigan State University (MSU), presented the title topic at one of the first breakout sessions at the 68th annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau on Nov. 12. This program was begun in 2016 when there was a notable increase in suicides and attempted suicides in Michigan, Pish said.

Let’s face it – farming can be stressful. The dictionary tells us that stress is a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. It can also be a factor in disease causation. A number of studies bear witness to the fact that emotional stress can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmia and even sudden death. Other by-products of chronic stress include heart disease, high blood pressure and hypertension. An MSU handout states that “Farmers and those within the agricultural industry have a tendency to be eternal optimists, but with all the variability in agriculture there are times when we can be overwhelmed and stressed more than normal. Having the right mindset can help increase productivity and resiliency, so we are better prepared when times are tough, and more able to manage our farms and take care of our families and ourselves.”

Another handout asked you to circle things that affect your thoughts or feelings. In my opinion, some of these things can be deadlier than the above-listed ailments, like depression, boredom, irritability, short fuse anger and sleeplessness. Other stresses can affect behavior – under-eating and over-eating, taking drugs, increased smoking and/or drinking and withdrawing from people.

When polled for their opinions on the top causes of farm stress, attendees cited farm transition, financial matters, weather, government regulations, diminished crop yields, machinery breakdowns, commodity prices, lack of communication (including misunderstood communication) and no help when you need it. Though North Dakota State University (NDSU) was not present for this program, a few of their Extension service papers were, one of which is titled “Managing Stress and Pursuing Wellness in Times of Tight Margins.” The working title for this particular paper is “My Coping Strategies Plan,” which is broken down into six categories with suggestions for coping in each category column. These categories are as follows:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional/Spiritual
  • Personal/Relational
  • Work/Professional
  • Financial/Practical

Each list included a dozen suggestions each for coping. In the Work/Professional category, the first suggestion is to “Focus on factors you can control in your work.” Under Financial/Practical, you will find “Assess your family finances and needs,” and so on. NDSU offered another sheet aimed at recognizing possible danger signs in others who might be contemplating more disastrous courses of action. Conversational ice-breakers from this sheet include “I heard you say your meeting with the banker was a disaster. Can you tell me about it?” and “I’ve seen you angry a lot lately and noticed you were harsh with the kids. How can I help?” But it goes on to address your gut instincts about other people and their erratic behavior in potential worst-case scenarios. Accessing this paper from NDSU Extension can be very useful. It is adapted from “Dealing with Distressed Students,” which is obtainable from the university’s Counseling Center and Behavioral Health Intervention Team.

MSU, on the other hand, provides a paper called “How to Cultivate a Productive Mindset,” wherein you rely more on yourself than any interventions from other sources. “It takes three weeks to change a habit,” said Pish. “If I want to not drink Pepsi, I would have to not drink Pepsi for 21 days in order to kill the old habit.”

It’s a little bit like whistling in the dark. Sometimes, we have to fool the body and the mind to convince ourselves that everything will be okay. Philosopher William James said, “Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” The fact sheet picks up that train of thought: “The body hears what the mind thinks. So choose your thoughts with purpose. Tell yourself that you can overcome any challenge. You can adapt. You have come through rough times before. You can do it again.”

“When faced with a challenge, first use your breath. Deep breathing calms the mind and can help you focus,” the fact sheet continues. “It can also reduce chronic pain and improve sleep.”

Pish, a cancer survivor, found herself tossing and turning in bed because her mind was dwelling on her cancer and the very real possibility of dying. These suggestions helped her to sleep. If it works for a worst-case scenario, it can work for you. The human mind has 70,000 thoughts per day; that’s 70,000 opportunities. Use acceptance! “When things are beyond your control, the most productive step you can take is to accept it. Making acceptance a part of your mindset can save you time and energy by letting you focus on the solution instead of getting frustrated by the problem. A brisk 10-minute walk releases 50 to 70 percent of the cortisol in your brain that comes with stress or anger. The best time to walk is first thing in the morning, but a walk anytime is good. Just take 10 minutes away from everyone and everything to walk by yourself and you will be in a better mood for the entire day.”