Weather, pests, diseases, finances, equipment breakdowns, family dynamics – farmers have plenty of sources of stress. Although it’s not possible to eliminate them all, farmers can mitigate the effects of stress through stress management tools. PA Farm Link recently hosted Jennifer Schwytzer, a NY Farm Net personal consultant, to discuss ways to deal with stress on the farm.

In addition to farm-based stressors, “we also have the stressors of what’s going on in the world today,” Schwytzer said. “There are so many difficult topics.”

She acknowledged that recognizing stress represents the first step in managing it; however, the means of managing stress are important.

Stress affects our bodies in very different ways, Schwytzer said. “Stressful situations trigger a physical reaction known as the stress response. The brain relays warnings to the muscles, which tighten, and to the adrenal glands, which release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol,” she explained. “A stress response can help you to kick your butt into gear to help you make decisions, but chronic stress can have negative impacts on your body. It can also make people become anxious, worried, depressed or frustrated.” Chronic stress also increases the risk of heart disease, heartburn and many other health problems.

High levels of chronic stress may appear physically, with headaches, back pain, indigestion and heart palpitations; in cognitive traits, like problems with decision making, the thinking process and confusion; and in emotional traits, such as crying, irritability and edginess.

“If you are starting to notice things are looking different for you or you’re experiencing different feelings or emotions, this is when we need to pay attention,” Schwytzer said. “What do we have to do to combat those and negate those? Farm life is stressful. Work is stressful. Managing family life is stressful. [If you feel] ‘There’s nothing I can do’ – that’s your first response that something might not be right.”

Dealing with stress on the farm

Jennifer Schwytzer

Many people explain away stress as a temporary issue or as a normal part of home life. Others identify stress as part of their personality, such as having “nervous energy,” or shift the blame to other people and outside events.

“Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control,” Schwytzer said.

To deal with predictable stressors, most people avoid, alter, adapt or accept the situation. “We can’t use these in all situations, but it’s a good framework for looking things in a different way,” she said.

Avoiding unnecessary stress can include strategies such as learning to say no, avoiding people who contribute to stress, taking control of the environment and paring down the to-do list. Which strategy to use depends upon the situation.

Delegation can be a lifesaver yet it’s difficult to do for go-getters who feel no one else can do the job as well as they can. To alter the situation, Schwytzer encouraged farmers to express their feelings and thoughts, be willing to compromise and create a balanced schedule.

“I know for farmers that there is a lot of struggle with expressing your feelings and emotions and digging into ‘Yes, I’m feeling stressed.’ Be willing to compromise,” she said.

For some older farmers, it may be difficult to compromise with the next generation, who might want to change processes and methods. “Maybe some of those ideas can help streamline some things,” Schwytzer said.

Adapting to stressors involves reframing problems, looking at the big picture, adjusting your standards and practicing gratitude.

“We know that stressors are going to come up for us,” Schwytzer said. “What if we looked at them and said ‘This is very hard, but this is what it will do for me’? You can take this to every different component where stressors can come from. Look for the upside. It’s about changing your mindset.”

Physical activity can help manage stress. While traditionally farming has been a very physical occupation, many farm tasks have become automated with technological advances. This saves time but decreases physical labor and activity. Although still busy, farm life has become more sedentary in the past few decades.

Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that promote positive mood and outlook. “They make us feel good and bring us energy,” Schwytzer said. In addition to regular exercise, she encourages clients to eat a balanced diet, reduce caffeine and sugar and get enough sleep.

By its nature, farming can be very isolative. That contributes to poor stress management. “Connecting to people in tune with what’s going on with you who can understand and relate to the stress you’re feeling” can help relieve stress, she noted. “If you need someone to vent to, vent.”

Spending time with people who help you feel safe and understood promotes calm and positive mental health. Taking time for fun and relaxation represents a key component of self-care too, which Schwytzer considers a necessity, not a luxury.

“If there is no ‘me’ time, you will experience stress,” she said. “There needs to be some time for you, whether it’s going for a walk, reading a book or listening to the radio or a podcast.” Leisure time should occur regularly, not just a few days’ vacation annually.

Proper time management can help farmers plan for relaxation. “Generally, farmers are always on the go, always moving,” she said. “Help them to see ‘You have 20 minutes here.’ Maybe that’s time you could go home and eat lunch or sit down and take a break. There are things we can do to achieve that balance.”

By agreeing to a reasonable amount of commitments, prioritizing tasks, breaking projects into small steps and delegating where possible, farmers can carve out more time in their day.

“Relieving stress in the moment is big,” she added. “Sometimes we experience stress and let if fester. We let it sit there. That stress response shuts down our brain and our ability to make decisions. Learning to relieve that in the moment looks differently for people. Step back and take a break.”

It may seem that stress is part of work or even helpful in accomplishing more; however, Schwytzer said, “if we’re experiencing stress at work and home, it’s definitely having an impact on the work we do. We are not showing up in the best form that we could when we’re stressed.”

While working, it can help to incorporate stretching, giving yourself something to look forward to, staying hydrated, taking breaks to do something physical and seeking support as needed.

“Effective stress management helps you break the hold stress has on your life so you can be happier, healthier and more productive,” Schwytzer said. “The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation and fun. But stress management is not one-size-fits-all. That’s why it’s important to experiment and find out what works best for you.

“Give yourself credit for all you’re doing to manage,” she added. “You have to have your cup full before you give to others.”

She encouraged anyone with unmanageable stress to contact resources, including:

  • For immediate danger, call 911
  • For the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, call 988
  • For domestic violence help for yourself or someone you know, call 1.800.942.6906

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant