The science of stress

Part 2: Focused stress reduction strategies

by Sally Colby

Farmers are professionals when it comes to getting things done under stress, but often at the expense of their health. Because stress can be a major contributing factor in many complicated health issues, it’s worth pursuing stress-reduction strategies to avoid serious issues.

Kim Rush Lynch, University of Maryland Extension, outlined some stress-reduction strategies. While not every method works for every person, most people can find a strategy that works for them.

People don’t always know what is causing their stress. Lynch suggested taking an inventory that might reveal poor eating or sleeping habits. Insufficient sleep often results in inaccurate perceptions, which leads to overreacting.

Learning to let go can help relieve stress, but Lynch said it’s one of the hardest things for us to do. “There are lots of things in our lives we need to let go,” she said, noting the variety of people and situations we deal with daily. “If something isn’t serving you, let it go and see the opportunities for growth. Learn forgiveness, especially forgiving yourself. If you’re angry with others, it doesn’t necessarily affect them – it affects you.”

While most farmers believe they get plenty of exercise simply through farming activities, targeted exercise helps stretch stressed muscles and release endorphins – the feel-good hormones. Sometimes the act of going somewhere off the farm for exercise provides stress relief.

Social support systems often benefit farmers who find that talking about their stress with others can be helpful. “People get support in a variety of ways – family and friends, clubs, churches and co-workers,” said Lynch. “There are also specific support groups for people going through grief or trauma.” Lynch added that humans have a tendency to hide and shut others out during tough times, but those we shut out can become part of the healing process.

Specific therapy with a professional is often useful when other self-help hasn’t provided ongoing stress relief. “Sometimes professional therapy is helpful if you’re having a hard time,” said Lynch, adding that many insurance plans cover such therapy. “If you’ve tried various stress management techniques and you’re still feeling stuck in stress and anxiety, go to someone who can help you see things in a different way and help pull you out of that ‘stuckness.’”

Guided imagery helps many people deal with stress. Lynch explained the technique as using words and music to evoke a positive, imaginary scenario. “There’s more research coming out about the effects of the mind on the body,” she said, “and this is a way to train your brain to relax and think more positively.” Those who want to relieve stress through meditation but can’t stop the hamster wheel often benefit from guided imagery. Music can also be effective as a stress management tool.

Working on a mindset shift can help relieve stress. “You can retrain your brain to think more positively about a situation,” said Lynch. “We like to call it reframing. When something happens, instead of saying ‘Oh’ followed by four-letter words, you can say ‘Wow – isn’t that interesting. What’s the opportunity here?’” Lynch said the shift in your brain when something less than fun is happening can help reduce stress and help get you through the experience.

Another opportunity to reduce stress comes first thing in the morning, a time when many people are frazzled and in a hurry. Making an effort to create a specific mindset can help set the tone for the day. “Taking a few minutes in the morning to get your mind right can really help with the rest of your day,” said Lynch. “If we keep telling ourselves that things are horrible and stressful, that’s what we’re going to continue to focus on.” Lynch added that a frazzled, rushed start to the day may still occur, but the results are more positive if we shift out of that mindset.

Planning and setting goals can help relieve stress. “A lot of people fail to plan,” said Lynch. “That in itself can be stressful. But over-planning can also be stressful because of expectations that may lead to disappointment if they don’t happen.” For some people, working with visual stimuli such as cut-outs on a board help promote a positive mood.

Lynch said taking time to play and engage in simple activities can help people decompress and reduce stress. “Playing can be a lot of different things,” she said. “It can be something like cooking, reading or watching a movie. A lot of folks are artists and have a creative outlet.”

Sleep is an essential aspect of managing stress. Lack of sleep can result in overreacting to situations that wouldn’t normally be as stressful if approached with adequate sleep. “Ongoing lack of sleep can lead to daytime sleepiness, emotional difficulties, poor job performance, weight gain and lowered perception of your quality of life,” said Lynch, adding that getting sufficient sleep can be challenging. “There are lots of symptoms of lack of sleep – moodiness, fatigue, irritability, depression, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate and clumsiness. Most of us are running on some sort of sleep deficit and it isn’t good for our bodies.”

Therapy with trained professionals is often beneficial for people under prolonged stress, and there’s no shame in using pharmaceuticals as prescribed by a professional. Lynch said people who have tried a variety of stress-reduction techniques without success often benefit from counseling and/or support groups. “Sometimes you just need to hear something different from someone else,” she said, “or talk through it in a different way.”

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