Three steps to help reduce farm stress

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“What are some additional stressors you experience on the farm or in your life as a woman?” asked Rebecca McFarland at the 2021 Women Managing the Farm Conference.

McFarland is a district family and child development specialist and was one of four presenters in the session titled “Managing Stress, Developing Coping Skills, and Cultivating Resilience.” All four are currently employed by Kansas State Research and Extension.

Participant responses to McFarland’s question include: balancing work, farm and the family; food preparation three times a day; knowing what people want to eat; feeling that their labor is not valued; wondering if they’re raising their children well enough; fear of judgement from other people; farm bookkeeping; children’s schedules; and home chores. Many of these responses fall into the “third shift category” – the planning and scheduling required to manage a family. The first shift is the money-making part of the day. The second shift is the evening meal and homework at the end of the day.

According to McFarland, the stress of the “third shift” disproportionately impacts women. In addition, there are more stressors that exist for women in farming including agricultural stereotypes, lack of perceived authority and lack of access to ag programs and loans. “These additional stressors really do exist for women,” McFarland said.

Anne Pitts, county agent of 4-H & Human Development, said, “Stress is defined as a need or demand people confront that is perceived as burdensome or threatening, and it can lead to physical or mental health problems.” But not all stress is bad. Anticipatory stress, like that which occurs before a wedding or the birth of a baby, can actually be energizing. “Bad stress, though, is considered distress, and can result in severe physical or emotional problems.”

District Livestock Agent Brett Melton, explained how bad stress increases cortisol levels and causes detrimental impacts to health, both physically and mentally. By showing photographs of two jars of water – one muddy and one clear – he created a simple metaphor of the impacts of stress. He said, “The clear water represents what your brain looks like when you are thinking clearly. The muddy water represents high cortisol levels and a murky brain. It’s difficult to make decisions quickly or accurately with a murky brain.”

While each presenter had different suggestions for controlling stress, they were all in agreement about one thing: toxic stress is not self-remedying. It will not simply go away. People must commit to understanding their stress and chart their own pathway to a clearer mind. While women were the audience of the conference, the following stress reduction tips are applicable to all.

A good first step in stress reduction is overcoming the stigma that seeking help is a sign of weakness, said Brad Dirks, associate director of the Physician Assistant Program and behavior health specialist. According to him, stress is a physiological phenomenon, not merely a psychological one. “Your thoughts and feelings impact the neurochemical activities of the brain. We can’t ignore that stress is a physical issue. Why do we ask for help with high blood pressure but not when we’re so anxious we can’t sleep?” he said.

Melton suggested three simple way to cope with stress that don’t require a lot of time and are easy to use: self-talk, breathing and acceptance.

“Be careful how you talk to yourself,” he said. “You may think it’s nonsense, but the way you talk about yourself has a major impact on your mental health.” In order to stop negative thinking, he encouraged participants to practice replacing these thoughts.

Breathing plays a critical role in reducing stress. When faced with a challenging situation, Melton said, “A simple procedure, whether you are in a tractor or sitting at home, is to find your pulse and then breathe in, hold it and breathe out. This simple act can calm the mind, help you focus and impact your heart rate.”

His final tip was to accept that there is a category of stressors that you have no control over, including weather, pay price and the pandemic. “Not all problems can be solved, nor can all situations be changed,” he said. Acknowledging this allows you to focus on the things that can be changed and managed.

McFarland emphasized the importance of family communication in stress reduction, particularly with children. “We need to focus on being intentional and mindful of our relationships,” she said. “Relationships don’t just happen. It’s important to respect each person’s values, what they are thinking and feeling and try to understand that person.”

Specifically, McFarland recommended using reflective listening, a communication strategy involving two steps: listening carefully to understand a speaker’s idea and then presenting the idea back to the speaker to confirm that it’s been understood correctly.

She also recommended using “I” statements rather than “you” statements, which help to avoid blaming someone else. For example, “You were too rough with the overhead door” versus “Next time, I would like you to be gentle with the overhead door.”

Finally, McFarland suggested using timeouts to cool down. “When you feel your body temperature rising, you’re getting flushed and you have that murky brain, agree to take a timeout and come back and have that discussion,” she said.

Another stress reduction idea is therapy. According to Dirks, this can simply be a cup of coffee with a friend, relative or another trusted person. It can mean using the services of a healthcare provider such as a primary care provider, psychologist or psychiatrist. Dirks, however, warned that therapy cannot magically fix you. “Therapy is a process where you join with another person and say ‘How can we work through this together?’ It takes time to build trust and hopefully that person can reflect your feelings to you and offer suggestions. And remember, one size doesn’t fit all. If you don’t connect with a therapist, don’t throw it out the window. Try a different one. If they don’t understand farming or your role as a woman on the farm, find someone who does.”

Regardless of how you choose to manage stress, Dirks closed the session by underlining the idea that mental health is serious business. “We all struggle with mood and stress. No one is immune. Things won’t go away if you ignore them. Have the courage to ask for help or walk with someone through their struggle.”

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