By Lesley Kelly, Farmer and Co-Founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation
Farming can be both a rewarding and demanding occupation where farmers experience highs and lows and mounting stress. Everyone feels stress and there can be lots of negative stress on the farm, including ongoing unhealthy family or employee dynamics, debt loads, long hours, and unexpected interruptions. But there is also good stress that fuels and motivates us.
What is stress?
According to the Canadian Association of Mental Health, stress is a normal response to situational pressures or demands and is part of everyday life. Often referred to as “fight or flight,” stress causes our bodies to release hormones which make our blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels rise. A nearly constant state of stress, or chronic stress can lead to mental health problems and medical issues.
Is all stress harmful and negative?
A small amount of stress can be good for us because it gives us that boost of adrenaline that motivates us to accomplish tasks. We see good stress on the farm like the last push of getting the crop planted or seeded before a rain comes or helping a heifer birth a healthy calf.
When stress becomes harmful
When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged without the opportunity to recover, it can be harmful and risks for mental health problems and medical problems increase. Long term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse problems, sleep problems. Stress also increases the risk of medical problems like muscle tension, chronic headaches, weakened immune systems, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Recognizing signs and symptoms of stress
- Chest pain
- Beating heart
- Grinding/clenching teeth
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Increased irritability or angry blow-ups
- Low self esteem
- Suicidal thoughts
- Change in diet and sleeping habits
- Substance use increase
- Lack of concentration
- Withdrawing from others and activities
- Trouble adapting to changing situations
Because stress is a normal part of life, everyone experiences it. However, the frequency, duration and intensity will be different for each person and therefore, how each person manages their stress will be different too. Here are some quick tips that you can do in your office or cab of the tractor to help manage stress:
- Talk it out with a friend: Having supportive people in your life is the key to stress management. This may mean reaching out to your existing network or expanding your network by joining an organization, attending a support group or obtaining professional help.
- Talk yourself through it: Sometimes calling a friend is not an option. If this is the case, talking calmly and positively to yourself can be the next best thing. Tell yourself why you are stressed out, what you have to do to complete the task at hand, and most importantly, that everything will be okay.
- Breathing: Just focusing on your breathe or changing the way you breathe can make a big difference to your overall stress level. Breathing techniques can calm your body and your brain in just a few minutes. While there are many breathing exercises, a few simple ones include:
- Breathe in through your nose and watch your belly fill with air. Count slowly to three as you inhale. Hold for one second and then slowly breathe out through your nose as you count to three again.
- Breathe in through your nose and imagine inhaling peaceful, calm air. Imagine that air spreading through your body. As you exhale, imagine you’re breathing out stress and tension.
- Listen to music: Listening to calming music or music you enjoy can have a very relaxing and positive effect on the body.
- Take a walk: Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever that can work in minutes. Taking a walk allows you to enjoy a change of scenery and a break which can help you get into a different frame of mind. It can be as easy as walking around the tractor a few times to ease your stress level.
- Write it down: While recording what you are stressed about is one approach, another is jotting down what you would like to get accomplished and prioritize, or what you’re grateful for. Your phone can be a great tool. You can also do this through voice notes and keep messages, ideas, thoughts and lists on our phone.
Certain habits can promote resilience to stress, as well as increase overall wellness. It’s also important to create a lifestyle that will help you ward off stress and deal with challenges in a healthy way. Eating a balanced diet, making time for leisure activities, prioritizing exercise and sleep, and reassessing your to-do list can all help. Finding the best stress relief strategies may take some experimenting and practice. But it’s important to keep looking for tools that will help you manage life’s inevitable ups and downs in a healthy way. Keeping stress at a manageable level is important for your overall well-being.