Farming requires long hours, hard work and the ability to deal with unpredictability — traits that we should be proud to embody in farming communities. However, as humans, we are often better prepared to handle short-term, not long-term, stressors.
Learning better ways to confront long-term stressors can help us avoid developing anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Like all animals, humans are wired to navigate stress and life-threatening situations. We have an emergency response system (the sympathetic nervous system, sometimes called our “fight or flight” system) that is designed to get us through stressful times.
When operating correctly, our sympathetic nervous system helps us gather the biological resources necessary to deal with the threat. Then, when the threat passes, an opposing system (the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” system) takes over, allowing our minds and bodies to rest in order to prepare for the next threat.
Unfortunately, given the dramatic changes in technology and human lifestyles in recent years, our quick and unconscious fight or flight process has also made us vulnerable to mental health problems.
Imagine that it is 200 years ago. You are home working in your garden. Off in the distance, you see a dark image. Your alarm bells start to go off and without thinking, you gather up your young children and race inside before the bear you spotted can reach you.
Modern humans evolved from those ancestors who played it safe, those who learned how to respond quickly to threats.
Our world now includes many situations that are not life threatening, but our brains still respond as if they are.
Am I going to get my crops in or out?
How am I going to pay for college if corn prices stay so low? Am I going to need to find other work off the farm?
Am I going to have anything left for retirement? What will I do with the farm if my children do not want to farm?
How am I going to pay for health insurance? What if those stomach aches I have been having are something serious?
And on and on our minds go, focusing on threats and worries that are real, and yet are not immediately and potentially life threatening in the ways that bears were in the past.
But our brain does not know the difference and gets activated to fight any threat it is presented with.
Moreover, technology allows us or forces us to encounter the threats over and over. Certainly our ancestors worried about the weather’s effect on their crops, but they were not confronted with this fear as frequently as we are now. Every time you look at your weather app and see more rain in the forecast, you may fear for the planting season or the harvest season and your brain thinks “bear, bear, bear!” — mobilizing for fight.
So what can we do to manage anxiety and stress better? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Notice when our fight or flight system is on and work to calm it. We are not evolved to deal with constant threats. Our brains need to relax in order to prepare for the next threat (whether this is a bear, the combine breaking down, the weather forecast, illness, etc).
Finding ways to relax our brain and bodies goes a long way, whatever this is for you — sitting outside in silence for a few minutes at the end of a long work day, pausing in the combine to feel gratitude that you get to farm, petting your dog, reading a book, enjoying a meal, going to church, taking a bath.
2. Be gentle with yourself when anxious or stressed. Our brains and bodies literally do not know the difference between a bear attacking and your worries about the fight you had with your spouse this morning.
So, when you do get worked up over “the little things” (or even the big things), it can be helpful to put things in perspective. This lets our nervous system calm down so we can carry on with our lives and work.
I can get very anxious sometimes (and I’m a psychology nerd), so when my system is all worked up, I will literally joke with myself, saying “It’s not a bear!”
3. Find areas of your life where you are in “control.” As I mentioned earlier, our fight or flight system is designed to deal with an active, short-term threat: We fight or run or hide until the threat goes away.
Unfortunately, many modern threats (i.e., weather, farm prices, increased awareness of medical concerns) are not things we can directly or quickly conquer, which means that instead of a quick fight or flight response followed by a period of rest and recovery, we can easily stay in a state of constant stress for days or weeks or months.
This is exhausting, and over time, can create clinical levels of anxiety and depression, as well as contribute to chronic health conditions.
Finding areas of our life where we do feel competent and in control can be helpful when so much of life (particularly in agricultural communities) is out of our control. You might find this peace in church, doing a puzzle, folding laundry, or completing any task.
4. Avoid creating or encountering “threats” as much as possible. Checking the weather periodically can help you to plan ahead for your day; checking it throughout the day can create unnecessary anxiety.
Similarly, it is important to be aware of your financial situation, but checking your bank account or the commodity prices repeatedly may create much more anxiety as your fight or flight system activates (even a little bit) each time you encounter these fears. Work instead on trusting that you will navigate stressful times, just as you have in the past.
In summary, there are many factors that make modern life stressful and that have led to an increase in rates of depression and anxiety across the United States, and in farmers and farmworkers in particular.
While we have little or no control over some of these (i.e., weather, national and international politics that affect pricing), there are many things that can help improve reactions to stress, which can have a major positive impact on mental health, well-being, and productivity at work and home.
If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, both medication and counseling treatments can be helpful. Please contact me directly with further questions or if I can help you find mental health resources in your area. Searching with your zip code on PsychologyToday.com is a great way to find all of your local providers.
Readers, what other topics in the mental health area would you like to see addressed?
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac and Clara. Contact her through her website, https://www.prairiehomewellness.com/.