Farmers, ranchers not exempt from stress

Even though many farmers are doing what they love, it doesn’t mean they are exempt from stress.

Susan Harris, Nebraska Extension educator, rural health, wellness and safety, spoke during a recent webinar hosted by Nebraska Agribility and the Nebraska Extension Service. Harris said many farmers carry on with the agrarian imperative. This mindset is one that many farmers and ranchers have regarding their land and animals.

“Typically your values are stronger than most workers,” Harris said. “You work hard. You have the ability to take care of things yourself. You’re a good steward of the land, and you’re proud of those things. So when you compare those values to other occupations that can look quite a bit different.”

Farming and ranching is much more personal. People can’t leave their workplace in most cases.

“Just knowing that you have these values makes your stress even more prominent because you care so much,” she said. “Many stressors for farmers and ranchers are chronic or ongoing, and many are stressors that those of us in other jobs don’t even have to deal with.”

Harris said the key to reducing stress “is just to take care of you.”

“I know that a lot of you are hardcore workers and that’s great,” she said. “But maybe you’re only thinking of those stressors as external things that are forces that are weighing you down. When really, if you take an honest look at how some of the things that you do every day, there might be room to hold yourself accountable for creating your own change.”

Life throws curveballs, and Harris said people can either let that “mess you up for a long time or you can do your best to get yourself aligned again.” Many have suffered through crises like flooding or fires, and those survivors tend to rally because they took care of everyone, took care of the land or livestock.

“You recovered somewhat from the situation,” Harris said. “But you’re basically just so busy surviving, that you’re not taking care of yourself. You might be only grabbing easy food—that’s not nutritious. You might not be getting enough sleep, you might not be socializing with people because you’re just so busy working on things.”

Harris suggested at this point, it might be a good time to allow yourself to recognize that you still need self-care in order to work and react in the best way possible when stressors are thrown at you.

Overall wellness involves many mental processes, not just physical, Harris said.

“It’s more than just eating and getting exercise. It’s about financial well-being. It’s about social connections, doing things we enjoy and so much more,” she said. “Many of us in rural areas have a really difficult time even saying the words mental health.”

Mental health is brain health.

“It’s a good thing. It’s something that everyone should work on just as much as they work on their physical health,” Harris said. “We all have mental health and we all have physical health. But what most people don’t realize is how closely those two are connected.”

Aspects of health

Sleep is the most underrated and underutilized health aid in our modern society, according to Harris.

“It is that magical cure for so many ailments,” she said. “Honestly, sleep is like this umbrella over so many things in our lives.”

There’s no such thing as catching up when you lose out on sleep. Each hour lost is valuable. The body is deprived of the “overnight cleaning crew” that cleans and sweeps toxins out of the body. Organs and muscles are repaired.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“It affects every single element of our lives,” Harris said. “Without it puts you in a danger zone.”

Executive function measures brain damage and dysfunction is losing the ability to perform basic every day skills. Harris said those in the throes of calving season right now, for example, can really put themselves in the danger zone when dealing with sleep deprivation and a physically demanding job.

“Being awake for almost 16 hours means you’ll have a decline in your basic abilities. Being awake for 18 hours is like having a legal intoxication level of 0.05,” Harris said. “By the way, if you’re awake for 21 hours, it’s like having a level of 0.08 or like driving drunk in Nebraska. And if you pull an all nighter, you are wasted.”

Harris said, in Nebraska, adults are struggling more than others when it comes to hours of sleep. About one out of every four people are sleeping fewer than seven hours per night, and adults on average, are sleeping an hour to an hour and a half less every night than they did 50 years ago.

“That statistic just astounds me. I think that’s huge,” she said. “Children are sleeping two hours less than they did 100 years ago. That’s even more astounding.”

Harris also said obesity rates and sleep loss go hand in hand, saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maps for obesity could easily be laid on top of sleep loss maps, and they’d be nearly the same.

Adults need about eight hours of sleep, while kids and teenagers need 9.5 to 10 hours a night.

Harris said much of the stress farmers and ranchers are enduring isn’t coming from the traditional external sources plus people get bombarded from all different angles. Lack of sleep, unhealthy food, movement or lack of movement or if the person is hydrated or dehydrated, can add to the stress.

“We immediately think of stress as being in our heads as a result of something that happened to us, right,” she said. “But our bodies have to deal with all kinds of stress even before our minds are suffering.”

Harris said sitting can be seen as the new smoking. Challenge yourself to come up with little things to do throughout the day in order to stay active.

“For those seasons, when you’re on the tractor all day is to just every hour, get out, walk around the tractor a few times,” she said. “It’s not only good for keeping blood clots away, but it keeps your mind alert and safe.”

Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean quick fixes and society often is a reactive bunch—blaming weather or people, occupations, appetites or an endless list of other things to conveniently justify why changes can’t be made.

“Those steps are never easy, but one baby step at a time is better than not stepping at all,” Harris said. “So again, take care of yourself.”

Because there are not just outside sources causing stress, but internal ones too. It becomes a tough realization for many people because they believe stress is caused by things that happen to a person.

“It just couldn’t be further from the truth,” Harris said.

In the human body, cortisol does “all of these necessary things for us. It also plays a big role in our body’s stress response,” she said. The function of cortisol is supposed to be short lived and around just long enough to deal with the offending stressor.

“However, when that stress becomes chronic or ongoing, this becomes a problem,” she said. “When your body is on high alert, dealing with stress, cortisol can shut down functions like your digestive function, your metabolism, just all kinds of systems that could go awry.”

This is where cortisol becomes the enemy. Cortisol helps regulate metabolism and food cravings, so ongoing cortisol levels create more cravings, often for fattening foods.

“So it becomes this vicious cycle of lack of sleep, higher stress, and absolutely cortisol changing your metabolism and food cravings, leading you to weight gain and more stress on your body,” Harris said. “So it’s a pretty good incentive to try to lower that stress level.”

Stress defined

The definition of stress, according to Harris, is “need or demand, people confront that is perceived as burdensome, threatening and can lead to physical or mental health problems.” Perceived is the key word there, she said, because each person perceives things so differently.

“What freaks me out may not freak you out at all,” she said. “And stress is different than anxiety because those who have anxiety issues are planning ahead for something that hasn’t happened yet. And but when you experience stress, it’s right there.”

Many farmers and ranchers have had a year of financial problems, disasters or other stressors. It’s likely there could be an excess of cortisol in their blood. Everyone reacts differently to stressors, Harris said. It’s easy to overlook other’s feelings and reactions when they don’t align with yours.

“Everyone is different. So just keep that in mind,” she said. “Just be kind because you never know when others are slacking or bitter or angry or emotional or something that you’re not when you’re stressed. Perhaps they are just struggling with something.”

Harris sees increased stress with caregivers who take care of everyone else and livestock and end up absorbing all their problems.

“When you’re exerting all your efforts to keep others healthy and happy, you’re putting your own self care on the back burner,” she said. “So remember—take care of yourself first, or at least start with baby steps and take care of yourself equally as you do take care of others.”

Humans, according to some research, are capable of handling two major stressors in their lives at a time—a death in the family, a divorce, moving or having a baby, Harris said.

“It’s when that third stressor is introduced into your life, that you’re more apt to just crack,” she said. “That chronic stress takes us beyond a tolerable and manageable level, and that’s potentially when our bodies tell us it’s just too much both mentally and physically.”

How a person reacts to stress depends more on which part of the brain is used.

“If someone is using more of the frontal lobe of their brain, they’re making lists, they’re problem solving, they’re creating solutions. They’re rolling with it, and just accepting the things they can’t change,” Harris said. “If someone is using more of the emotional part of their brain, they find it difficult to be objective and they can’t see the facts. They might seem irrational. They’re probably ruminating about things that they have no control over.”

The goal is to try to see the stress, but don’t become the stress.

“Try recognizing that right when it starts happening, and remove yourself from your own brain for a second and just try to see the situation in a new way with new responses than you’ve had in the past,” Harris said. “If you practice enough, maybe you can even start to see some bright sides in every situation.”

It’s all about attitude, and Harris likes the saying, “life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.

“We need to realize that we simply can’t be in control of something,” she said. “So why get worked up?”

She suggests focusing on accomplishments rather than beating yourself up over failures or trauma—especially with the anniversary of the Nebraska floods and the coronavirus pandemic. Celebrate the achievements and small recoveries.

“We react to situations of the day and it can help to plan ahead and be proactive and prepare for those situations, especially if you’ve lived through them once before,” Harris said.

To cope and help with stress, Harris said to think about what’s really stressing you right now. Imagine it’s in front of you and you could reach out and grab it and mash it up with your hands.

“It makes it something entirely different and you put it back out there and you see it as a challenge,” she said.

By mashing it, the feeling becomes an opportunity to recreate it into something different. By doing this, a new approach can be found and possibly a little bit more control. She suggested the following to cope with stress:

  • Sleep, activity, nutrition;

  • Deep breathing (box breathing or exhaling longer);

  • Self-talk;

  • Meditating/music;

  • Watch less news and more uplifting news;

  • Connect with people in your social network, avoid negative people;

  • Talk to a mental health professional;

  • Take time for yourself (hobbies);

  • Spend time with people and pets you love;

  • Shift from worrying to problem solving;

  • Get organized, de-clutter your space, plan ahead; and

  • Give your time or favors to community members.

“For responses, positive talk is magical. Because you know how it feels,” she said. “When someone gives you a compliment or pumps you up with some positive talk, it helps a lot, right? So why not do that for yourself?”

Talk to yourself how you’d talk to others. And in the end, remember to take care of yourself.

“Just don’t work too overly hard and schedule time for you to do what you want to do,” Harris said. “Know when to say—thanks for thinking of me, but I think I’ll pass this time—when someone asks you to add one more thing to your workload.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].