Expert shares strategies for coping with farm stress
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Expert shares strategies for coping with farm stress

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COVID farmer stress

Farm stress. There’s far too much of it going on these days.

The farm economy has been struggling for more than half a decade. Just as we were beginning to see a tiny light at the end of a still very dark, very long tunnel, the COVID-19 outbreak made things more difficult.

How are farmers to handle the enormous stress they were carrying after the trade war with China, numerous weather disasters, as well as commodity prices so low they could no longer cover their cost of production? Dr. Josie Rudolphi of the University of Illinois has some advice.

Rudolphi is an assistant professor in the agricultural and biological engineering department at the campus in Champaign, Illinois. She has developed the HERD Stress Management Strategy and spends a lot of time speaking about it throughout rural America.

“Producers are experiencing more farm stress than we’ve seen over the previous five years, which no one thought was possible,” she said. “We’re getting further into spring, which is already a stressful period, and now we’re compounding that with COVID-19, which is a double-edged sword.

“Not only does it create health concerns,” Rudolphi added, “it also creates big concerns about what we see happening in the markets right now.”

Traditional markets like restaurants and schools aren’t available for a lot of food products right now. Some farmers have to find a non-traditional ways to move their products, or they have to dispose of it entirely. Such has been the case with some produce operations and pig farmers who had nowhere to take their hogs to slaughter.

Rudolphi’s stress management program, HERD, aims to keep people healthy by finding positive ways of coping with stress. She tried to keep the method as general as possible because people experience and handle stress in different ways.

HERD stands for hobbies, exercise, relaxation and diversion – which she said are “evidence-based ways of positively coping with stress.”

Hobbies – “There’s a lot of scientific evidence that doing something purely for pleasure, even two hours a week, can have a tremendous impact on mental health,” she said. “What separates a hobby from a job is it’s a creative outlet. We’re talking about things like art, gardening and woodworking.

Woodworking is popular hobby for farmers across America, as is working with metal and restoring old farm equipment, she noted.

“Hobbies are something … we want to do for ourselves,” she said. “It’s a great way to shift yourself out of a stressful mindset, so find something to do that you truly enjoy.”

Exercise – “We all know exercise is good for us,” Rudolphi said. “Exercise has huge physical benefits, but it also has tremendous mental benefits as well.”

Benefits come with as little as 20 minutes a day, she said, and it doesn’t have to be arduous or intense. The goal is to get your heart rate above resting.

“A brisk walk is certainly a way to start reaping some of the physical and mental benefits,” she said.

Relaxation – “It might be a no-brainer to some, but this is all about finding ways to decompress,” she said. “You know how life on the farm can be. It’s challenging and there’s always something to do and be worrying about.”

She suggests a quick nap: “Getting the rest and relaxation that we need is a vital piece of maintaining our physical and mental health.”

Diversion – Diversions can be a way of distracting your brain and quieting the negative self-talk, Rudolphi said.

“If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by thinking about things like farm finances, farm succession planning, I always recommend you take 20 minutes and do something else,” she said. “Change the task in front of you by maybe taking a drive to another farm for a visit. It could be a 20-minute YouTube video about something purely for entertainment or a laugh. It’s literally trying to divert our attention away from something bringing a tremendous amount of stress.”

There are signs of extreme stress (what she calls “distress” that friends and family should be watching out for. It’s important watch for physical, behavioral and emotional changes in others, she said, because we often have trouble admitting to ourselves that we’ve changed – especially if it’s not a positive change. Here are some changes to watch for:

Physical – Those under stress may sleep a lot more or not much at all. They may eat a lot more or a lot less, and they may experience some kind of chronic pain, such as a backache, headache, racing heart or nausea.

Behavioral – Rudophi describes these as changes in our day-to-day patterns – how much a person eats, drinks or sleeps, or changes in what interests them.

“They could also include work changes, especially if someone starts neglecting the things they’re supposed to do,” she said. “They could also neglect how they care for themselves.”

Emotional – “These are the easiest changes to spot,” Rudolphi said. “Depression shows up as people not interested in the things they used to enjoy. They could also become easily agitated, irritable or angry. A blowup at a family member is an obvious sign that there’s too much stress.”

There are several national and regional stress lines that farmers can call to talk to someone about what’s happening on their farm. There’s nothing wrong with looking for professional help.

Rudolphi suggests starting with your primary care provider, who can help navigate the resources available in your insurance system.

Farmers are known as independent folks who prefer to handle things themselves. Rudolphi says it’s vital to remember that asking for help does not make you weak or mean something is seriously wrong with you.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “If you have livestock and something is wrong with them, you wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help. Give yourself that same level of care, for both your sake and for the people around you.”

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