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Dealing with stress on the farm

Next time you dig into the farm books, be grateful for what science is learning

For the majority of farmers across Canada, 2014 started with a brutal winter and a brutal load of work, with snow to clear and equipment to thaw. Then came falling grain prices, thinning margins, and the race to be on top of absolutely every financial detail.

In other words, if you believe in stress, this has been a tough year for it. But then, if you weren’t already aware, believing in stress is now an option.

The next time a salesperson rolls down the drive, stop them in the laneway and demand a definition of stress. What you’ll probably hear is that stress is when you feel tense, or when you have too much to do in too little time. They may even try to make a quick 1950s joke, like saying stress is when a woman shows up on your doorstep sporting a big ol’ belly.

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But these are examples of “distress,” which is when someone chooses to respond to information or events in a negative way.

Pierrette Desrosiers, a psychologist and Country Guide columnist who specializes in working with farmers in St-Herménégilde, Que., says that unless it’s an extreme situation, such as the death of a loved one or winning the lottery, being “stressed” is a choice you make.

“It’s not the stress that makes you stressed, but how you interpret the situation,” Desrosiers explains. “If you feel that the situation is a challenge, and that if it is a challenge, there is a way to find a solution, you will not feel overwhelmed.”

A great example, Desrosiers says, is public speaking. In front of a crowd, your heart rate increases, but as the speaker, you can either think your heart is elevated just because you are so excited, or you can worry instead, thinking that your higher heart rate is a bad sign and it might even mean you’re having a heart attack.

The mind is very powerful in either case, Desrosiers says. “When you feel overwhelmed, and when you feel that there is no hope, that is what makes you stressed… and sick!”

Over the last 15 years, Desrosiers feels she has seen more distress on the farm than ever. She believes a number of factors are contributing to this trend. Debt is high on many farms. There have also been fewer successors, with young people lured to urban jobs which appeared to promise more pay for work that didn’t appear to be so hard.

At the bottom is a general change in expectations, Desrosiers says. “In the past, we had more farmers who found that their work was important, and it was a mission,” she says. “They did not expect to have the big tractors and all the material things that we focus on now. We have been contaminated by external values, and these values are related to anxiety and depression.”

Janet Smith is a Brandon-based program manager for Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services in Brandon. By her account, western farmers are sharing the same experiences as their eastern counterparts, with the additional stressor of the clogged grain transportation system.

“Farmers who experience high levels of stress for long periods of time can be at greater risk of developing serious physical and mental illnesses if they do not find ways to manage that stress,” Smith agrees. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, farming is among the most stressful occupations. But Smith also points out that successful farmers have had to adapt and find ways to manage the ups and downs in agriculture.

Perhaps there is no greater example on the farm than “the farmer’s wife.”

The other side

The last census showed that 59 per cent of farm women are now over 50. They also account for over 46 per cent of Canada’s farmers, with women being more likely than men to work off the farm too.

Other studies show that the typical Canadian farm woman is married with children and has a higher level of education than her spouse, but rarely participates in rural women’s networking organizations.

Clearly farm women have a lot on the go, but are they doing too much? And are they bearing more of the farm stress than men? Smith says some studies have found rural women are more likely to either die accidentally (motor vehicle accident, poisoning, and suicide), or from disease (cancer and diabetes), but others show that rural populations, both male and female, rate their health as very good or excellent.

“It’s hard to compare levels of stress, but I would say that female farmers experience stress differently than men,” Smith says. “While farm women wear many hats, and may feel exhausted and burned out as a result, they also have more avenues to deal with the stress they are experiencing.”

While girls are taught to express their feelings, boys are often raised to be “strong and silent,” Smith points out, and this often means women will develop friendships that will support them during difficult times.

Desrosiers echoes Smith’s observations, saying, “Men will express stress differently. They will not say they are stressed, but they will consume more, they will be more upset, and they become workaholics.”

Fortunately, Smith says, she is starting to see a shift in these trends, and she is receiving more calls from men more open to adopting new coping strategies.

Rhonda Erb, a corporate and family professional organizer, believes that she is also seeing more help for women who get into distress trying to be everything to everyone on the farm or in the family.

Speaking last winter to the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors’ Farm Women Managing Farms and Families conference in Guelph, her advice on how to get the whole family working together to reduce stress was to the point. Get everyone organized!

“We don’t think a whole lot about it, but when we’re spending time looking for things, the whole stress level goes up,” says Erb. Having many friends who are farm women, she knows all too well how much paper comes into their houses on account of all the volunteer work they do and all the business documents that are necessary.

Erb says bookwork is a job that often doesn’t become a high priority until tax time, but it’s always important, even before it becomes urgent. Her best advice to women who are balancing farm, family, and community projects from sun-up to sundown, is to keep committed to a day planner and make sure to book time for important things like bookkeeping, but also friends and personal fitness as a means of self-care.

Erb’s other advice is to prioritize and discard. All too often people clutter their lives in all sorts of ways with the unimportant. She urges each farm woman to be honest with themselves and their family about how her time is being spent.

“We have found in the past, there are too many women who are not honestly sharing with their family how they are feeling,” Erb says. “In a lot of these farm families, it is the mom who is doing everything and that’s not OK.”

Erb helps sit everyone down and gets women to share that they are tired, busy, and need help. She says that while some kids — and spouses — won’t immediately volunteer to pitch in, many will.

“Work smarter, not harder,” says Erb. When you do receive help, express your gratitude as well. Not only because it positively reinforces future good behaviour but also, to help eliminate your own distress further.

Practise gratitude

Being stressed is a perception. Therefore, it can be altered by a positive attitude. Experts in the relatively new field of positive psychology continue to explore the full impact of a grateful countenance, but have already established that 50 per cent of an individual’s level of happiness is due to genetics, 10 per cent is from environmental factors, and 40 per cent from attitude, beliefs and self-esteem.

Desrosiers insists that exercises which encourage an individual to be grateful will not only help them overcome internal struggles, but also develop positive characteristic traits. She recommends keeping a journal in which only positive statements about what you are thankful for are written, on a daily basis. Or engage in grateful self-talk, including private reflection, meditation, or prayers that acknowledge elements of your life that you are grateful for.

After all, says Desrosiers, as attitudes go, gratitude is the very opposite of distress.

About the author

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Amy Petherick

Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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