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Coping with the winter months

“It’s okay not to be okay,” says therapist Deborah Vanberkel. All of us are subject to the winter blahs and cabin fever

As if farming wasn’t already stressful enough, Canadian winters bring additional challenges. Frozen water lines, icy driveways and tractors that won’t start are just a few of the many physical challenges that farmers must contend with during our harsh winters.

On top of that, when the short days of winter arrive, some of us will experience the winter blues, or even the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression with symptoms that can include sleep disturbances, fatigue, irritability, and feelings of hopelessness.

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And then, after the pressure of the fall harvest season and the busy-ness of the Christmas holidays, January often becomes a time of reflection that can leave some farmers feeling overwhelmed with worries.

That’s a situation Napanee, Ont. therapist Deborah Vanberkel sees frequently in her counselling practice. With the change in schedule that comes with the winter months, some farmers can become isolated and caught up in negative thought patterns, she says. “Cabin fever is all too real.”

The first step in coping with winter is to be aware of the strains of the season and how you’re feeling, says Vanberkel, who is also an active partner in a dairy operation. “It’s okay to not be okay,” she says. “You know yourself best and if you are feeling off, you can reach out for support by talking to a spouse, friend, your doctor, or a counsellor,” she says.

Too often people think they shouldn’t express negative emotions but it’s not natural to be upbeat 365 days of the year, she points out.

Jenni Jenkins, a counsellor in Sarnia, Ont., whose family farms in that area, agrees. She advises showing yourself some compassion. “Recognize it’s a tough time of year. Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you care about if they were having a tough time. Don’t use harsh words to yourself.”

Filling the toolbox

A counsellor helps a person fill their toolbox with the best tools for different concerns and problems, says Vanberkel. “A counsellor can help you explore a problem and look at it in a new way. They can help make a problem more manageable, to prioritize concerns and come up with a plan.”

Jenkins agrees. She says talking to a counsellor can be helpful because it gives you an outside person to talk to and a place to vent. You don’t need to have been diagnosed with anything to take advantage of the services, she says. “You may just be feeling anxious or stressed.”

Technology has made it easier to access counselling services with many counsellors now offering their services via phone, text, email, or Skype in addition to in-person sessions. To help you find one that is a good fit, some counsellors offer brief phone or email consults.

Mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness is a tool that Jenkins says can be used to reduce stress by simply being more aware (mindful) of what is actually happening in the moment in our mind (e.g. thoughts spinning about something negative in the past or future) and our body (e.g. tense shoulders, heart racing, calm, tired, knot in stomach). A mindfulness exercise can shut off negative thought patterns by grounding us in the room and in our body, she says.

“Mindfulness teaches us that we cannot choose what comes into our mind or what we feel. These things just come. We can only choose what we pay attention to, what we believe, and what we do,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins relates the example of the “54321” mindfulness exercise which is a “longer route to coming out of a negative headspace. It might be used when a person is really reeling and needs to grab onto reality to pull out of a spin of ‘what ifs’ or playing out past or future scenarios,” she says.

Let’s say you’re checking the market prices while drinking your morning coffee and you feel yourself getting tense. Do this exercise:

  • What are five things you see? Perhaps it’s the computer screen, the desk lamp, your hands, the window, a picture on the wall.
  • What are four things you hear? It might be the radio, the sound of the keyboard, the furnace, a bird.
  • What are three things you feel? This could be your clothing, the air temperature, the chair.
  • What are two things you smell? Your coffee, breakfast.
  • What is one thing you taste? Coffee.

While it may feel awkward at first, living more mindfully gets easier with practice, says Jenkins. She encourages people to practise mindfulness when they feel calm as well as when they are stressed.

Meditation breathing exercises

Being conscious of your breathing is a simple way to help you clear your mind and feel more in control, Jenkins adds. Even taking one deep breath in and out is a form of meditation, she says. “You don’t have to sit cross-legged like a yogi. You can do it sitting in your truck before you go in to a meeting.”

Four-Square (or Box) Breathing is one popular meditation breathing exercise. Before beginning, sit with your back supported in a comfortable chair and your feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Begin to slowly exhale for four seconds. Sit empty, holding breath out, for another count of four. Repeat the pattern for a few minutes until you feel calmer.

And don’t forget to support your mindfulness. The Canadian Mental Health Association wants us all to know that healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and getting outdoors during the day can also help us cope with the winter blues.

Make a plan

Putting a plan in place can make it easier to manage this difficult time of year, says therapist Deborah Vanberkel. What can you do that will help? Can you plan a vacation? Arrange social visits?

Some farmers get together regularly for coffee or lunch, which is like an informal support group, she says. Others play cards or stay for a chat after a committee meeting.

Counsellor Jenni Jenkins agrees, adding a few more suggestions for healthy winter activities such as joining a curling club for a planned activity each week or getting a three-month gym membership.

Another part of your plan could be to have a business card for a counsellor on hand or a counsellor’s website bookmarked just in case, adds Jenkins.

Whatever you do, it’s important to tailor the plan to the individual, says Vanberkel. “What works for one person may not work for another.”

Grand Valley, Ont. sheep farmer and custom equipment operator Lloyd Brubacher has been open about his mental health challenges since a good friend died by suicide last year. “That gave me a whole new perspective,” he says. “It’s sad… she was one of those people who would reach out to help others but did not ask for help. That really hit home.”

As a result, Brubacher has made a conscious choice to be more open about both his physical challenges (he has been seriously injured twice) and mental health struggles including sharing them on his Twitter feed. “I’ve connected with a lot of people who have been in the deep, dark pit. Twitter has been really amazing for me,” he says.

A few years ago, Brubacher hit a low, losing his farm and becoming suicidal. “It took me a while to open up but it has helped me with the healing process,” he says.

“There are more people than I realized who are struggling but you wouldn’t know it to talk to them,” he says. “As farmers we are taught to bury it and carry on. It’s time to break that.”

Brubacher has since started over with a clean slate but says staying positive can still be a challenge, especially during the winter months when everything is so bleak. He finds spending time with his newborn lambs is helpful for his mental health. He also makes a point of spending time with friends and getting away for a few days of holidays.

Like Brubacher, Rockwood, Ont. dairy farmer Tim May finds the winters tough. “January is the cruelest month,” he says. Tractors won’t start, water lines freeze, the animals need extra bedding, and it can be a challenge to keep the laneway clear of snow so his wife can get to work, the milk truck can pick up the milk, and the salesmen don’t get stuck, he says.

Last winter was particularly hard for May. He was injured when he fell on the thick ice that coated the ground after a bad ice storm. Having to rely on friends and family to do his chores was tough, he says.

Knowing that winter will be a challenge, May has developed some practices that can help ward off the winter blues. To make the barn brighter, he power-washed the barn and installed new LED lights. He replaced the crackling radio with a new one with better sound quality so he can keep up with the news. He listens to podcasts while he’s working to focus his mind on something else.

Being a dairy farmer can be monotonous in winter, says May. With livestock it’s difficult to take a vacation but he makes a point of getting outside to go hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with his wife. “The exercise is good for my brain too,” he says.

Attending continuing education seminars put on by local feed mills, vet clinics, etc., over the winter is another way to stay up to date and socialize.

May also tries to combat the isolation by planning get-togethers with friends and he is active on social media. He tries to use social media to “spread some love” although he admits social media can also attract negativity. “It depends on how you use it,” he says.


Do More Ag is a not-for-profit organization focusing on mental health in agriculture across Canada. You will find a listing of resources by province here on its website.

If you are in crisis, please visit your local emergency department or call 911 immediately.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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