This year promises even more change for agriculture, so here are 12 different ideas for you to use to proactively manage stress throughout the year. Pick one each month to work on and share them with others.
1. Build your brain. Did you know you can create new neural pathways to overcome the negative effects of stress? Or that cortisol caused by chronic stress can shrink your brain? Harvard research has shown that the amygdala, the area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, basically sends an SOS to the rest of the body — resulting in the energy to fight or flight. The aftermath of resulting physiological changes leads to cortisol being released — meaning the body stays revved up and on high alert. Over time, it’s like a motor that is idling too high for too long.
Science shows all of this happens without us being able to control our brain’s response to stress. Rather, we have to learn techniques to put the brakes on stress to counter the response. Exercise, meditation, social support, laughing … the very things covered in this article. Your brain can be re-wired if you have the tenacity to try new things.
2. Ask for help. “There is no singular answer for how to play the game of life. No two people will have the same team supporting them – and that’s OK,” as I pointed out in this column that outlines a variety of people/places where you can find help with dealing with life’s stress. Just as you work with an agronomist for your fields or nutritionist for your animals, outside expertise from clergy, therapists, doctors, friends, crisis support specialists can help the humans of agriculture.
3. Feed your body and brain well. “It’s unlikely you’ve given as much thought to your own nutrition as you have with your land or animals. We’re pretty dialed into growth rate, soil nutrients, microbial activity, rate of gain, pounds of production, and other ag measurements. But the reality is that none of those matter if we don’t first care for the people of our business — and that starts with the person you look at in the mirror. Food is an easy way to take better care of yourself and equip your body to better handle stress.”
As dietitians point out here, what you eat can help your mood and ability to handle stress. Basically, add more colors from produce (yes, green is included in that!) and fiber. Lack of key nutrients from fruits, veggies, and fiber has been associated with depression.
4. Include stress management in business planning. “What are some signs that you have too much cortisol from chronic stress? Migraines, racing heartrate, losing appetite, trouble sleeping, loss of sex drive, eating too much, inability to think clearly, poor memory, eating/drink more, decision fatigue, or apathy are on the list. If you’re visiting farms and see a rapid change in a producer’s weight, appearance of farm, irritability, or alcohol/drug use — it might be time to talk about their well-being.” Rather than facing the consequences of stress, plan for strategies so stress doesn’t become a setback.
5. Exercise with intention. Data shows that exercise increases endorphins and reduces cortisol. You do not have to run marathons, but you do need to find 15 minutes three days per week to get moving — beyond your daily work. “Exercise: A break from the stress of agriculture” included many ideas on how to move more.
6. Foster an active social support group. Did you know that loneliness and social isolation predict mortality from cancer and all causes? Many ideas, from peer mentoring to local support groups to faith groups were covered in this article on the importance of human connections to agriculture. You make work alone most of the time, but remember your mental well-being depends on your interaction with other people.
7. Rest. If you’re not sleeping well — at least seven hours/night for most people — call your doctor. It is impossible for you to make solid decisions without adequate sleep — no matter how used to short nights you might be. Stress is a sleep disruptor and lack of sleep feeds into more stress.
Rest isn’t only about sleep — it’s about quieting your brain. Meditation, prayer, bible studies, picking one word to focus on, yoga, and the like are other forms of rest that will help reduce cortisol. Find a restful practice that fits you and your life.
8. Practice gratitude daily. Research proves it helps. Some days you can be grateful to be alive, electricity, hot water, and a bed. Other days you have a list of big picture gratitudes: feeding the world, the opportunity to impact others, and being your own boss. Gratitude is an important way to build resilience before major stress hits; gratitude provides top signs in our lives.
9. Get away. This can be as simple as a walk to the back of the farm, a drive through the county, working on a puzzle, having lunch with a friend, or more extensive — such as a vacation. North Carolina dietitian Julie Lanford created a “fun chart” for her year. She’s aiming for one fun thing/week with two movies and two creative activities monthly.
Remember, perspective comes with distance — whether mental or physical. If you think your business cannot possibly survive without you, it’s a red flag you need to get away. Start with 15 minutes, move to a few hours, then a day, then a few days. Really!
10. Help others. My friend Hannah has several wonderful friends who are shut-ins. She’s hoping to visit them monthly to combat loneliness, but also to soak in their wisdom — it’s a win-win. Who can you help? I remember our family serving food to those in need during the pandemic; it brought such joy to serve others — and made us feel like we were accomplishing something positive in a difficult time. Helping those in needs often will give you a perspective check and foster appreciation for your own circumstances.
11. Draw boundaries. “Master the no”, as one friend says. No to activities that don’t accomplish your business goals or feed your soul. No to family members and friends that drain your energy. No to filling your calendar. No to unrealistic expectations placed on yourself and others. Boundaries can be difficult to accomplish — especially with the most difficult people in your life — but are essential to reducing stress. Your long-term healthy relies on it.
12. Overcome your negativity bias. Know you’re wired to look for problems, as shown here. Combat that negativity bias by savoring the special moments that bring you joy, like a beautiful newborn calf, a sunset in the rural solitude, fun times with your family, working with your hands…celebrate the joy. Take a couple minutes to remember those positive feelings, replay them in your memory, and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes.
Which works for you to help reduce your stress? I’d love to hear what idea you employ each month.
Michele Payn speaks and writes to help the people of agriculture have tough conversations about managing stress, connecting with consumers, and making sense of science. Learn more about her stress management journal at causematters.com or follow @mpaynspeaker on social media.