Dr. Josie Rudolphi understands agriculture is an incredibly stressful industry, cautioning that when stress becomes unrelenting, it can be hazardous to mental and physical health. Having grown up on an Iowa corn and soybean farm, she’s also aware farmers’ independent nature, combined with time and labor demands, may create barriers to adequate mental health care for themselves and their families.
“The agrarian attitude resists acceptance of mental health disorders,” Rudolphi said. “Issues surrounding affordability and accessibility to care are amplified given the high proportion of farmers and ranchers who are self-employed and self-insured.”
Rudolphi, an associate research scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, was recently selected as a 2019 Rural Health Fellow by the National Rural Health Association. In that role, her work will focus on advocating for increased availability and accessibility of mental health care in rural areas, specifically for farmers and their families. Additionally, her research goal is to help farmers’ well-being by providing training and tools that will support non-clinical interventions, where people can take proactive action to promote their own mental and physical health and prevent the onset of disease.
Stress versus distress
Rudolphi calls attention to a distinction between stress and distress. Stress, she notes, can be good for you.
“It’s what gets you up in the morning,” she said. “Stress is what gets us going and what keeps us going. Stress creates anticipation – it’s energizing; it’s motivating. What is problematic is when stress becomes chronic and unrelenting, and you have the same stressors every single day or even months or years. Then stress becomes distress, and it can become extremely dangerous.”
Rudolphi cautions that stress affects a person physically and emotionally, and can influence behavior.
“Stress is subjective to an individual, so your stress can be very different than another person’s stress,” she said. “Most people are going to rebound from stress if it is cyclical or spontaneous, and they will have no health impact. Some people will have chronic stress, or distress, and they can develop physical health ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Managing stressors is extremely important.”
Identify signs and symptoms
“It is important to know the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression because farmers who are aware of stressors – and who can anticipate them – fare better that those who do not,” Rudolphi said. She challenges farm family members to ask themselves: “How can you start being more aware of potential stressors?”
“Recognizing stress is really powerful,” Rudolphi said. Symptoms include:
- Physical: Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain, rapidly beating heart, fatigue or impulsiveness
- Emotional: Increased angry blow-ups, impatience, difficulty controlling emotions, low self-esteem, loss of interest in things once enjoyed or short temper
- Behavioral: Overeating or not eating, increased substance use, change in sleeping habits, restlessness, lack of concentration, withdrawal from others or forgetfulness
In addition to recognizing the symptoms of stress, it’s also important to understand there are things that can cause stress that are beyond your control, and acceptance of that can lift a weight off your shoulders, Rudolphi explained.
For example, accepting you have no control of weather can change your attitude, helping you implement coping skills. Be reflective and keep perspective.
“It’s harvest time, it has been raining for two days, and the forecast says it will rain for three more days,” Rudolphi said. “Has this happened before? Yes, realistically it has rained during harvest before, and what happened? It rained, the sun came up the next day, harvest was later, and we got the work done.”
By taking control of what you can, you can shift tasks and reframe what you do: “We are going to catch up on all the bookwork, clean up the shop, make sure everything is greased, oiled and fueled up, so when it is dry we are ready to go.”
Other questions to ask are: “Are my fears or worries realistic?” and “What do I tell a friend in this situation?”
She advises to plan ahead, use time efficiently and limit commitments. In other words, learn how to say the word “no” when “yes” could make stress levels mount.
Be kind to yourself
“When farm people get stressed out, specifically, it’s very easy to withdraw from others,” Rudolphi said. Getting “too busy” to associate with others perpetuates the loneliness.
Rudolphi urges you be kind to yourself, speak to yourself as you would speak to your friend, be accepting and realize there are things out of your control. You cannot control milk prices, consumer choices or the weather.
What you can control is yourself. Changing someone’s mind, including your own, is incredibly hard to do. People are often their own worst critics, second-guessing decisions and losing confidence in their own abilities. When faith in yourself is lost, you cease to be your own advocate.
Rudolphi emphasizes self-talk is powerful, and positive self-talk helps focus on what is controllable. Also employ coping skills such as exercise, hobbies, diversions and relaxation.