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Fight through the fog of stress to regain a sense of control

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
It's no secret that farming is filled with stress. Add in the damage caused by the coronavirus and knowing how to deal with the fog of stress gains even more importance.

Stress on farms is no secret. From weather to commodity prices to labor issues to rogue viruses, there are numerous sources of stress producers face. That stress impacts personal health.

"The more we are stressed out the more susceptible we are to colds and influenza," said John Shutske, University of Wisconsin - Madison Agriculture and Life Sciences professor. "When our body's immune system becomes stressed, we become somewhat more vulnerable."

Physically, stress can impact our heart, blood pressure, and can play a role in diabetes. Mentally, there can be an increase incident of depression and anxiety. Relationships can suffer. For an occupation already considered the most dangerous in the country, at the highest risk for suicide, stress "almost certainly plays a factor," Shutske said in a UW-CALS video.

John Shutske, University of Wisconsin - Madison Agriculture and Life Sciences professor.

The video highlights the important of planning and goal setting as a means to "regain" a stronger sense of control.  

Stress hormones — adrenaline, cortisol — fuel stress. When stress is coming at us on a regular basis, as we are experiencing during the pandemic, our body's ability to manage stress chemicals is hampered. 

Stress makes it difficult to access the front part of our brain that is crucial for making decisions and thinking things through. If we aren't able to make good decisions, often there are consequences which can be negative, which in turn fuels the cycle of stress. 

"We've all experienced that fog of stress," Shutske explained. "When things aren't going well, we have difficulty making decisions."

Making poor decisions because of stress can cause a viscous cycle of more fuel being thrown on the fire of a chronic stress cycle. 

"That's when we really begin to worry about people checking out or getting injured while working on the farm.

So how do you break that cycle and throttle back stress? It's not always obvious, Shutske said. With stress there are multiple throttles - control, activity, perspective, food, quiet time and peace are areas to focus on when trying to throttle back stress. 

"If you think about the things that are the very most stressful to us and result in this notion of chronic stress, it tends to be those things that we have the least amount of control over," said Shutske. "And yet there are some things where we need to focus our control, our energy on to help us break that chronic stress cycle, and then there are other things beyond our control."

While farmers have plenty of activity filling their days, it might not be the type of quiet, alone activity or exercise that helps reduce stress and provide a better perspective. 

Food can be a positive fuel when dealing with stress as can finding a quiet time for purposeful reflection. Many farmers Shutske has talked with say their time for reflection is when out hunting in the fall. Additionally, sleep plays an important role in how we handle stress. 

Research has shown that not having control exacerbates stress. Lab experiments with animals have shown that "you don't have to have 100% control in order to break that chronic stress cycle," said Shutske. "In fact, having 100% control, if you're a farmer, is impossible and we just need to recognize that."

However, there are some things that can be done to have some control. Don't bury yourself in work and not take the time to plan. Enlist the help of experts, such as financial, legal, production people, veterinarians. Use SMART goals.

SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time Specified - help maintain focus. Shutske recommends sitting down and writing out one or two things you want to accomplish in a focused way. 

"It will help you create more visibility and clarity through that fog," said Shutske. 

Think about that SMART goal framework and find something specific that is high priority within a certain time frame. How will you measure and know when it is done? Determine action steps to get out of the fog of stress and begin accomplishing the goal. Revisit your goals to make sure they are realistic. You might need to make some adjustments, but make sure you know specifically when you are going to complete that task. 

More resources on dealing with stress can be found at fyi.extension.wisc.edu/farmstress/brain-science/.

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.