AMES, Iowa – Most farmers know life can be demanding and stressful. As external factors ramp up with the pandemic, trade, natural disasters, commodity prices and other ongoing challenges, it is no surprise that more farm families are experiencing stress and mental health issues.
    In a webinar Dec. 16, Dr. Larry Tranel discussed factors contributing to farm stress as it impacts behavioral health and provided tips on how to cope. Tranel, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach dairy field specialist, holds a doctorate in pastoral psychology and has a lifetime of knowledge in the dairy industry.
    “When it comes to stress on farms, it is important to recognize when to seek help and make informed decisions, not out of confusion and emotion but of objective reality, even when confusion and emotions are running high,” Tranel said.
    Changing circumstances are often what tick off the spiral into stress.
    “(We) have to have hope; that is so important,” Tranel said. “Change is not easy, but it is a given in this life, and we have to have hope that there will be a meaningful life after a stressful time.”
    In recent years, farm stress and mental health have become more prevalent in the industry. Tranel referenced what he calls the Farm Happiness Index, a combination of milk prices, weather and general mood of the farmer on a given day, resulting in a way to gauge one’s stress level.
    “We take in a lot of perceptions throughout a day that can really impact our psyche and can affect others through transference,” Tranel said.
    He emphasized the importance of recognizing one’s emotions, analyzing if they are positive or negative, and learn how to handle both.
    “Another part of external circumstances to think about is that even when you wake up on a dreary, gray day, know the sun is still shining, clouds are just blocking it,” Tranel said.
    When we think of stress, there is often a negative connotation associated.
    “Stress can be bad, but it can also be healthy,” Tranel said. “Stress that causes fatigue, exhaustion and even trauma is not good, but there is a good stress that is healthy and helps increase performance and growth.”
    Tranel used last summer’s Derecho storm as an example to illustrate different layers of stress.
    “We can respond to a problem as a challenge or opportunity, both provoke action,” Tranel said. “When we decided the problem is too much and just ignore it, that is when it becomes a real issue. Because the problem doesn’t just go away.”
    When devastating natural disasters happen, it can be hard to see the hope in the future.
    Stress on the farm is not a new concept. It is something that has been around forever, just more openly discussed in the past few decades.
    “Farm spouses are often overlooked,” Tranel said. “Women and farm wives carry a heavy load as well. They are usually also dealing with how the kids are handling it, facing new homeschooling challenges with COVID-19 and dealing with farm stress on top of it.”
    COVID-19 has also implicated many changes in social interaction, which can alleviate some of the side effects of stress like loneliness.
    Relating to others is difficult in the time of the pandemic.
    “(COVID-19) has really changed our social interaction,” Tranel said. “When you’re wearing a mask, people can’t see your expression or emotions. It challenges our ability to relate to people.”
    Living in an especially stressful time, like the pandemic, can add a layer of stress to instances that are tough to handle in normal times.
    “Too much acute stress, layered and piled up can affect the thought process of the brain,” Tranel said. “It makes thoughts harder to process, since your emotions are much more involved with the decision-making process.”
    Tranel’s advice for when decisions are becoming harder to process is to write things down.
    Too much stress over time will shorten nerve endings, literally frying our brains, Tranel said. By reinterpreting negative circumstances for positives (think: glass half full), we can use stress as a tool of progress and growth.
    “Life is difficult, and at times it’s the process of overcoming difficulty that gives life some of its meaning by helping us grow,” Tranel said.
    Tranel encouraged doing what you can and taking time to understand your emotions.
    “Look at warning signs, not only for yourself, but for others,” he said. “Is the barnyard usually tidier? Is there something you used to enjoy doing but no longer seek out? There are many ways to have check-ins with yourself and loved ones.”
Life’s problems are not going to go away, so we need to learn to adapt and be resilient.
    “The problem in life is not that there are problems,” Tranel said. “The problem is expecting life without problems, thinking that having a problem is a problem itself.”
    Overcoming problems can mentally strengthen and transform us to become more resilient farmers. A healthy farm is nothing without a healthy farmer.