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When Stress Goes Beyond Normal

Jennifer Shike

April 22, 2021

It started with a broken baler. The farmer panicked. He had recently lost his brother to cancer and his father to old age. The broken baler was a hard reminder of all the mechanical work his father always did. Not to mention he had 2,500 acres to farm, 250 beef cows to attend to and his crop had just froze.

Brent Brewer of the Oklahoma Farmers Union was visiting with this farmer, who understandably had a lot on his mind.

“It was getting on him,” Brewer said during the Online Top Producer Summit. He compared helping people who are experiencing stress overload to giving CPR.

“You don’t quit until you get somebody in a safe place,” Brewer said.

To do that, it’s important to understand the mental health challenges farmers and ranchers face, said Shannon Ferrell, Oklahoma State University ag law specialist, during the webinar.

Stress is normal, and normally stress isn’t a big deal as long as people have a means of effectively dealing with it, Ferrell pointed out. The challenge comes when: • People don’t have an effective way to deal with stress. • People are faced with an overwhelming amount of stress at once. • People encounter stress that never abates but continues over time.

“We have to understand how stress overload works and one way for us to relieve stress is to talk about our feelings with someone,” he said.

Dr. Matt Brosi, a marriage and family state specialist at Oklahoma State University, described four of the major mental health issues experienced on the farm today: depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and suicide.

1. Depression Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life, Brosi explained.

“What we're talking about is the overwhelming feeling of sadness or disconnection that characterizes depressive symptomatology, which has a range of behavioral or physical symptoms including loss of interest in typical activities, changes in sleep, loss of appetite, energy level concentration, daily behavior, self-esteem,” he said.

There is often a misunderstanding that being depressed is a choice. Depression has a biological basis, often stemming from a combination of biological, psychological and social sources of distress. It entails the stress overload process that starts to interfere with brain development and reasoning, Brosi said, and that's stemming from a neuron stifling in the brain.

“Nearly 70% of U.S. individuals can correctly identify depression, but many of us don't know what to do about it,” Brosi said.

Depression thrives on isolation. Often when people experience a stressful overload process, they inadvertently turn inward and internalize those sources of stress, eventually developing negative beliefs either about themselves or their environment.

During COVID, social distancing limited the mobilization of many of those natural resources that individuals would have had that may have served as a source of resilience for them to be able to overcome some of the depressive symptomology they faced, Brosi said.

“Genuinely connecting with others is key. To deal with some of the social isolation, we want to make sure individuals are around those trusted social support systems. We want to make sure they're getting this the professional help if and when possible as well getting out of those negative routines,” Brosi advised. “Get moving, get outside. Vitamin D is incredibly important. Getting out of those negative routines can be a positive way of dealing with depression.”

2. Anxiety Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It can be beneficial in some situations as it motivates us to mobilize inward resources and to become more productive, Brosi said. But, it can also be out of proportion to the situation and whenever it becomes excessive, it becomes more difficult to control and things tend to compound on top of one another. He said that stress overload process leads to more and more anxiety that may inadvertently end up affecting day-to-day living.

“With anxiety, we strive for control and we strive for engaging in activities to lower our anxiety or even depressive symptomology we end up coping in maladaptive ways,” Brosi said.

People typically focus on the coping skills for negative behaviors they see. For example, if we see an individual acting angrily or aggressively, it’s easy to understand. But Brosi said what we oftentimes miss is what's going on beneath the surface.

“With anger, we know fear precedes anger. Anger is a secondary emotion. Fear is a primary emotion. It may be the thing that's below the surface that helps us to understand the context of why individuals are engaging in a maladaptive coping mechanism or acting in an angry way,” Brosi said.

When it comes to anxiety, look for opportunities to talk about some of those deeper-rooted feelings or fears, or even motivations that are causing people to act out in certain ways and engage in those behaviors.

3. Substance Use Disorders A substance use disorder occurs when the use of one or more substances leads to clinically significant impairment or distress. It’s a growing problem in American now and Brosi said he’s seeing more addiction independence or essentially, tolerance. It’s the need for more substances to achieve the same effect or withdrawal symptoms in which an individual experiences negative symptoms when they cease using a substance.

The substances vary from year to year, but lately he’s seen an uptick in prescription drug misuse.

“The interesting thing is among those in the U.S. who experience a substance use disorder, about half of those had a co-occurring mental illness and so what this is telling us very directly is that substance use and mental health conditions are inextricably intertwined,” Brosi explained. “What's happening is individuals are using substances at a greater extent to cope with some of the depressive symptomology or anxiety disorders.”

Opioids are a growing concern, he said. A lot of times the use of opioids is “a slippery slope” in which an individual may experience an injury, an illness, or something that causes them to get a prescription medication to cope with a physical pain. Brosi said what happens over time is some of the despair associated with that physical pain turns into an emotional despair as well.

“That emotional toll of pain and the job loss or role may cause an individual to continue using that substance for emotional well-being instead of just physical,” he said.

What’s even worse is when this is compounded by isolation and a lack of resources to cope in an effective way.

4. Suicide It’s an issue that's very difficult to confront but is a growing epidemic in rural America. Suicide rates are higher in rural communities than they are in our urban areas. Since 2007, the data shows that gap is widening and at an accelerating rate. Agriculture is currently the fourth leading industry in terms of suicides.

“The thing I want you to understand is you don't have to just sit there and take that or accept that statistic,” Ferrell said. “There are things we can do about it. When you feel someone may be contemplating suicide, it's OK to ask them if they have thought about suicide or self-harm.”

Don’t be afraid to ask that question for fear of putting the idea in someone's head. Ferrell said scientific, peer-reviewed research confirms that's simply not the case.

“As a matter of fact, it's the complete opposite. If you show someone that you care enough about them to observe those signs and you care enough to embrace the awkwardness and ask that question, that can have a positive intervening effect in that person's thought process and might get them out of consideration of suicide or self-harm,” Ferrell said.

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