It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Managing Anxiety on the Farm

There is a lot of frustration out there right now – not just in the dairy industry, but throughout our society. People feel helpless and like they have lost control. It is easy to understand why. In the past two months, the unemployment rate went from 3 percent to 15 percent. Those who are working are concerned about their safety, and business owners trying to manage through the pandemic are fearing time is running out for them to successfully rebound from this.

On the dairy front, we as farmers have watched what was expected to be a relatively good year for milk prices quickly evaporate as milk futures prices fell to near 20-year lows. We hear reports of milk limitations and shortages at the stores and in the food banks, while our milk cooperatives and processors are still struggling to find places to go with our milk. Some of us have had new restrictions on how much milk we can produce placed on our farms, with very little notice, and all of us have watched April and early May disappear with very few windows to get any spring field work done.

Each month, Purdue University and the CME Group release an Ag Economy Barometer, in which they measure farm sentiment by surveying more than 400 agriculture producers. In April, to nobody’s surprise, they found producer sentiment had fallen to below 100 for the first time in three years.

The April survey indicated two-thirds of respondents were “very worried” (39 percent) or “fairly worried” (28 percent) about the impact of coronavirus on their farm’s profitability. When asked about their number one concern regarding their farm and COVID-19, 42 percent of respondents said they were worried about their farm’s access to markets, 37 percent said financial, and 13 percent said health and safety.

In other words, anxiety levels are mounting on the farm.

It is important that all of us in the dairy community support each other during this time when anxiety levels are so high. Our communications manager, Emily Barge, recently shared these strategies from articles published about mental health. I would encourage all of us to commit to practicing them daily. Hang them up on your refrigerator or in the barn office and share them with a loved one. They can make a huge difference in managing stress.

  • Find small ways to stay positive. Take a few minutes to play with your kids or focus conversations on pleasant topics. Doing something you enjoy can also be a positive distraction. Sometimes when I want to escape the stress, I find a good fictional book and read.
  • Connect with loved ones. It is normal to feel stressed, confused and scared during a crisis. Reaching out to people you know and trust can help. As humans, we find comfort in others.
  • Be compassionate. Someone once shared with me how one day she was waiting in line to get her driver’s license, and she was observing how angry the person waiting on customers was. As in most situations, the more irritated the clerk was, the ruder the customers got. When it was this person’s time to go to the counter, she simply started with “How are you doing? Really, how ARE you?” And in that moment, she learned the clerk had just found out her son had a terminal illness. The message was, “Always be kind because you never know what the other person is going through.”
  • Exercise and stay active. I recognize that most farmers aren’t going to train for marathons, but you can take a few minutes in the evening after supper to go for a walk or hike. It provides a nice break for both your mind and your body.
  • Try to focus on the present. Most fears are about the future and what may, or may not, happen. Stop yourself and say, “I am healthy and content in this moment.” That little act can pull your mind away from the anxiety and help you relax.
  • Unplug from technology. In our house, it feels like watching the news creates a lot of anxiety. Remember to separate yourself from it – whether it is the news on TV, what’s in the social media feed on your phone, or even what you’re reading in the weekly newspaper. Sometimes turning it off is the only way to calm your mind.
  • Set small goals. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I often start my day with a “to-do” list and outline the five or six things I want to accomplish that day. That helps focus my mind and gives me pleasure at the end of the day when I can cross off what I accomplished.
  • Stick to a routine, as much as possible. Just like our cows, we too are creatures of habit. Trying to keep a similar routine through each day can increase your ability to deal with stress. I recognize this is hard for farmers to do, especially during this time of year, but just remember that if you stay up all night working or worrying, you often pay for it later.
  • Find balance in your thoughts. Harvard Business Review recently shared this quote, “The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. We all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone we love dies. Maybe no one does because we are all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.”
  • Help someone. One thing we are seeing across the state is dairy farm families getting involved in community milk drives. Get involved in one of these drives, write a note to a homebound member of your church, or offer to pick up an elderly neighbor’s groceries. These simple acts of giving back can help you feel positive and more in control.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an ideal time to remind ourselves that our mental health is as important as our physical health. No matter how challenging things get, it is important to make sure we monitor our own anxiety levels and the stress levels of those we love.

When you see signs that someone is starting to become overwhelmed, you need to get them help. Whether it is reaching out to a family friend, your pastor or a mental health professional, sometimes the most important first step is to make sure that person is talking to someone.

At the end of the day, we need to remember we are humans, not robots, and it is okay to not be okay. As an industry, we shouldn’t be ashamed to have these conversations. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, Dr. Charles Gardner is a great resource. He can provide a listening ear, a genuine understanding of what you are facing on the farm, and resources to help you move forward.

The Center also has other resources to help you manage stress and recognize the signs in others. Call us at 717-346-0849 to connect with Charlie or find help in other ways.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.