Tending to the Garden in Your Mind

This is the time of year when I look out my window with a sense of dread at all the work I need to do. It’s not the field work or chores out in the barn that I see. It’s the weeds growing in the flower gardens that surround my house. Every April, it seems like they’re nothing but a hairy mess. Throughout the summer, working in my flower beds while enjoying the colors and the scents of the growing flowers is one of my favorite pastimes. But it always seems like an impossible task – something I just don’t have time for –when I see how overgrown they have become in the spring.

Recently the Center has been working to increase awareness around farm stress and mental wellness in the agricultural community. One thing that is mentioned often as a coping mechanism to work through anxiety and stress is this idea of building personal resiliency. It is a lot like tending to your flower gardens. In fact, a few years ago, an Amish farm family I visited had this quote on a sign in their flower bed: “Your mind is like a garden. You can choose to grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.” That quote resonated with me because it takes work to keep the weeds from growing in a flower garden, just like it takes work to keep stress and anxiety from taking over your mind.

Nobody is immune to anxiety and stress. But building personal resiliency helps us deal with the adversity we face by building internal flexibility and learning to let go.  When I was younger, I struggled a lot with anxiety. In fact, while I was in college, a professor told me I would never make it to graduation if I continued to worry as much as I did. In times of stress, I would rub my forehead raw, would starve myself, and sometimes would even find myself crying for no reason at all. As I have gotten older and have had to face more stressors coming from all different places, I have learned how to protect my mind and my own personal well-being.

Recently Monica Kramer McConkey, who is a personal counselor and farm wife from the Midwest, spoke at our Dairy Summit about this idea of personal resiliency. I realized after listening to her session that many of her tips were habits I learned over the years during periods of extreme stress and times of loss. Here are some of the questions that Monica encouraged the group to ask themselves.

  1. What feeds your soul? We typically get positive comments about our work with farm stress, but occasionally I do get a negative comment. One I hear occasionally is, “People wouldn’t have to worry about stress if they would just take their troubles to God.” Praying can be a form of feeding your soul. But so could connecting with nature or working with a craft or talent. It’s how you build your internal spiritual factor by connecting with something outside yourself. What works for one person – even prayer – will not work for everyone.

    Ask yourself what gives you hope for the future. For me, it’s writing creatively or being outside. Often when I am stressed, I find myself longing to be outside and alone in my thoughts so I can reconnect with my own sense of gravity. Writing also helps me let go of my anxiety by letting it flow onto a tablet or paper. Monica warned the group that too often in times of stress, we tend to let go of those things that feed our soul when those should be what we gravitate toward.

  2. Who do you want on your bus? When you are struggling, you need your support system to help you get through it. But, as Monica told the group, too often in times of stress we isolate ourselves because it takes effort and energy to connect with others. Think back on times of loss in your own life. Did you get through it all by yourself? Who helped you get through that period by being there to listen or just being there when you needed them? Monica suggested that we think of this support system as a bus that only has so many seats.

    Too often we let the people who should be in the back of the bus or perhaps not even on the bus at all drive it – and our emotions – for us. You want the people who build you up and offer encouragement in the front. Those who you must have in your life – like a family member — but who drain your energy and exhaust you should be on the back. Others who are simply not good for you should get off the bus. You can’t control the emotions of others and often you can’t change them, but you can control how you relate to them.

  3. What do you need to let go of? This is about being intentional with your thoughts. Resilient thinking is forward-focused and helps solve a problem. It doesn’t look back. Consider how much time you spend thinking about what went wrong and who is to blame, and then consider how much time you spend thinking about where you want to be and what is going to improve your life. She encouraged the group to do an exercise in which they focused only on the red in a room. After she gave them a few minutes to do that, she asked them if they noticed any blue. Most did not.

    If you are spending all your time focusing on the bad things in your life or the problems, you won’t notice what is good. You just sit in that emotion and can’t move forward. If we take the garden analogy, you could consider every thought you have like a seed. You can choose which one you are going to nurture and which one you are going to let go. When you teach yourself how to let go of the negative thoughts, it influences how you feel and how you act when faced with adversity.

    While this may sound easy enough, Monica warned the group that retraining your thoughts can be like rerouting a river. It takes time and intentionality. Sometimes it may mean just being aware when a negative thought creeps into your mind. Other times it may mean telling yourself the opposite. Maybe it’s telling yourself you can work through something when it seems impossible, or reminding yourself that you are strong and capable when you don’t feel like you have the confidence to go on.

The one thing to realize is that we all struggle sometimes. Farming can be filled with uncertainty, and that uncertainty often leads to high levels of stress and anxiety. If left unchecked, anxiety can lead to depression and other mental health issues. It can also affect your physical health. Learning how to develop a more resilient mindset can help, but sometimes it takes help from others. A loved one, friend, pastor or professional counselor can offer guidance and support. Resources specific to farm stress are also available on our website at centerfordairyexcellence.org/stress. One of those resources is the AgriStress Helpline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-833-897-2474.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.