Mental health and farming: Tips for farmers on how to deal with stress

For farmers across the country, this year has been one of the most challenging in recent memory.

With droughts and floods ravaging much of the country, nature hasn't been kind to those working the land.

Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and there has also been massive uncertainty in global supply chains and export markets, as well as severe worker shortages in some sectors.

In the midst of such tough times, understandably farmers are facing an unprecedented amount of stress.

But according to Lance Burdett, a former police negotiator and current resilience coach, there are ways to manage stress effectively so it doesn't get the better of you.

Burdett spoke with Magic Talk's Rural Today to share some advice on how to get on top of stress and look after your mental health.

Find comfort in your daily patterns and don't think too far ahead

"We've been under a bit of pressure for a while," Burdett told Rural Today on Thursday. "We've had two or three months of uncertainty and we're starting to settle into normal but it's not normal, it's a new normal."

With so much uncertainty around us - whether it be caused by the weather or financial strain related to COVID-19 - Burdett advised farmers to keep structure in their lives.

"Our brain likes to run on neural pathways. A neural pathway is a pattern of behaviour, it is a structure - I know what I'm doing today and that's what I'm going to do - and focusing on that," he said. 

"So what do you have to do every day? Well, if it's get up and do milking, keep on doing that and just keep fixing your fences, keep going out and doing what you've got to do. And don't focus too far ahead."

We also have a tendency to get caught up in our own thoughts, he said.

"Stop talking to yourself - stop thinking."

Don't make big changes when you're feeling overwhelmed

Another key message from Burdett is not to make massive changes when you're feeling stressed.

"Certainly don't go changing patterns too quickly," he said.

"When you are under the pump that's the wrong time to do this. And it's a bit like people who have depression - and I've had depression - when you're down that's not the time to make massive changes...because you're not in a good space. 

"And on the day when you are feeling like it, that's when you make the change."

If it all feels a bit overwhelming, he says, sometimes it is necessary to take a little time out.

"Sometimes it's best just to go, you know what, I'm going to sit for an hour. I'm not going to do anything. I'm going to watch TV, it's the middle of the day and I don't care. 

"But make sure you get back up and get into that structure. So it's ok to let that structure go a little bit but having that timing and that pattern of behaviour that you've always done is the number one key."

Although he advises against making major changes when feeling stressed, he says there is one thing you can do straight away.

"We should be breathing more - that's the only change you should make."

Learn to adapt slowly to uncertainty

With so much in the world changing all around us it seems the only thing to expect these days is the unexpected.

It's impossible to predict what will come next - whether it be more rain, no rain, or a global pandemic - but we can learn to deal with change when it comes.

"We really simply have to learn to adapt, and humans are the best at adapting - it just takes a little bit of time for us to do so," Burdett says. 

"The way we about staying to your pattern and then once or twice a day just step outside of your comfort zone and do something that might be a little different and then come back into your routine. And then go back out again the next day and then come back to your routine."

By doing this, the brain is stimulated and starts to become incrementally more comfortable with change, he says. 

"It's being challenged and challenging yourself and getting used to the new norm, which is 'we don't know'. 

"So we can start to adapt to uncertainty by doing little things - I might try a new food - and our mind starts to get excited about it and it says 'that worked alright' and you get a little shot of dopamine.

"So we're using that positive chemical to get some thought and just change...little bits that take us outside of our comfort zone - and that's how we adapt."

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