Experiencing stress is a normal part of the human experience. Stress is used both to describe our understanding of stressors and how our body responds to those stressors.

What triggers feelings of stress can vary from individual to individual. We might have stressors come up in our life but handle them well and not feel stressed from them. Our physical stress response is outside of our control, and begins when our fight-flight-freeze response, or our sympathetic nervous system, automatically kicks in.

Our stress response is not inherently bad and it can keep us safe. When our stress response is triggered, hormones in our body such as adrenaline and cortisol increase our heartrate and blood circulation, focus our attention on the source of the danger, ready our muscles for movement, and prepare us for fighting, fleeing, or freezing. For example, when a heifer comes running at you thinking she is protecting her new calf, you want the fight-flight-freeze response to kick in quickly to activate your legs to get you the heck out of the way.

Beyond its usefulness to keep us safe, perceiving a certain level of stress in our lives can motivate us to reach our goals. We can usually manage higher levels of stress for short periods of time.

But when the stressor is something like money problems that cannot be quickly overcome, we are exposed to that stress for a long time, and the stress response can be harmful.

Signs of stress

Stress shows up in many ways. Over time, most of us adopt personal stress responses to everyday stressors; for example, how we might recognize that we become more irritable with our spouse in periods of higher stress. However, we may be taken aback when we recognize how stress affects our mind, emotions, behaviours, and physical well-being when we are in a unique or particularly demanding situations.

When the stress response is continually or often activated, it can lead to many symptoms, including memory problems, poor judgment, depression, isolation, gastrointestinal problems, aches and pains, sleeping too much or little, getting sick more often, and increased use of alcohol and other substances.

If we able to manage through stress and see symptoms subside after a brief period, stress is not concerning. We should, however, be concerned about ourselves if we find that we don’t feel better after using positive coping tools or stress management techniques like exercise, deep breathing, changing your mindset, talking to a friend, or engaging in hobbies, or if we feel unable to find or use any positive coping tools.

While we are not in the mind and body of others experiencing stress, we can still notice signs that they are struggling. One common sign is that they may act differently from their normal behaviour.

For example, a person who typically does not share very much may begin oversharing – while someone who is typically a big sharer may retreat into silence. The person may complain about a physical symptom of stress, such as saying that they always feel tired, or they may display cognitive, emotional, or behavioural signs such as appearing easily distracted, not making sense, or speaking in a cluttered way, being more forgetful than usual, having low enthusiasm, or being more agitated, among other signs.

Start a conversation

Start a conversation when you notice that someone may be dealing with too much stress. A simple way to do so is to make note of when someone suggests to you that they are dealing with too much stress, and to respond with empathy and concern. This could sound like, “Hey, I thought we should talk because I’ve noticed that you’re not yourself lately and have seemed quieter. What’s going on?”

Refrain from giving any advice, particularly right away, and instead lean into actively listening. This means listening to more fully understand and not to respond. It’s okay for there to be silence, as it can encourage the other person to share more.

You don’t have to get everything right when supporting others. If you are listening, showing empathy, and suspending judgment, you’ll get a lot right.

Avoid using “at least” in any responses. No statement that begins with “at least” is empathetic and instead often diminishes the difficult thing the person you are talking to is going through.

Once the person has shared what is going on, you can ask about what they have tried so far to handle the situation, and then offer information about resources or strategies that may be helpful for them. When a person is stressed, their thinking is affected so they may struggle to identify what could be helpful.

If you can offer a tangible way to support, such as taking something off their plate by driving their kids to a sports activity or dropping them off a meal, share the things you could do rather than telling them to let you know if there is anything you can do to help.

If you are concerned about your own stress level, a good first step is to ask for help from a family member, friend, neighbour, or a professional. Asking for help is challenging because there can be societal stigma and self-stigma around it. But it is impressive and courageous if we can recognize that we need help and we ask for it.

Those of us who have grown up in a rural setting know that there is incredible generosity and support in the agriculture industry and rural communities. Let’s be willing to ask for help when we need it, knowing there are great people around us.

Support for mental health and stress management is increasing in agriculture. While there is opportunity for further progress, there has been an increased focus on producers’ mental health . Amazing advocacy from our communities, along with new and added resources for producers.

Here are a few specifically geared towards producers.

  • AgKnow offers two free counselling/therapy sessions with knowledgeable resource providers familiar with the agriculture industry and tips and strategies
  • Do More Ag tips, strategies, and resource listing
  • Rural Distress Line 1-800-232-7288
  • Farm Debt Mediation 1-866-452-5556

There are also general resource options such as:

  • Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line (24/7) 1-877-303-2642
  • Talk Suicide Canada (24/7) 1-833-456-4566
  • Counselling Alberta free access to counselling without a waitlist
  • Money Mentors or Credit Counselling Society debt consolidation and credit counselling
  • 211 directory and live chat to find services and supports in your community

Each of us will experience stress in our lifetimes. A common suggestion for stress management is to focus on what we can control. For farmers and ranchers, stress can be particularly challenging because so many of the major stressors are inherently outside of your control.

It’s okay to not be okay and to struggle. Being a producer is stressful, but there are opportunities for support and help. Things can get better.

Kalista Sherbaniuk, AFSC Wellness Coordinator
Registered Social Worker, Master of Social Work 

The information and resources provided in this article are not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are in crisis, please visit your local emergency department or call 911