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Social isolation in age of COVID-19

DarcyMaulsby/Getty Images Farm house, barn and snow covered field
WINTER BLUES: This winter, prolonged social isolation that comes with frigid temperatures on top of a global pandemic may be putting stress on farmers, ranchers and rural residents alike. In times of isolation, it's often recommended to follow a routine, get regular sleep and set realistic daily goals.
Amid a frigid winter on top of a global pandemic, I think we're all ready for a return to spring weather and planting season.

At this point, it doesn't bear repeating that in the last year, a global pandemic has not only disrupted the ag industry in numerous ways, but also the lives of farmers and ranchers the world over. While many have coped with social isolation in new and innovative ways, including DIY projects and new hobbies, farmers and ranchers are, by the nature of their work, well-adapted to social distancing.

However, even the hardiest people will deal with mental health challenges over prolonged periods of social isolation like we've all faced over the last year. On top of that, much of the U.S. has dealt with extreme freezing temperatures recently — even as far south as south Texas. This, combined with the prolonged social isolation that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic, may be testing the mental health of farmers, ranchers and rural residents in general.

A number of articles over the last year have outlined the mental health challenges associated with social isolation. Many of us have realized that talking over the phone or via Zoom doesn't exactly fill the void left by in-person interaction. That said, if everything goes smoothly with vaccine distribution, we will, hopefully, be able to safely meet with friends and family in-person again later this year. But what can you do to cope with this isolation in the meantime?

Dealing with social isolation

About a year ago, I wrote an article over at Nebraska Farmer about strategies for coping with social isolation during COVID-19 — but I think some things are worth repeating in this recent bout of extreme cold temperatures that are adding another layer to the social isolation we're all feeling.

One thing to keep in mind is that while phone calls and Zoom don't take the place of in-person interaction, they still provide some kind of interaction. In addition, outdoor activities may be limited when temperatures dip below freezing and especially below zero, but there are still ways to interact in-person while social distancing and limiting groups to 10 people or fewer. These days, those interactions, limited as they may be, are more meaningful than ever.

Another step is following a routine — and that routine may involve regular interactions with friends and family. Fortunately, farmers and ranchers are used to routines, and this might involve doing chores or finishing projects. In addition, planning ahead for a trip, vacation or event of some kind can give something to look forward to and help break the monotony of winter isolation. Setting realistic daily goals, writing them down and checking them off can also be helpful.

Get some sleep

While it might be easy to overlook, following a regular sleep schedule and eating healthy can go a long way toward improving overall mental health while living in isolation.

Perhaps most importantly, remember to go easy on yourself, and try not to get too preoccupied with what's outside your control, and focus on what you can control instead. By that same token, recognize that it's natural to feel stressed and unhappy during these times — and be easy on yourself if you're feeling the strain of the isolation that comes with a global pandemic combined with a frigid winter. To one extent or another, we're all feeling it.

Growers may recall that in 2020, one of the silver linings amid the chaos that was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was the ideal planting conditions that kicked off the growing season. I remember one Extension educator who a few years ago referred to planting season as one of the "great wonders of the world," when growers, fertilizer and chemical dealers, and seed dealers alike all come together to put a crop in the ground. It may seem a long way off during these frigid winter nights, but it'll be here before you know it — and that, itself, is something to look forward to.


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