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Learn how to handle stresses of farming

You can sleep better and live longer Lowering your stress level can not only help you sleep better at night, it may save your life. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, farm owners have the highest rate of death due to stress-related conditions like heart and artery disease, hypertension, ulcers and nervous disorders. A high level of stress can also increase your chances of being involved in a farm-related accident.

With low commodity prices, increasing debt loads, and uncontrollable weather and agronomic conditions, it's easy to see why farming is ranked as the 12th most stressful of 130 high-stress occupations. Add to this mix fatigue from long work hours and what can seem like an overload of market, sales and regulatory information, and it's easy to see how farmers' stress can build to dangerous levels.

For a short time, stress may make someone a better, more-efficient worker. But over the long haul, a person will wear down, becoming physically weaker and tiring more easily. A lack of concentration may result in poor management decisions, which can be especially dangerous when operating farm machinery.

Individual farmers also vary in their ability to handle stress. For example, prolonged exertion and fatigue that would be only mildly stressful to a young farmer may prove very difficult for an older farmer or someone with a heart defect, says Robert Fetsch, Extension specialist for human development and family relations at the University of Kentucky.

"While part of an individual's stress tolerance is inborn, a crucial part depends on the quality of skills practiced. Learning to cope successfully with a stress trigger once makes it easier the next time," he says.

When your body gears up under stress, it begins to do more of some things and less of others, according to the Farm Safety Association. For example, blood circulation increases, but digestion slows or even stops. Then, once the stress ends, your body goes to work to restore the balance. If stress returns too quickly, though, your body isn't allowed the time needed to get back on an even keel, which can lead to major health problems.

There are things you can do, however, to manage the stresses of farming before they take their toll on your health.

The first step in managing stress is recognizing the symptoms of stress. Often stress can physically manifest itself as a headache or stomach ailment.

Other symptoms of stress include depression, a lack of patience with others, the frequent loss of your temper, an increase in smoking or drinking, an inability to sleep, trouble adjusting to changes, and verbal or physical abuse.

While you can not completely escape the pressures of farming, the stresses related to farming can be managed.

- Accept that there is no such thing as a stress-free life. Stress is a part of your life as a farmer and there are some things that are simply out of your control. You can't change the weather or a bank decision no matter how hard you try. Most people believe they can accomplish anything if they work hard enough, but just because you see a storm approaching doesn't mean you can stand up and stop it.

- Make a list of the things that cause you stress and learn to recognize when you are feeling the effects of stress. "Everyone has a definite physical response to stress, but it varies from person to person. In one person, it might be tightening of the neck of shoulder muscles, in other, queasiness," the Farm Safety Association reports.

Decide how serious each of your stress triggers is on a scale of 1-to-10. In some cases, the stress you are suffering may be more damaging than the problem causing the stress. Those things that rate high on your stress scale and are under your control can be broken down into manageable parts.

- Talk to someone about what you are feeling before your stress builds to a dangerous level. Keeping stress buried inside will not make it go away, and instead, could create additional mental and physical problems. Remember, if you are under stress, so is everyone around you.

- Plan ahead. Don't schedule more than you can realistically accomplish in one day's time and don't procrastinate. Shift your thoughts from worrying to problem-solving. Set realistic goals and expectations, prioritizing what must be done today and what can be done tomorrow.

You can control some of the events that may cause you stress later by replacing worn machinery parts and planning for those times where things just won't go according to plan.

"Those things which cause us to feel the most stress are those which we cannot control," says Michele Schermann, a registered nurse with the biosystems and agricultural engineering department at the University of Minnesota.

- Take a break from farming and relax. This means putting as much energy into playing as you do into working. It may also mean scheduling breaks throughout the day and learning to say no to extra commitments on your time.

- Take care of yourself. Reducing stress can be as simple as getting a good night's sleep, eating well, exercising, and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake. Just as machinery needs regular maintenance and quality fuel, so to do you.

Making a conscious effort to laugh, play and think positively can help manage stress and keep you healthier, both physically and psychologically.

"Farm family members can manage their stress well, even during planting and harvesting. The key is to be flexible and to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Make time daily to take care of yourself for your work is vital to all of us," says Fetsch.

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