MADISON — Everyone experiences stress, the type of tension that accelerates our bodies into fight or flight mode. Stress can also be energizing and motivating, pushing us to accomplish tasks. But how do you know when stress morphs into something else: distress?

“Distress means prolonged periods of stress that your body can’t recover from,” Dr. Josie Rudolphi said during a session at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s recent Business Conference. “This type of stress with no relief, these chronic periods, can be extremely hazardous to the body.”

Rudolphi is an associate research scientist at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s National Farm Medicine Center, where she works on research focused on farmer and rancher mental health and resiliency among agricultural communities. Through her job, she’s seen the effects of distress on the body — physical, emotional and behavioral — and explained to those at her session how to identify distress.

Physical signs can include headaches, stomach pains, chest pain, rapidly beating heart, fatigue and impulsiveness. People can also experience muscle and joint ailments, skin issues, anxiety, gut problems and even harmful impacts to reproductive systems.

These physical signs are easier to identify within yourself, Rudolphi said, but emotional and behavioral signs can be spotted in others, and you should be comfortable and confident in asking someone questions if you notice they are exhibiting signs of distress. Emotional signs include increased angry blow-ups, impatience, difficulty controlling emotions, low self-esteem, loss of interest in things they once enjoyed and being short-tempered. Behavioral signs can include overeating or not eating at all, increased substance use, change in sleeping habits, restlessness, lack of concentration, withdrawal from others and forgetfulness.

Rudolphi said withdrawing from others is the most concerning of the behavioral signs because farmers have every excuse in the world to remain isolated. Changes in substance use and concentration are also concerning if farmers work with machinery or livestock, exposing them to potentially dangerous situations.

However, there are approaches to deal with stress so that it doesn’t turn into distress. Rudolphi encourages farmers to change their mind-sets by accepting and becoming more aware of things that could cause stress.

Acceptance skills can change attitudes toward controllable and uncontrollable situations, she said, allowing the person to anticipate the stress, be reflective and keep a grounded perspective. Just being aware and recognizing stressors is extremely powerful, she added; it also gives us the opportunity to plan ahead and use our time more efficiently.

She also provided four keys to help deal with stress, put together in a fitting acronym — HERD — which stands for Hobbies, Exercise, Relaxation and Diversion.

Studies have shown that engaging in a hobby for two hours a week can improve mental health and that everyday creativity can improve mood. Hobbies can be physical or relaxing, as long as they allow the person to focus on the task at hand rather than the stressors surrounding them. Some hobbies can even provide a sense of accomplishment once a project is completed.

Exercise is proven to ward off anxiety and depression, providing health benefits just by getting the heart rate up 20 minutes a day. In rural areas, people can take advantage of cheap exercise too, like walking on the school’s track, taking advantage of gently used equipment that can be found at yard sales, in the classifieds or online, and watching free YouTube workouts in the privacy of their own home.

Relaxation might be an unfamiliar term to farmers, but Rudolphi argues it is one that should be added to a farmer’s dictionary. Relaxation can include taking a walk, taking a nap, getting away for a day or taking a vacation. And it’s also important to make these positive things to improve health rather than giving them a negative connotation.

“Taking time for yourself does not make you a bad farmer,” she said. “It’s most important that we accept relaxation in our community.”

Diversions are also a good way to de-stress, finding ways to interrupt your mood or whatever you are working on. Diversions, like reading a newspaper, spending time with neighbors or calling a friend, shift your mind away from the stress, with any amount of break in that cycle helpful to the body.

Rudolphi concluded her presentation by challenging those who attended to think about how they can incorporate HERD and get others to adapt these stress-relieving strategies too over the next three weeks, even though she anticipates a busy time for farmers as spring work begins.

“Adopting these self-care strategies will have huge benefits for mental and physical health down the road,” she said.

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