The Manitoba Co-operator | January 30, 2014
COUNTRY CROSSROADS CON N EC T I NG RU R A L FA M I L I E S
I can manage Being a hard worker and having a strong sense of self-reliance can make you a successful farmer, but it can also be a mental pitfall, psychologist tells Ag Days audience
Michael Rosmann/Ag days psychologist. photo: lorraine stevenson By Lorraine Stevenson co-operator staff
f your react to stress by burying yourself in work, you might think you got that from Mom or Dad. You did, but it comes from your parents and then some, according to clinical psychologist Michael Rosmann, who spoke at Ag Days last week. You pull all-nighters on the combine, or at a desk when there’s threats or trouble. Your distant predecessors sat up watching for predators. Their days were spent hunting for greener pastures too, says the Iowa-based farmer, researcher and academic who has studied a farmer’s tendency to overdo it when under pressure — and suffer the consequences afterward. Studies around the world document the consistent personality traits of people in agriculture, he told his Brandon audience. And you’re a great farmer if you’re conscientious, willing to work hard, and have better-than-average great capacity to cope with adversity. A strong sense of self-reliance and diminished need for companionship have also served farmers very well over the centuries. But a predisposition that ultimately reaps rewards from hard work and overwork, has a downside, says Rosmann.
For one, farmers’ predisposition to “go it alone” has become problematic in modern society, as farming has become a more social and interactive affair.
Farmers now need to engage in more business negotiations, and require skills for settling conflicts among staff and family than ever before. “We’re not very good at that as farmers,” he said. “We’re not very good at conflicts, or at how to minimize fights within the family, or even just how it should all be done right,” he said. “What had survival value in previous generations was capacity to work alone and to trust ourselves. Now that capacity works against us.” Various studies have researched what may be at the root of farmers’ predispositions to overreact in stressful circumstances. Rosmann cites one study that looked at the genetic makeup of cattle herders in Kenya. Researchers found those with the healthiest, largest herds were also four times more likely to exhibit a specific gene mutation associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than those not involved in pastoral pursuits. The conclusion: these farmers do well because they’re more inclined to search for better pastures and stay alert for danger than those without the gene mutation, said Rosmann.
The problem is no one can endure prolonged stress forever. What we now understand about the brain is that after long periods of hyperalertness and hyperactivity the brain chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, which help the brain relay messages to itself, and control things like mood, memory
and certain social behaviours begin to diminish. The body and the brain must have periods of rest to replenish them, because without it, we slide into depression and potentially self-destructive behaviour, said Rosmann. “We can’t stay geared up continuously,” he said, adding that you’ve reached that point when you can’t handle stress anymore. That’s when the outbursts or dramatic statements happen or when you experience a constant “lump in the throat. You’re near tears a lot, but you’re not actually crying.” What farmers need to recognize is that they’re especially prone to cycling down this way. “Research has accumulated which indicates that the agricultural population has a higher incidence of depression, related to stress, than the nonagricultural population,” he said. Yet, it need not be this way, says the psychologist. Knowing this about themselves, farmers can become less vulnerable to their own predispositions, he said. “We can manage our behaviour,” he said. “Behaviour is like a recipe, with ingredients that can be varied to maximize our well-being, such as what we consume, how much and how hard we work, sleep, recreate, pray, laugh, talk and so forth.” Our own behaviour is also the thing we have virtually complete control over, contrary to many of the things that cause us stress, he adds. “We can’t control the weather and we
can’t always tell if the wheat market is going to go down. But our behaviour is the one thing that we have almost complete control over.”
What farmers must allow, given their predisposition to overdo it, is time for adequate sleep, recreation and social interaction to function at their best. You’re in charge of how much sleep you get, or whether you exercise or eat properly, he said. Farmers also have a choice whether to stay silent and closed up, or to become more interactive with others, and benefit by it. “You’re in charge of whether you talk to people instead of keeping things to yourself. You’re in charge of whether to talk to your spouse,” he said. Touching and being touched, enjoying a good belly laugh and having a higher, spiritual view are other restorative things we do for ourselves. “The more farmers know how we are made, the better off we are, because then we can manage our own personal behaviour,” he said. “If we know that we react by working terribly hard and being hyperalert then we can begin to follow our own course of adjustment to stress. We can learn how to manage it.” Rosmann is the founder of the U.S.based seven-state organization ‘AgriWellness’ (www.agriwellness.org) and author of a collection of essays titled Excellent Joy: Fishing, Farming, Hunting and Psychology. firstname.lastname@example.org