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Resilience in the era of COVID-19

By Staff | May 22, 2020



To help address what seems as the never ending stresses affecting farmers, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Pork Industry Center hosted a webinar offering tools to develop mental resilience and provide some coping strategies.

“We know that farmers and ranchers have had a really tough new year, there have been some economic stressors, the weather related issues we had last year and now we have to face the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic including closure of meat packing plants,” said Dr. David Brown, behavioral health state specialist at Iowa State University. “This all places a lot of pretty heavy pressure among the agriculture community.”

Brown said given everything we are experiencing right now, a significant number are only minimally impacted and are able to adapt pretty well. However, there are going to be some individuals exposed to this high level of stress that may exhibit stress responses

A big concern of Browns is both immediate and delayed stress responses, include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“You think about it, many, many years ago, there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Europe. The producers, there at the time, had to euthanize a lot of their livestock. What we know from that is the number of producers that had to do that were impacted by PTSD that is a concern we have to be aware of,” said Brown.

Cameron Schmitt, veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Services has dealt with producers in the past helping them through other tragedies. His biggest piece of advice is to take note in what you have for assets, but not from a financial standpoint, but who are those trusted advisors in your life?

“With producers I have worked with, whether it is a fire, or a tornado, even a disease outbreak a kind of shock event, having and building your network, your team of people around you it is important to have someone to fall back on in that immediate term to deal with the immediate stress of the event,” said Schmitt. “As we go through this summer, as pigs are backed up, as producers have to really look at euthanizing livestock that is intended for food, you are going to need your network to reach out to in this time.”

Schmitt said your network could be made up of members of your family, your priest, maybe even your veterinarian or your banker.

“Take note of those and it’s ok to visit with them now and say hey I am going through a rough time, can I reach out to you over the next several months? Build that network. We don’t know what is going to happen in these next coming months, especially as we look at the challenges in front of us. Build a base,” he said.

Stress responses

What are some signs of stress to pay attention to whether within yourself or someone else?

Immediate stress responses, Brown said are very normal responses to extraordinary abnormal situations. Some of these responses you may experience are numbness, anxiety, worry, irritability, outbursts feeling angry, helplessness or out of control, difficulty concentration and maybe some forgetfulness and sadness about the situation you are in right now.

Other signs to pay attention to are nausea, elevated blood pressure, elevated heartbeat, fatigue and sleep and appetite disturbance.

Brown said sometimes, exceptional stressful events can energize us into action. But what is the lasting affects?

“People deal with the immediate work that must be done,” he said. “Unfortunately, later on when the crisis has abated a little bit, some may experience some delayed responses. Those stress responses can occur three months or longer after the actual event.”

If the stress responses persist, there may be some issues that are more of a concern.

“It may look like clinical symptoms, or symptoms of PTSD. They may need to seek out some type of consultation with a healthcare or mental health professional,” said Brown. “If we are talking intrusive memories or flashbacks, hyper arousal, avoidance of reminders, increased alcohol and drug use and suicidal thinking those all warrant some additional consultation with a healthcare professional.”

Brown advises if you or someone you know does seek some type of assessment with a healthcare provider, to be sure to speak openly about the stressful issues.

“If you don’t, they may just give you a physical and may not even address it,” he said. “You may want to inquire about a referral to a mental health provider if it is something you may need.”

Resilience strategies

There are four key resilience strategies that can help:

  • Self care

Self care includes getting the required seven to eight hours of sleep, maintaining a routine, exercising, eating healthy, spiritual practice and mindfulness.

Deep breathing, Brown said can help to calm the mind and help you focus.

  • Social support

Brown said if you are unsure who you can lean on and build a network with, ask yourself if there are people that have done something similar to what you are trying to do? Who do you trust to talk with?

“Check with family, friends and trusted colleagues, trusted advisors,” he said. “Join a group. This could be a business group, maybe a group of commodity producers, a church group, it could simply be a coffee group at Caseys. It’s all about building the network of support that can help manage the stress and someone to talk to about that.”

  • Purpose

Purpose means finding your own vision and your own mission in life.

“One of the best ways to kind of do that is maybe helping others in need or random acts of kindness to family members, friends and colleagues,” he said. “Maybe develop some realistic goals. Even if the goals seem very, very small. That still enables you to kind of move forward things you want to accomplish. Maybe a goal this week would be to actively seek out some social contact, or if need be, make an appointment with your healthcare provider and start building that relationship that is needed.”

Brown suggests trying to be more than a farmer.

“It is also important to have hobbies,” he said. “Play sports, or participate in other social roles in the community it could be as a church leader, community leader, leadership in a commodity group, things like that. Disengaging from the farm take a break. Get off the farm.”

Embracing positive thoughts

Brown shared a quote “having my barn burn down I can now see the moon.”

“We really have to embrace positive thoughts,” he said. “We need to try to keep things in perspective. What I mean by that is, that we really have to identify within ourselves. We may have the tendency to assume the worse about things. Or assume the world is out to get us. We also need to remind ourselves that what’s happened to you was not a predictor of how your future or the rest of your life will go.”

There are still some things you can control.

“You can’t really change the situation we are in, due to COVID-19, but you can change how you respond and how you understand it,” he said.

Try to accept change

“Think about it, we are constantly adjusting to change, even if we don’t realize it,” said Brown. “When difficult change comes along, this is a good time for individuals to look back a little bit and realize some of the changes that you have dealt with over your life and maybe even see that you survived, even thrived through these changes. It’s a good time to think about the one way you dealt with difficult change and actually came out better.”

Schmitt said once the challenge is over, to try to do an internal debrief.

“How did we do during these stressful events? What could we improve? Do we need open more market flexibility ongoing? Try to learn from the event,” he said. “I think the industry will learn form this event. Look for resources that were successes, resources that we are lacking it should all be taken account of after the stress event.”


There are several places for you, or for someone you know that may be having challenges dealing with stress or for assistance with challenges on the farm.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
  • Ag Decision Maker is an agricultural economics and business website that provides information, resources and decision tools for farmers, lenders, farm managers, agriculture instructors and others. Go to www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/homepage.html
  • Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC) focuses efforts across departments and partners with other agencies and commercial entities to better serve the educational and informational needs of the industry. Through IPIC, Iowa producers receive accurate and timely information to aid in making their operations more efficient and profitable. Go to www.ipic.iastate.edu/.
  • Farm Financial Planning. Farm Financial Planning is Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s farm financial analysis program. It consists of one-on-one financial counseling, a computerized analysis of the farm business, and referral to other extension programs or outside services that may be useful. Go to www.extension.iastate.edu/farmanalysis/
  • Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health ( I-CASH) works to improve the health and safety of the agricultural population by developing statewide prevention and educational initiatives. Go to icash.public-health.uiowa.edu/about

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