It’s understandable that social anxiety disorder is more common among people involved in agriculture than in most other occupations.  Australian, British and American psychological research indicates considerable evidence that many successful farmers bear a trait that enables them to work in isolation.

Working alone had survival value in previous eras for persons engaged in agriculture, for many farm and ranch men and women often spent entire days working without others nearby except at mealtimes and during the nights.  Some farmers today in remote areas, such as sheep herders who oversee flocks for weeks on end in the western U.S., still work mostly in isolation for lengthy times.

On the other hand, farming is increasingly becoming a social occupation.  Most farmers in the U.S. and around the modern world these days regularly associate with coworkers, providers of agricultural services, consultants of all types, and even the news media.  Electronic devices such as telephones and computers keep farmers connected socially.

A farmer who also is a pastor asked me to address the topic of social anxiety disorder, something I have only touched on previously.

Social anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is characterized by intense, persistent and chronic fear of being observed and judged by others and feeling embarrassed or humiliated by their reactions.  The 2013, and latest, edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), which is updated regularly by the American Psychiatric Association, notes that symptoms of social anxiety occur in about 6.8% of the U.S. adult population during any 12-month period.

Severe social anxiety that results in loss of work occurs in about 2.0% of the U.S. adult population annually, and less frequently in the determination of permanent disability.

The incidence of social anxiety disorder among people in agriculture is less well established, although it is known that many anxiety problems, such as excessive worrying about succeeding in their chosen occupation and post-traumatic stress disorder, are more common than among the general population.  Due in part to a genetic proclivity called the Teutonic gene mutation, anxiety disorders of some kind are nearly twice as common in the agricultural population as in the general population.

Social anxiety is not the same as stress-related anxiety among farmers.  Most anxiety problems of farmers are reactions to events perceived as threats to their well-being as agricultural producers, especially economic stressors.

As a professional who has worked extensively with people engaged in agriculture, I have frequently seen farmers and their family members who have struggled with stress-related anxiety issues; often they developed depression as a sequel.  I know many farm people who are shy or quiet but I have provided professional services to only a few farm people with diagnosed social anxiety disorder.

The defining symptoms of social anxiety disorder, according to the DSM V, include these:

  • Persistent and significant fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment, rejection, or scrutiny are possible, such as public speaking, musical, dramatic, athletic or other social events
  • Physical indicators of distress, such as autonomic arousal (tension, sweating, hyper-alertness, inability to calm down) cringing, crying, and significant discomfort
  • Pronounced fears that the individual will display anxiety and experience social rejection
  • Social interactions that consistently provoke distress
  • Subsequent interactions which are avoided or reluctantly endured
  • The fears are grossly out of proportion to the situation, usually overreactions
  • The distress persists at least six months or longer
  • As a result of the fear or anxiety, occupational and/or interpersonal functioning is impaired
  • The fear can lead to a medical disorder such as heart palpitations, adverse medication effects or another disorder such as substance abuse to dull feelings of apprehension in social situations
  • Symptoms are not due to another medical condition, such as disruption of endocrine functions, or greatly out of proportion to what might be expected as a reaction to a known medical condition like cancer

Treatments for social anxiety disorder are usually successful and often include anti-anxiety medications and behavior therapies that teach persons how to handle perceived social threats and useful skills for conducting social interactions comfortably.  Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters and many other programs and courses sometimes advertised online may provide what is needed, but practice is usually the most important learning activity.

Many social anxiety disorders begin during early adolescence, which is a developmental era when youngsters typically feel the need to achieve acceptance from peers and to demonstrate to their parents or other adults that they are competent.

Participating in school and community sports activities, debate programs, music, drama, Scouting, 4H, FFA and speech clubs all can help children acquire the social skills and confidence they need, whether they live on farms, in towns or cities.

Farm people and others need not fear that competent assistance isn’t available to help overcome social anxiety, but they must ask for help as the first step.  I thank the farmer/pastor who raised this matter.