How can farmers cope best behaviorally while undergoing the worst deficit between farm income and farm expenses since the 1980s Farm Crisis?

It’s “a tough haul” these days.


Most farmers today recognize the importance of remaining behaviorally healthy in order to farm optimally, but many tell me they wonder “What to do now?” I consult about 2-4 times each day with farmers, ranchers, farm employees, people in allied occupations such as veterinary medicine and farm lending, and with reporters for various media. Well over half the people who contact me are men.

Farmer after farmer has confirmed to me that they make better management decisions when they feel emotionally healthy and optimistic than when they are anxious, angry, depressed, feel too pressured, or are experiencing other negative emotions. They ask for advice.

When I say we have to remain positive in order to think most clearly, many say that’s not possible these days. I recognize their concerns, for I am a farmer too.

I experienced the Farm Crisis of the 1980s as a farmer and as a psychologist who developed behavioral health services and undertook research to help distressed farm families. Like many, my wife Marilyn and I chose to relinquish a farm we had purchased so as to lessen our debt and to have funds to pay for updating our century-old house on the farm where we live yet today.

How fortunate I am to have grown up on a farm in western Iowa, to have experienced academic careers at the University of Virginia and the University of Iowa, to have farmed with my wife, children, and a hired hand for many years, and now to remain in farming with Marilyn as owners of our farm and the Conservation Reserve Program parcels I manage.

Sometimes Marilyn handles calls when I am not available. As a behavioral health nursing professor and with her farm experience, she is a “good sounding board” who helps many.

“We have to remain optimistic,” I often say when farmers on the phone or via email ask what is important to retain perspective. “Otherwise we feel defeated and can become depressed. What we think influences our body’s emotional chemistry and helps us feel better or makes matters worse.”

Feeling truly positive releases serotonin, nortriptyline, dopamine, oxytocin, and other beneficial endorphins that give us a sense of well-being. Opposite to positive thinking, persistent negative thinking enhances the release of adrenalin, which makes us feel alarmed initially, followed by release of cortisol in as massive amounts as necessary to help us to relax, to slow down our thinking, to feel tired so we can sleep, and to restore ourselves for future threats.

It is also important to recognize that cortisol makes us feel depressed because we cannot rapidly replace the beneficial endorphins that give us a sense of well-being. We can languish in lethargy and inability to move on if we don’t rest and not worry.

Is optimism something we can create ourselves, or is it something that is beyond our control? Can we make ourselves “feel optimistic?”

No, optimism has to be real. What we feel “in our gut” often overwhelms what we would prefer to think. Yet we can control what we think to a degree.

There are several guidelines that help us feel positive:

  • It helps to be around people who are optimistic and to have a team of trusted persons who encourage us emotionally
  • We have to share our uncertainties and hopes with others and be open to advice
  • We have to believe that there is a higher purpose for our existence than just to be financially successful
  • It takes discipline to be positive

The Power of Positive Thinking, written by the Methodist pastor and professor, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, is more valid now than when he wrote the book in 1952. Psychological research has confirmed most of what he prescribed: Positive conscious thoughts, usually through affirmations or visualizations, help us.

What Dr. Peale called affirmations, I like to call nudges. These are events that we can pay attention to or dismiss, such as “near accidents.” If we don’t perceive and correct self-absorbed behaviors, we often experience rougher events that demand significant changes in our thinking and actions.

We have to turn threats into opportunities to learn. I learned the hard way when I lost toes in a farming event in 1990 and had to reassess my behaviors.

Many behavioral healthcare professionals help clients to understand and practice “mindfulness.” Mindfulness therapy incorporates meditation and management of physical sensations of anxiety and calmness through exercises that can be learned.

Mindfulness teaches clients how to disengage from negative thought patterns that can cause a downward spiral into depression. Mindfulness is a cognitive behavior therapy technique that has been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety related to stress, physical health conditions, and traumatic brain injury.

When seeking professional assistance, ask if the provider can teach you mindfulness.