Silhouette of man examining wheat crops on field with silos in background

There are a lot of things going on in the world right now — a war, a global pandemic, supply chain issues, ballooning inflation, visible signs of climate change like drought, fire and floods — that are way beyond anyone’s control but which form the backdrop to all our lives. And this can play a role in our mental health and how we react to work and life stressors.

First things first, says Louise Sanders: “Nothing is wrong with you.” Sanders is the co-founder of The Stress Experts, a business, life and mental wellness coaching and training company based in Carman, MB. She grew up on a grain and layer hen chicken farm, so she knows the pressures inherent in the ag industry. “Stress is your internal emotional response to your perception of your life situation,” she says. “But just because there’s a stressor, it doesn’t mean that there needs to be stress.”

Sanders uses a traffic jam analogy to make her point. While impatience and frustration are common responses to being stuck in traffic, they’re also highly impractical. “If you let those emotions take control of you, you burn through your energy, and it won’t help the traffic move any faster.”

So, what to do? “Farmers are very good at checking the weather,” says Sanders, adding that checking their internal weather is just as important. “Without your awareness, an inner emotional storm will sweep you up, driving your behaviour. It will influence your communications, relationships, and decisions and drain your energy,” she says. “Practicing (how) to calm your storm is an important skill to develop.”


portrait of Louise Sanders“Stress is your internal emotional response to your perception of your life situation. But just because there’s a stressor, it doesn’t mean that there needs to be stress” LOUISE SANDERS CO-FOUNDER THE STRESS EXPERTS

When Newfoundlanders want to know how someone is doing, they ask, “whatta y’at?” Lesley Kelly and her husband Matt Martin, who farm near Watrous, SK, developed their own system to check in on how each is doing, especially when problem solving.

“I never thought of myself as being a mental health advocate until I went through post-partum depression and my husband was treated for anxiety, mostly due to farm stress,” explains Lesley, who is also the co-founder of The Do More Agriculture Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for the mental well being of Canadian producers.

When Lesley, Matt and her brother Derek came home to farm, the family patriarch, Garnet Martin, helped them develop a “people first” farm plan. Today, that includes a 1-10 check-in scale that acts as an emotional weather vane for individual stress levels. If Matt says he’s at a 10, Lesley knows he needs to take five minutes before they problem solve an issue. “Before, I might have worried, ‘Did I say something wrong?’ Now I know it’s not about me,” says Lesley.

That’s music to Sanders’ ears. With practice, people can learn to recognize and regulate unconstructive emotions, she says. “We don’t have to wait for there to be a crisis to learn how to deal with stress,” she says. “Instead, we must practice stress management skills when we don’t need them so we have those skills when we do need them. Do it when it’s easy so it’s easy when it’s hard.”

Lesley agrees. When she and Matt decided to practice mental wellness skills, they armed themselves with information. “We knew that we had to make mental health a priority and so we started with the basics.” They took mental health first aid classes and used their experiences in healthy and not-so-healthy corporate environments, then put that information to work on their 7,000-acre farm. “Now, there’s just an overall kindness and acceptance and understanding for each other,” says Lesley. “Communication has been our greatest tool.”


portrait of the Martin familyLesley Kelly and Matt Martin, pictured here with their two boys, Jennings (L) and Copeland, farm near Watrous, SK. The two work stress relief practices into their daily lives.

Sanders urges people to recognize their own personal stress triggers. One trigger that affects many is a lack of sleep. While she knows it can be tough to get seven to eight hours of sleep during a busy growing season, being aware that tiredness is causing stress reactions is key to managing those reactions.

People can also identify activities that act as calming mechanisms to help relieve stress. When Matt feels stress while in the field, he gets off the tractor and does some intense physical exercise. Lesley does breathing exercises.

Calming techniques can be as simple as doing daily activities, like talking to a friend, meditation, or even washing the dishes, with what Sanders calls a lightness in your heart. One caution: Don’t let these activities keep you from what you need to do. Sanders admits her own stress response sometimes includes ignoring problems, which is definitely not a helpful coping strategy.

No one is immune from stress and the negative affect it can have on productivity, relationships and decision-making.

The good news is that with some internal “weather-watching” and management techniques, those effects can be greatly mitigated. It takes practice and different things work for different people — gratitude journals, meditation, physical activity, reading a book, whatever — but just starting is the important thing. As Sanders says: “Small, daily, positive practices build health and resilience.”

Mental health resources