Summer 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Farm Families Under Stress


Anne K. Soderman
Associate Professor and Specialist
Family Living Education
Cooperative Extension Service
Michigan State University-East Lansing


The financial instability of many farm families across the nation this past decade has been well-publicized. Tight finances and the continuous threat of foreclosure and bankruptcy have created for many of these families high levels of stress, resulting in increased family tension and individual health problems. Families who are highly stressed also have a more difficult time digesting relevant information and making effective decisions.

Many Extension staff are often required to provide advice and support to families that goes beyond financial and technical information. A farm wife may share a concern about her husband's recent threats of suicide. A farmer may break down emotionally, react unreasonably, or become hostile during a discussion about the viability of his farming operation. Often, Extension staff members recognize that until they're able to help a distressed family reduce some of the tension they're feeling, they'll be unable to adequately address financial concerns.

The need to better understand the physical, psychological, and behavioral reactions of people under pressure has become more widespread among Extension staff, particularly in those who have had little training in stress management or human development. The following are some of the most common questions Extension field staff ask about when working with distressed families.

Question: I know it's important to help families with stress management, but discussions seem to revolve pretty much around the family's financial and farm operation decisions. It seems I have to invent a way to bring up stress. How do I do it?

Answer: It would be a mistake to end a meeting without bringing up the topic. When families are under pressure and having difficulty communicating with one another, they also have a hard time using information. Bring some stress materials with you and, before leaving, simply say something like: "Most families dealing with these issues find them pretty stressful. I don't know if that's the case with your family, but I'll leave some of these with you to read. If you have any questions or would like more copies, give me a call." This may open the door immediately to reactions or comments from the family indicating that stress is a problem and may lead to further discussion at that time. Some families will be reluctant to disclose their feelings during an initial visit, but may do so later in a more private session.

Question: Doesn't telling people they may be stressed sometimes cause stress or add to their distress?

Answer: No. Those who feel they're handling the situation pretty well will let you know. Those genuinely stressed may not recognize why they feel so uncomfortable or why interactions have become so negative in the family. To ignore the issue ensures that affected individuals will most likely experience additional physical, emotional, or behavioral consequences.

Question: Sometimes people get defensive about stress, saying everyone has it. When they ask me to define it, how can I be brief?

Answer: Stress is a chemical energy produced in the body to help us respond to any kind of demand. Overproduction eventually wears out the body and causes disease.

Question: Farmers physically work hard all day. They say they don't need extra exercise. What do I tell them?

Answer: Working hard may produce mental and physical fatigue by the end of the day. However, unless a person is sustaining his/her heartbeat at a particular target level for 20-30 minutes at least three times a week, the heart is not getting the workout it needs to remain strong. We need to find our target heart rate by using the formula for minimal heart rate (220 minus age x .65) and maximal heart rate (220 minus age x .80). Then, select an aerobic (body-oxygenating) exercise that will keep our hearts beating between those figures for 20-30 minutes. Brisk walking, swimming, jogging, or bicycling will do it.

Question: When people have trouble sleeping at night, what can I tell them that would be helpful?

Answer: Relaxation exercises can be helpful. Lie on your right side and take a slow, deep breath, hold the air, and then expel it slowly. After eight breaths, turn on your left side and repeat this 16 times, then shift to your back and repeat the exercise 32 times. Often, the last isn't necessary. Other relaxation exercises can be found in Benson's The Relaxation Response.1

Question: What's wrong with using tranquilizers and alcohol to relax? They work.

Answer: Depending on substances such as tranquilizers, alcohol, and sleeping pills significantly reduces REM (or dream) sleep. During this period, we work out some of our daytime anxiety. When REM sleep is reduced night after night, it results in more daytime anxiety and increases dependency on these chemicals. Better to induce relaxation with some of the alternatives suggested.

Question: Some people obviously have a tougher time dealing with stress. Why?

Answer: Stress reactions are probably a combination of heredity and learned responses. Our personalities may be laid back or intense and over-reactive. We may have had childhood models that taught us effective ways of coping or ineffective and negative coping strategies. These behaviors can be modified or eliminated and replaced with more positive behavior, if we're willing to work at it.

Question: What's the difference between anxiety and depression?

Answer: Depression has more to do with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and an inability to act. Emotional symptoms, when depression is moderate to severe, will include a "flatness" of emotion. The person may lack positive feelings, cry for no reason or be unable to cry, and be unable to respond to humor. There may be little or no interest in other people or daily activity. Making even simple decisions may become difficult. Motivation may disappear, and the depressed individual may avoid or withdraw from daily activity. A feeling of fatigue overrides everything, and there may be aversion to sexual activity and/or food. Sleep may become a problem, although the person may wish to escape through sleep. Feelings of dependency often grow as depression becomes more intense, and thoughts of suicide may occur.

Individuals experiencing anxiety feel charged up, rather than experiencing flatness of emotion; they've the feeling they should do something about the situation, but they're overwhelmed about what to do. Symptoms of panic may appear, including heart palpitations, sweating, unexplained fear, and dyspnea (problematic breathing). Clearly, highly stressed persons may show both anxious and depressive characteristics.

Question: Many families get overly involved in the problem. It becomes the major focus of the family. How can they become more objective about their own specific problems?

Answer: Seeing a counselor or a member of the clergy who can be more objective about the problem may be extremely helpful. Families themselves can become more objective by constructing a "stress shield." That is, they can try to step away from the problem by imagining how they'd view it if it were happening to someone else - a neighbor or relative - instead of to them. Brainstorming the resources they have, the family should identify every alternative to the problem and attach positive and negative consequences to each of the alternatives, finally selecting what they feel appears to be the best alternative, given the situation. All of this should be completed as if the event were being experienced by another family.

Question: If effective communication and decision making are two of the major "keys" to family stress management, why do so many families have such a hard time?

Answer: Communication and decision-making patterns in most families are rarely developed consciously or thoughtfully. They just "happen" early in a marriage and are reinforced or modified slightly as family life expands. Sometimes, power is skewed so that one partner makes all of the really important decisions. Occasionally, gaps in communication exist where members talk "through" another member (adult son complaining to his mother: "Dad always thinks he's right. He's always yelling..."), rather than directly to the person involved. Past failures in being able to talk reasonably with another member, resentment at never really being listened to, persons focusing on personalities rather than on the issues, use of loaded words and phrases such as "always" and "never" or words that accuse or evaluate - all block communication, goal setting, and decision making in families. Effective communication begins when family members recognize the negative interaction patterns they use, such as interrupting or dominating one another, and replace these patterns with more effective ones.

Question: What do I do when husbands and wives begin arguing, crying, giving each other the "silent treatment," or blaming one another?

Answer: Crying is often unavoidable when feelings are intense, and people should understand this is perfectly acceptable. However, negative or hurtful behaviors need to be interrupted. It often helps to begin a discussion by establishing some guidelines for dealing with "hot" topics. Three good rules are: (1) treat the other person with respect; (2) listen to the other person until you have "experienced" his/her side of the issue, paying attention to the content of the person's ideas, the meaning it has for him/her, and the feelings he/she has about those ideas; and (3) state your own views, needs, and feelings briefly - without using loaded, accusatory, or evaluative words; without exaggerating or withholding important information; by focusing on issues rather than on personalities; and by using I-statements (I am upset that you didn't...), rather than blaming You-messages (You always...).

Question: Stress is a natural consequence of what these families are going through and can even be helpful in working toward a solution to the problem. How does a family know if it's coping successfully or not?

Answer: Families who aren't coping well will find themselves bickering and nitpicking more than usual, withdrawing from one another, or becoming more verbally or physically abusive. On the other hand, those coping positively will: (1) attack the problem, rather than one another; (2) maintain self-esteem, rather than allowing it to be torn down; (3) preserve relationships, rather than tossing them away easily; and (4) handle any anxiety or depression that becomes overwhelming by seeking professional help before it becomes disabling.

Question: Many coping "strategies" exist for people to use in fending off too much stress. Recognizing that people aren't going to change a lot of their behaviors when they're under pressure or in the midst of a crisis, what would be the most important coping methods for seeing some instant results?

Answer: Important ones include: (1) not overreacting to the problem; (2) eliminating negative inner chatter ("I'll never survive this." "This will never work.") and replacing it with positive self-talk ("I've been through other tough times." "I'm not a quitter."); (3) maintaining routines and networks with other persons; (4) vigorously exercising 30 minutes a day to relieve tension; and (5) getting proper nutrition, rest, and sleep. These aren't solutions, but can enable a healthier reaction, particularly if the stressor is ongoing.


Working with troubled families requires an extra measure of care in guiding them toward effective decision making. We'll need to express our concern about them as individuals, rather than simply focusing on the business aspects of the situation. This will call for our helping family members depersonalize the problem and understand that the most important goal in getting through a rough period is to maintain their physical and emotional health, as well as a positive relationship with family members and others in the community.


1. H. Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Wm. Morrow Co., 1976).