Many people experience high levels of stress, both on and off the farm. Stress is unhealthy: it weakens your immune system and can cause your health to decline in other ways. Failure to manage stress is a serious health issue, and not just during times of crisis.
The ramifications of stress are not just personal—they’re also corporate. Workplace stress costs businesses money, because of health ramifications along with decreased or lost productivity. "Stress carries high financial, physical, and psychological costs that can be doubly punishing in a family business," says Minnesota-based family business consultant Tom Hubler.
We talked about stress at our 2020 Customer Summit in Minneapolis, where our evening speaker reminded us of actions we can take to reduce it: listening to music, exercising, laughing, prayer, exercise, and reading/learning. These solutions are real and important to remember. However, hard-working folks may have this sort of reaction: “That would be nice, if I had time to exercise or listen to music or read. But I have work to do.”
Enter mindfulness. This approach to stress management has less to do with actions to take and more to do with simply directing your own mind in the moment.
Stress is mostly in our minds
Stress occurs when our brains perceive that we’re under threat. The key is the perception: we don’t actually have to be in danger—we just have to think we are. “Subjective situations of almost any nature can trigger stress whenever the brain senses an imbalance of resources,” says Hubler. “Stress is the friction between actual events and how one subjectively perceives them.”
Hubler uses the work of Dr. Amit Sood, one of the world's leading authorities on resilience and wellbeing, in his consulting practice. A former professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he developed Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART), a program that helps people learn to control stress through mindfulness.
Since stress has so much to do with our minds, it’s important to understand how our minds work. Dr. Sood explains that our brains operate in two modes: focused and default. In focused mode, we're present to what’s right in front of us. We are “in the moment,” immersed in our experience. Dr. Sood explains we're more likely to be in this mode when we’re engaged in outward experiences, when our attention is externally directed.
In default mode, however, our brains wander. In this mode, we experience automatic, undirected thoughts, and this is where much stress, anxiety, and depression come from. Thoughts float freely among past, present, and future, mostly ruminating (thinking negative thoughts about the past) or worrying (thinking negative thoughts about the future).
3 ways to manage our minds
We can learn to direct our wandering minds and manage stress through mindfulness. In mindfulness, we realize how our brains work and that we have some power over them. We aren’t victim to our thoughts. “It’s too simple to say that SMART is a state of mind, yet it essentially is,” says Hubler.
Based on Dr. Sood’s work, here are three ways to manage stress by helping your mind stay in focused mode more, and default mode less.
1. Joyful attention. Joyful attention is directing your attention to what matters. Here are a few ways to practice joyful attention. Begin each day, even before you get out of bed, by expressing gratitude for the special people in your life, such as your spouse, children, parents, friends, etc. This could also be colleagues, or people who have since passed away. Picture the person in your mind, and send them a silent message to have a good day or any other message of love or appreciation. Another joyful attention practice is to not try to improve anyone or anything for 5 minutes when you start the day or after you get home for the evening (sounds simple but is harder than it seems!). Instead, simply give your loved ones your attention and presence for a few minutes before any practical life to-dos enter in. The first few interactions can set the tone for a whole evening or rest of the day together.
2. Kind attention. Kind attention is giving positive energy to those around you. Practice intentional kind attention—either directly or indirectly—to the first few people you encounter each day. You can do this silently with a kind look, or verbally with a kind word. If you encounter someone you find difficult, Dr. Sood recommends intentionally thinking “I wish you well.” This helps decrease negativity in your mind and increases feelings of compassion and forgiveness.
"The pursuit of gratitude and compassion will make you happier than the pursuit of happiness.”
3. Self-monitored intention. It’s been said that it’s not events that cause us stress, it’s our interpretations of those events. Recognize that you’re viewing everything through your own lens, and that no two people experience the same circumstances in the same way. Become aware of how you're interpreting events and situations as they occur. This takes practice, but you can try to begin choosing to see what happens in life through the lenses of acceptance, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and the acknowledging of a higher power.
Thanks to Tom Hubler and Amit Sood for their helpful perspectives. To learn more about Tom’s family business consulting, check out his website. Learn more about Dr. Sood’s work and SMART program at his website here.
Farmers know better than anyone that we can’t control circumstances; we have to adapt as we work hard and try our best. These times are filled with stress for many people, but focusing our minds can help reduce it. “With repeated practice, the feelings you nurture start multiplying. Thus, the more you focus on compassion, gratitude and meaning, the bigger space they occupy in your brain's real estate," wrote Dr. Sood in his most recent blog post. "Embrace the splendor of the present and fill it with uplifting thoughts and perceptions."
The world depends on farmers, so the world depends on farmers taking care of their stress levels. If you don't have time to take a vacation or read a book, work on directing your thoughts on purpose and practicing improved interpretation of what’s going on around you. Your stress will decrease. It’s amazing what these small mental changes can do.
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