May 24 2023 08:00 AM

It’s often not easy, but when life hands out lemons, a positive outlook can help turn them into lemonade.

Stress is part of life, and in some ways, it can motivate us to do better and be better. Unfortunately, too much stress or prolonged stress can have lasting impacts on our mood, our energy level, our work performance, and our relationships.

“Stress can cause a wide variety of health conditions,” said Jill Varner during a Penn State Extension podcast. Varner serves as a food, family, and health educator for Penn State Extension.

She explained that stress can lead to cardiovascular diseases, digestive disorders, and reduced immune function that may open the door to more sickness. These negative health consequences are just one reason Varner said that stress should be talked about and managed.

A key to reining in stress levels is to have the right mindset. “It is very important, when facing situations out of our control, to keep in mind what you can control,” Varner said. “Having the right mindset can help increase productivity and your resilience.”

The first step of cultivating a positive mindset, Varner shared, is to accept the situation you are in. “Making acceptance part of your mindset helps save time and energy by letting you focus on potential solutions instead of getting caught up on stressors or the situation at hand,” Varner noted.

She said to make acceptance part of your vocabulary. When in a stressful period, pause, accept the situation, then begin problem solving.

“If you are in peak stress mode, it is very hard to make a decision and get out of the circle of stress,” Varner said. “Accept things where they are so you can move on and make positive, healthy decisions.”

When a person is in chronic state of stress, the body goes through physiological changes that skew our perception. Varner likened it to a glass of water with dirt poured into it. It is impossible to see clearly through murky water, and that murky water represents our brains during prolonged periods of stress.

Whether dealing with acute or chronic stress, some of the same techniques can be used to tackle it. Varner emphasized that a positive mindset and positive self-talk really help influence your perception and prepare you to better deal with a stressful situation.

Meditating and deep breathing are useful calming techniques. Varner shared a method called “4-4-4-4 breathing.” Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Repeat this pattern four times. “Focusing on taking deep breaths calms your mind and body,” Varner explained.

She also emphasized the importance of exercise and taking breaks to move around if doing a sedentary task, such as driving a tractor all day. Breaks and physical movement help the brain refocus.

Varner also said to find a positive social network in your area. This could be joining the local volunteer fire department or a community group. Participate in activities you enjoy, and allow yourself time to do things you love, she said.

To conclude the podcast, she circled back to the idea of positive self-talk. “It is very common when we are dealing with stress that we are our own worst critic,” she said.

The body hears what the mind thinks, she continued. “Tell yourself you can overcome any challenge. You can adapt. You have come through tough times before,” she said. She recommended choosing three words that help maintain your desired mindset. The examples she shared were calm, capable, and controlled.

Stress is part of life, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. “You can’t always avoid difficult situations, but you can absolutely choose the reactions you have when you experience them,” Varner stated.

Since 1949, May has been identified as Mental Health Awareness Month. The purpose of this designation is to help raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health challenges. It is also a great time to focus on ways to reduce the stress caused by farming and everyday life before it becomes a bigger mountain to climb.

Abby Bauer

The author is the senior associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master’s degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.