Updated June 8, 2020
Agriculture is unpredictable, and the COVID-19 pandemic is placing additional stress on farmers’ mental health.
Experts say understanding the neurological origins of stress and the contagious nature of emotions can alleviate pressure caused by stress.
Why it matters: Fear and anxiety can impede decision making, directly affecting the business and those around it. A little positivity can go a long way.
In an online seminar hosted by Farm Credit Canada, psychologist George Sabongui detailed two hemispheres within the human brain: a left hemisphere employed when we manage tasks familiar to us (driving to work and things we can do on autopilot), and a right brain, which engages for novel experiences (those which the left hemisphere has no pre-existing decision-making pathway).
“Our left brains are freaking out because we don’t have a cut/paste solution for what’s going on,” says Sabongui.
Given most people have no prior experience with pandemics and associated societal ramifications, Sabongui says it’s understandable the novelty of COVID-19 has people leaning more heavily on the right hemisphere.
But when the right hemisphere engages, it triggers feelings of excitement and greater awareness, also known as fear and anxiety.
With enough fear and anxiety, the amygdala part of the brain takes charge. This increases the flow of adrenaline and cortisol, which causes a variety of physical stress responses, such as sweating and increased heart rate, while harming mental functionality.
Why making poor decisions can be physiological
“I think of (the amygdala) as my paranoid, neurotic best friend. It isn’t going to make good decisions because its thinking like a two-year-old, but definitely going to help you stay alive,” says Sabongui.
“It’s been keeping us alive for millions of years.”
Understanding that fear and excitement are the same fundamental reaction can help us “choose the right label” for the feeling, says Sabongui.
Doing so might sound abstract, but clinical studies have shown a positive difference in brain performance when people actively think of stress and anxiety as excitement, rather than fear.
While the world obsesses over hand washing, Sabongui says the ability of the brain to detect and respond to the signals of other people mean emotions, just like pathogens, are highly contagious.
A person can spread fear and panic by exhibiting those behaviours.
But with a little effort, positive emotions can be spread the same way. This empowers others and helps keep everyone thinking in a more positive light.
Taking additional steps to spread positive emotions can have an even more profound impact when, as now, people feel isolated.
“We feel what other people are feeling. This is the neurological basis for things like empathy and compassion,” says Sabongui.
Making others aware that you’re thinking about their mental health can go a long way as well.
Adelle Stewart, executive director of Do More Ag, a national charity focused on mental health in Canada’s agriculture sector, says broaching the subject at a high level lets employees and family members know they have support, should it be required. The business itself is supported in turn.
Asking about another person’s mental well-being can itself be stressful, so Stewart encourages farm business owners to prepare by establishing conversational boundaries.
That is, not assuming they will have to play the role of a professional counsellor, and allowing themselves some forgiveness if the conversation doesn’t go well the first time.
“It’s not up to employers to direct medical care. Don’t say you should. Just ask if you can help point them in the direction of resources. It could be as simple as pointing towards Do More Ag’s website,” she says.
Sabongui, in his presentation, also reiterated chaos is normal. Connecting with others during chaotic times is critical.
“You may be the light others are looking for,” he says.
Updated June 8, 2020 to correct spelling of George Sabongui.