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By Mike Rosmann, Published April 26 2013

Fear, panic can be difficult for farm people

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reassured Americans in his first inaugural address following onset of the Great Depression.

This maxim is one of the best for us to remember when we cope with unreasonable fears or anxiety.

Scientific evidence is accumulating about the causes and management of panic disorder, and other unnecessary but handicapping fears and anxieties that can overwhelm us at times. This column and next week’s column explain how anxiety disorders develop and how we can manage anxiety episodes.

For behavioral health purposes, anxiety can be defined as worry, fear, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. Phobias and panic can become so pervasive that they merge into generalized anxiety disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many active and former military personnel – and sometimes distressed farmers, is also a common anxiety disorder.

Farm people are more likely to experience anxiety than people in many other walks of life, but severe anxiety can affect any of us. Why are people engaged in agriculture more prone to anxiety?

Two main factors contribute to farmers’ anxiety: the high stress of farming with little control over many of the conditions that affect success or failure, and genetically programmed inclinations.

Farming is stressful and uncertain. Annual surveys of occupation-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities of workers in agriculture regularly indicate agricultural occupations are among the most stressful and hazardous.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees most of these data collection efforts, groups farming, ranching, fishing and forestry together as agricultural occupations.

Crop farmers often work without adequate sleep and hurry to undertake field work, especially during planting and harvest seasons because the outcome of their efforts – crop yields – depends much on timely completion of these key activities. Producers have little control over weather, consumer demand and competitors in a global market.

Livestock and dairy farmers experience dual sources of stress: working closely with animals that may behave unpredictably and are subject to a variety of diseases and uncontrolled living conditions, as well as the production of feed for their animals.

Elise Bostad recently surveyed 396 beef producers in Sweden, the results of which were summarized in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health; 42 percent of the respondents reported significant stress and high levels of potential hazards.

When unexpected events occur that influence the outcome of farming, producers become stressed. Currently, uncertainty about continuation of the drought in much of the Midwest and High Plains and the possibility that crop and livestock prices could unexpectedly tumble are major stressors, especially to farmers who are heavily leveraged with debt.

Our genes play a role in the way we react to stress. A study published in the August 2008 issue of Behavioral Neuroscience by Dr. Christian Montag and his colleagues in the Giessen Gene Brain Behavior Project at the University of Bonn, Germany confirmed the long-held suspicion that a specific gene (COMT variation Met158) is linked with the development of alarm in response to being startled.

People with this gene are more prone than those without the gene to react to stress with a flood of neurotransmitter chemicals, released by our bodies, which gear us up to deal with a perceived threat.

Perhaps this is the same gene that has been referred as the Teutonic gene that inclines farmers of Germanic origin (any persons who can trace their heritage to the Teutons who inhabited Germany and later spread to Scandinavia, the British Isles, other parts of Europe and eventually to North America through migration) to overwork when threatened and eventually to become depressed.

Probably, this gene has become concentrated in successful farmers around the world, because less successful farmers have been selected out. The predominant ancestry of people who farm in North America traces to people carrying the Teutonic gene, or a similar genetic inclination.

People with this gene, whether Teutonic or not, tend to work harder when threats to their livelihood occur, such as the possibility of frost harming a crop, disease affecting livestock, or falling short on a full payment of a loan. Initially they are likely to become anxious, but depression sets in when the beneficial bodily chemicals, serotonin, norepinepherine and certain catecholamines, become depleted.

Much more research is still needed, however, to fully understand the role genes play in the development of anxiety disorders and their treatment.

The more we know about what causes us to behave as we do, the better. I hope this explanation has not been too complex, but I also know readers of this column are particularly bright and seek out useful information.

Knowing what inclines farm people to become anxious also suggests ways we can manage anxiety. Next week, I will elaborate on how we can manage anxiety. Stay cool!

Rosmann lives on a farm in western Iowa. He can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.