Wyoming Food Coalition addresses mental health and wellness

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WYOMING – The Wyoming Food Coalition (WFC) recently hosted an informational presentation to address some of the mental health and wellness concerns with agriculturalists. The presentation, titled “Speaker Series: Running on All Cylinders,” is available for viewing on YouTube by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4n9MH84GMo.

“Our organization is a statewide non-profit working to address food system challenges throughout Wyoming,” WFC President Adam Bunker said. “The purpose of tonight’s presentation is focusing on mental health and wellness in general, which is facing some unique challenges in the agriculture sector.”

AgWell Program Director Clinton Wilson served as the keynote speaker for the presentation.

“The focus of this will really be a lot of talk about how we can be healthy and well, and just the essence of well-being,” Wilson explained. “We will look at the impact of stress on our bodies and the impacts of isolation and then talk about what are somethings we can do to keep ourselves healthy and well when hardships do hit.”

Wilson explained AgWell, a program sponsored by Rock Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU), first began in 2022 after a rancher was exposed to suicides in the Salida area of Colorado. The rancher lost several friends, who were also involved in agriculture, to suicide and wanted to do something to help out his fellow man and woman.

“We shifted to make our focus a little bit more centered around ‘what is well-being’ and ‘what does it look like for us to take care ourselves as well as we take care of our crops and our livestock.’” We all go to extreme measures to care for our land and our products, whatever it is, but a lot of times it is at the cost of ourselves and our connection to others.”

According to Wilson’s presentation, “Connection is at the heart of wellbeing.” He showed with a graphic how being connect to the land, connected to self and connected to others can lead to resiliency in a person.

Wilson first spoke about being connected to the land and animals. He discussed the Agrarian Imperative, which indicates there is a genetic inclination in agriculture where farmers and ranchers will go through extreme lengths, including extreme hardship and duress, to protect the land and their farm.

“In so many houses, the satellite image of the farm or ranch is the middle of the fireplace mantle,” Wilson said. “That shows how important that is to the family.”

Moving on, Wilson addressed the connections with one’s self. He explained how one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to breathe. Wilson then guided participants through four exercises, demonstrating box breathing (breathing in while counting to four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, holding for another count of four and then repeating),  figure eight breathing (tracing the shape of a figure eight while you breathe deeply), hot cocoa breathing (imagining inhaling strongly to smell a morning hot cocoa or coffee and slowly exhaling) and five-finger breathing (tracing the fingers of one hand with the index finger of your other hand, breathing in as you go up the finger and breathing out as you go down the finger).

“When we get thrown off, that window of tolerance goes away,” Wilson explained. “We are no longer able to do these things: we can’t emotionally regulate, we can’t feel and think, we become reactive; we become detached, and we struggle to accept who we are or where we are because we don’t like how we feel.”

 Wilson explained some of the stressors impacting farmers. He listed finances, legacy, relationships, prices, weather, politics and policy as potential stressors. He then depicted hard work, faith, destiny, love of land, independence and resilience trees that stop the wind (stressors). However, he noted how sometimes when the stressors (wind) become too much, a tree (resiliency factor) can fall, and a person can end up in a storm of stress.

“When all these stressors are coming down, the wind still gets through and it can create a bit of a stress storm,” Wilson explained. “It can really be destructive.”

Wilson listed a set of unaddressed chronic stress symptoms. Physical symptoms included digestive issues, appetite fluctuations, faster heartbeat, fatigue, body aches, blood pressure increase and disrupted sleep. Psychological symptoms included overwhelmed, anxiety, negative self-talk, foggy brain, feeling discontent and unexplained feelings of rage. External impacts included an offset to daily routines, livestock decline, increased illness, increase in accidents, memory disruption and farm appearance declines.

Wilson then presented a list of strategies for managing stress. The list included addressing what is in your control, taking one stress at a time, asking for help and taking a breath. He noted asking for help is vital.

Other ways of helping to manage stress include physical activity, creativity, laughing, crying, physical affection and deep breathing. Adding to this, he recommended paying attention to nutrition, hydration, breathing, sleeping, laughing, playing and connecting.

The last of the three prongs was connection. Wilson explained the importance of maintaining positive connections and noted several benefits of high social connection, including 50% increased chance of longevity, higher self-esteem and sympathy, stronger gene expression for immunity, better emotional regulation skills and lower rates of anxiety and depression.

“We grow as a person when we connect,” Wilson said. “We shrink or we are harmed as a person when we disconnect.”

He recommended celebrating the third places. He described the first and second place as being home and work, respectively. Third places, as described by Wilson, are places not at home or at work, where one connects with other people: barber shops, taverns, diners, living rooms, dining rooms, church basements, bookstores, town squares, cafes, VFW, etc.

Wilson also noted the importance of supporting friends and neighbors by checking in, actively listening, observing to see how others are doing, asking if they are okay and whether they are having thoughts of suicide, asking about their other supports, connecting them with professional help when in need and following up with them.

Lastly, Wilson provided a list of what one can do to connect to the land, to one’s self and to connect to others.

Connect to land:

  • Spend time outdoors not working
  • Walking your land to “soak it up” – not looking for problems
  • Spend time “slowing down” around the animals
  • Hike, paddle, climb, fish, hunt, ride when and where you can

Connect to self:

  • Breathe
  • Hydrate
  • Eat well
  • Sleep
  • Laugh
  • Play

Connect to others:

  • Join or initiate a “third place”
  • Check in on neighbors and friends
  • Sign up to volunteer for something you care about
  • Ask connecting questions
  • Ask for help