External Stressors

Demands stemming from outside the individual have a potential impact on an individual's internal state. Financial and economic difficulties are perhaps the most common type of external stressors experienced by farmers. In a study of farmer couples in Minnesota, Rosenblatt and Keller (2) found that greater economic loss, greater economic vulnerability as measured by economic indices, and patterns of blaming one's spouse for economic difficulties were related to increased stress. The farmers' perception of loss may be more significant than the actual amount of loss. For example, a farmer who loses 30 acres of a farm of 120 acres because of drought may experience more stress than a farmer who loses 250 of 1000 acres. Blaming a spouse for economic difficulties may occur as part of a farmer's attempt to cope. In trying to answer the question of why, a common attribution is that someone else (in this situation, the spouse) is responsible for the difficulties. This type of cognition may result in temporary relief, but it may eventually create tension within the marriage and create more stress in the long run.

In a sample from Iowa, Swisher et al. (3) found that, in comparison to men who did not farm, farm men reported significantly higher rates of financial losses, cuts in wages or salary, increases in debt loads, and limitations by banks on the sizes of loans. This study is one of the few studies that has directly explored the role of coping in farmers. In addition to the use of family support, the authors found that male farmers tended to utilize downward social comparisons (i.e., comparing themselves to others who were worse off) to cope with distress associated with financial and job-related stressors. The authors conjectured that the strategy of downward comparisons can enhance a farmer's sense of self. These comparisons remind farmers that things can be worse and that others have faced similar difficulties and have survived them. They also serve to reduce the stigma that is often experienced with economic difficulties, and they promote external attributions that are less threatening to self-efficacy.

Other studies have yielded purely descriptive findings. The purpose of these studies was to identify stressors that were commonly experienced by farmers. Murray (4), for example, explored the occurrence of stressors in a sample of dairy farmers in Pennsylvania. Over 90% of the farmers reported experiencing stressors in the following categories: financial management, business management, awareness of new technology, knowledge of law concerning agriculture, infrequent days off, and physical injuries/accidents. Weigel (5) found that Iowa farmers identified machinery breakdown, disease outbreak, accidents, and government regulations as stressors.

Rosenblatt and Anderson (6) reviewed factors related to tension and stress in farm families. In addition to the stressors already mentioned, they cited difficulties related to unpredictable weather, geographical isolation, high accident rates, invariant work demands, and seasonal variations in work demands and income. Invariant work demands represent heavy periods of work that are rarely interrupted by nonwork activities. This lack of flexibility often leads to stress and fatigue. Seasonal variations in work requirements represent the pattern of work in which farmers move back and forth between invariant work demands to periods in which the farmers have no pressing work demands. Such variations can result in stress emanating from, for example, a lack of togetherness time for farm families during heavy work periods and stress due to spending too much time with family members during the off-seasons.

Several researchers have documented a relationship between pesticide exposure and the experiences of stress and depression (7-11). This relationship is important to note because researchers have found an extremely high incidence of pesticide exposure in farmers. For example, Calvert et al. (9) found that agricultural workers were 35 times more likely to become exposed to pesticides in comparison to nonagricultural workers.

A common way to cope with external stressors is through the use of problem-focused coping strategies. The effectiveness of such coping methods may be limited for some farmers, however. In their discussion of rural psychology, Lefcourt and Martin (12) concluded that although farmers often experience a sense of competence and control in the daily actions of farming, they are likely to feel powerless in response to forces outside of the farming world such as the government and the economy. This is a form of learned helplessness, which has been shown to increase the risk for anxiety and depression (13).

Table 22.1 lists the stressors that are commonly experienced by farmers. Research exploring the full continuum of stress and coping is lacking. For example, few or no studies have assessed interactions between stress and coping in farmers, the direct impact of external stressors on stress and coping, or the influence of different types of coping on distress. Many of the studies reviewed thus far were conducted during the farming crisis in the 1980s. There is some question, therefore, about how exactly these findings generalize to today's farming environment.

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