Strengthening mental health at home

by Melanie Epp

As most farm families know well, farm life can be both demanding and stressful. Add to that the burden of adverse weather events, fluctuating commodity prices, family hardships, and a global health crisis, and you’ve got the makings of a mental health catastrophe. But what all of these things have in common is that they’re outside of our control. We can’t stop them from happening, and we can’t make them go away. The only thing we can control is how we respond, and strengthening body and mind is a first great step in doing that.

Mental health has lost much of its stigma in recent years, thanks in part to awareness campaigns, most of which emphasize the importance of talking. Talk is important, but communication goes two ways. Perhaps more important is being heard, being respected and loved, and knowing that if something goes wrong, you will be forgiven. Even in the best of relationships, this takes work.

Talk was crucial in our home during Belgium’s first lockdown. For months, we were confined to our small apartment, leaving only to get supplies and go for walks. Like so many others, we spent much of the day glued to our laptops, ‘doomscrolling’ through the news, trying to make sense of the world. The uncertainty was taking a toll and destabilizing our once balanced life.

About two weeks in, we implemented a Happy Hour. Every evening, we would sit over a drink and talk for no less than one hour. During that hour we switched off all devices and sat face to face. What surprised me most was how much came up each day. We expressed our fears, raised concerns and talked each other through our worries. Sometimes we just laughed. What quickly became apparent was that we were carrying a lot of stress and anxiety, and most of it was related to the media we were consuming.

When the Belgian government announced the second lockdown in October of 2020, I panicked. Actually, I burst into tears. I had struggled during the first one, and for the first time in my life used the phrase ‘mental health’ to describe how I was feeling. “I’m not doing so well” became my catchphrase, and although talking helped, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough this time.

It took me two weeks to figure it out. I decided that my actions each day needed to contribute in some way to strengthening my mental state. I came up with a plan and promised to stick with it for as long as lockdown lasted. It ended in May.

The daily plan looked something like this:

Devote 20 minutes to mindfulness. Like many of you, I have a busy daily schedule, but I decided to drop the excuses and give myself the gift of time. Each morning, I did a 10-minute stretching session, and followed it with 10 minutes of meditation using the Waking Up app. Starting each morning mindfully brought new energy and focus to the day.

Eat well. During the second lockdown, I gave my diet a complete overhaul. I removed sweets and treats, and replaced them with a clean eating plan that kept me feeling energetic and focused.

Drink water and lots of it. Studies show that drinking enough water lowers risk of anxiety and depression, which is why, besides my morning coffee, I switched entirely to water. Taking a break from alcohol helped further strengthen my mood.

Exercise daily. Admittedly, it was easier to add exercise to the daily routine when there was nothing else to do. Since the gyms were closed, I followed online classes, lifted weights at home, and went on long bike rides (even in the dead of winter). Every single day, no matter what the weather brought, I took a 45-minute walk outside, purposefully seeking out green spaces where I could revel in nature. I think this single act brought more peace of mind than anything else I did.

Unplug. It’s amazing how much clutter you can remove from the mind when you take a break from social media and stop watching the news. Instead, I turned to books and listened to music, limiting screen time as much as possible throughout the day.

Nurture friendships. One of the side effects of turning off social media is that you feel disconnected. What I realised, though, is that although social media made me feel connected with friends and family, truthfully, I’d never been more disconnected. During the second lockdown I decided to remedy this by replacing text and messenger with good old phone calls. Friendships need cultivating, and near or far, they are a source of strength, especially in troubled times.

Sleep eight hours. Simply put, sleep is restorative, and one of your best allies in stressful times. A well-rested body and mind will be able to tackle each new day with vigour.

Continue talking. Throughout both lockdowns, even until today, my partner and I have continued to talk. When we incorporated selfcare, though, we noticed that our talk was lighter and more positive. We were able to see more clearly and think through problems more rationally. And once we felt strong, we were able to focus on others. Positivity is infectious; the better you feel, the more energy you’ll have to help friends and family when they’re in need. Survival, after all, is largely a matter of mental outlook, but it all starts with you.


This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-03. Click here to read the magazine


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