Is it more than just the blues?

Independent dairy producers tend to think they can ‘power through’ a stressful period. Be aware of signals if conditions are going beyond normal stress on you, your family members or employees.

By Dave Natzke

Milk prices are low and margins are in the red. Got stress?

We all feel anxious or under stress at times, and mild stress can keep us alert and focused. However, severe stress over a lengthy period can disrupt lives and lead to physical and mental health problems. 

Becky Wittig, business and community outreach coordinator with Mental Health America, Milwaukee, Wis., warns dairy producers to be aware of signals if conditions are going beyond normal stress. 

Wittig said it’s important to identify signs of stress and specific stressors, and learn methods for a balanced life.

“Stress is an adaptive response in which a person’s body and mind prepares or adjusts to a threatening situation,” Wittig said. 

Stress may result as a reaction to relationships, responsibilities, losses, expectations, change, lack of recognition or unexpected interruptions. 

There are both good and bad kinds of stress, but the body can’t tell which is which, so it reacts in the same way. Physical reactions include release of stress hormones, increased alertness, eyes dilate, heart rates increase and digestion decreases. Blood flow decreases to the stomach, but increases to the legs and arms to prepare for the “flight or fight” reaction.

“A natural part of life, stress is also in the eyes of the beholder,” Wittig said.

Stress-hardy individuals view stressors as challenges and opportunities, feel in control of there circumstances and perceive they have resources to make choices and influence events. They generally have a good social support system and have an exercise routine, regular sleep patterns and a healthy diet.

But what about those less stress hardy?

“Bad” stress, or distress, can be acute (short duration) or chronic (long duration). Symptoms may include fatigue, irritability, headaches, muscle loss and lack of focus or function. People under stress are more prone to accidents and injury.

The hazards of chronic stress may include a weakening of the immune system resulting in a number of health issues, from allergies and ulcers to headaches, asthma and high blood pressure. When not handled properly, stress can trigger or compound issues related to mental illness, including depression or anxiety disorders.


“Depression is more than the blues,” Wittig said. “When the ‘down’ mood lasts for more than a couple weeks, the condition may be clinical depression, a serious and common illness that affects how you think and feel mentally and physically.”

Signs of depression include:

• nervousness or “empty” feeling

• feelings of guilt or worthlessness

• feeling tired or run down

• feeling restless or irritable

• don’t enjoy the things you used to

• feel like nobody loves you

• feel like life is not worth living

• sleep or eat more/less than usual

• have persistent aches and pains

If you, a family member or employee are affected by five or more of these for periods of two weeks or more, it’s time to seek medical help, Wittig advised.

Stress or anxiety disorders

Wittig said anxiety disorders – overwhelming fears that are chronic, unrelenting and progressive – grow worse in stressful conditions, interfering with occupational or social functioning. It’s the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting more than 40 million people. Causes may include: physical/genetic preconditions; highly stressful life expectations; unhealthy lifestyle choices; acute or chronic physical health problems; or underdeveloped stress management skills.

Mental health disorders – depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and/or substance abuse or dependence – may and do occur at the same time.

Mental illness changes the person’s thinking, feeling or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty to function, interfering with carrying out daily activities.

“There are lots of misconceptions and misinformation regarding mental illness,” Wittig said. Admitting to being affected by mental illness carries a public stigma.

Mental illness is real, common and treatable, Wittig explained. It actually has a better ratio of treatment success than heart disease, she said. However, because most people – especially independent business managers – believe they can “tough their way through it,” two-thirds of those affected do not seek treatment.

What can you do if an employee or family member exhibits signs of depression or anxiety disorders? 

Be aware of the signs, and educate yourself and others about the illness, symptoms and treatments, said Wittig. Help the person get appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Offer support, reassurance and hope, and have realistic expectations.

Managing stress

Mental health – and mental illness – ebb and flow throughout the day, depending on the introduction or relief of stressors. To manage stress, Wittig suggested the following:

• plan ahead. Eliminate activities that are unnecessary.

• set limits. Learn to say “no.”

• list tasks and prioritize them. Do one thing at a time.

• deal with the “basics.”

• develop a list of things that fulfill you, and another list of things that “drain” you. Focus on the first list, and be aware of the second.

• refrain from negative thinking.

• take time for yourself.

• share your feelings

• maintain a circle of support

To manage work stress, take quiet time for reflection and preparation; take occasional breaks; emphasize communication; focus on what you are eating and what you are listening to. Take time to wind down or slow down.

Finally, Wittig said, focus on the things you can control.

“Most of the troubles we bring on ourselves are things we worry about that we can’t control. Worry about the things you can control.”