Running on Empty? Tips on How to Refuel and Refresh

When life gets busy, it can be very difficult to stay calm, focused, and energized. If you’ve ever felt like you were running on empty, you are not alone. Given the strenuous labour and challenging working conditions involved in farming, especially during harvest season, it’s no wonder that Canadians in rural and agricultural communities report high levels of stress. While it can be difficult to make time for yourself as you respond to the many demands of caring for crops, animals, and your own family members, prioritizing your own wellness is critical.

You wouldn’t expect a piece of machinery to stay in good working order without careful maintenance. Human beings are not machines, but there’s a worthwhile parallel to be drawn here. All of us benefit from regular check-ins and tune-ups. While that might sound like simple, common sense, it’s easier said than done. Many of us continue to push ourselves until we’re utterly exhausted. Learning how to take an inventory of your energy levels and respond accordingly is a lifelong process. Here are a few simple steps, suggestions, and resources that may be helpful in getting started.

Early Warning Signs & Interventions

1Taking a proactive approach to your overall health starts by paying attention to any signals that you may be overtaxing yourself. When you know what your early warning signs look like, it becomes easier to intervene before things get to the breaking point. This critical work involves understanding the impacts of stress and exploring healthy coping mechanisms.

Stress is the body’s response to change, especially change that is perceived as a potential difficulty, and it is an inevitable part of daily life. A small amount of stress can be a good source of motivation (this is called “eustress”); however, too much tension can become harmful. The stressors causing this tension might be physical (e.g. accident or injury), psychological (e.g. personal pressures), or situational/environmental (e.g. uncertain weather patterns).

When we’re under stress, we’re likely to experience physical, emotional, and behavioral changes. As highlighted by Farm Credit Canada, typical signs that someone might be struggling with too much stress include making more frequent mistakes, feeling more resentful toward others, and thinking about quitting farming entirely. The National Agricultural Safety Database offers a thorough list of common symptoms, a helpful checklist for identifying stressors, and a variety of strategies for keeping stress levels in check. Different people have different ways of managing stress, but the foundational point is that we all need to make time for rest—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Taking Care of Body, Mind, and Spirit

When it comes to thinking about rest, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is sleep. Getting a sufficient amount and quality of sleep on a consistent basis is key to maintaining wellness, but sleep is just one piece of the puzzle. Lesley Kelly, Co-Founder of Do More Agricultural Foundation, offers some helpful advice in a short piece on The 7 Types of Rest Every Farmer Needs. As Kelly emphasizes, true restoration includes all of the following elements:

● physical rest (e.g. naps)
● mental rest (e.g. affirming something positive about yourself)
● emotional rest (e.g. sharing difficult feelings with someone you trust)
● social rest (e.g. spending time with friends)
● creative rest (e.g. cooking or woodworking)
● sensory rest (e.g. deep breathing exercises)
● spiritual rest (e.g. doing something that is purposeful and meaningful to you).

Doing some thoughtful exploration into these seven areas can radically change the way that we approach our own wellness. What’s needed is a proactive, holistic approach to self-care.

Although “self-care” is a word that is frequently bandied about, it’s often oversimplified and misunderstood. Common misconceptions include confusing self-care with selfishness, thinking that self-care requires a lot of time and money, and stereotyping self-care as a practice just for women. Contrary to popular belief, self-care doesn’t need to take the form of fuzzy slippers, a bathrobe, or fancy candles. In essence, self-care is about making time for the things that give you strength and energy, whatever that looks like for you.

Rather than regard self-care as a special kind of indulgence or reward, think about how you can incorporate small moments of joy into your everyday life. This might be as simple as appreciating the landscape around you or recalling a memory of finding refreshment in nature.

A recent study from the Centre for Critical Studies of Rural Mental Health at Brandon University (June 2021) underscores this connection between wellness and the natural environment. Findings from their survey of 24 men living in rural communities show that places such as backyards, golf courses, and waterbodies serve as important spaces of solace, peacefulness, and connection. Seemingly ordinary landscapes can have extraordinary power, both in their inherent beauty and in the opportunities they present for place-specific social activities such as hiking, biking, or fishing.

While other studies have called attention to the overall lack of access to mental health support within remote and agricultural communities, these findings indicate that everyday rural landscapes can be vital resources for mental wellness. To perceive this restorative potential, we simply have to shift out of the preoccupation with doing that characterizes our busy lives and enjoy simply being in the present moment.