Chronic stress can affect health and decision-making

Understanding our body’s stress response can help us cope in healthy ways during difficult times

Cynthia Beck speaks during a webinar organized by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association. Chronic stress negatively affects our health and decreases our ability to be an asset to our operation. That makes managing it very important.


When a person takes unnecessary risks and makes decisions that are out of character for them, this could signal that they’re struggling with chronic stress.

For example, the current frequency of bale theft across the Prairies might indicate that more people are “under a lot of chronic stress, and it could be impacting their decision-making ability and increasing their risk-taking behaviour,” says Cynthia Beck, cow-calf producer at Milestone, Sask. and clinical psychology masters’ candidate at the University of Regina.

“It might actually have nothing to do with who they are as a person; it might have nothing to do with their personality. It might speak to their state of well-being, which would be classified as rather poor,” says Beck, speaking on mental well-being in a recent webinar hosted by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Chronic stress, she explains, negatively affects our health and decreases our ability to be an asset to our operation. Neglecting our physical health in times of crisis, leading to dehydration, lack of sleep and poor nutrition, can lead to a decrease in energy, endurance or physical strength. This can increase the risk of illness or injury, as well as impair our decision-making abilities, communication skills and risk-taking behaviours.

Warning signs of decreasing mental health can include changes to a person’s routine, hygiene, diet, substance use or energy levels. Other indicators may be withdrawing, having trouble concentrating or a drastic negative change to their home or working environments, such as neglected livestock or facilities.

To start to help ourselves in difficult situations, it’s important to understand the body’s stress response, says Beck. An event like drought can trigger the stress response in our nervous system, and as other stressful events occur on top of that, our response escalates until we reach a crisis point.

“When we are in crisis mode…a really old system in our body called the flight, fight or freeze system floods our body with hormones, neurotransmitters, basically a kind of adrenaline,” she explains. This response is meant to keep us safe, but it’s a holdover from prehistoric times and is designed for acute stress. Acute stress comes in times of danger and lasts for shorter periods.

“We typically don’t deal with a lot of acute stress. We deal with chronic stress, and our body cannot tell the difference,” she says. “More often than not, when we are going through a crisis or really stressful period for a long period of time, our nervous system naturally is elevated.”

Because our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and behaviours affect each other, anxious thoughts brought on by difficult times can negatively influence the other three. “If you are a person who kind of only concentrates or focuses on the worst-case scenario, then you naturally are going to trigger your nervous system,” says Beck.

“Chances are your emotions are going to ramp up or you’re going to feel more hopeless. You will have worse anxiety, you may feel like you are having a heart attack, like you’ve got a headache all the time, or you can’t sleep,” she continues. “When we do that, our behaviours shift to crisis mode, so we might make decisions that we would never make.”

However, we can use this same response system to make positive changes to our thoughts, emotions or behaviours that can help us to deal with stressful situations. “If we can shift one of those things, just one of those things, we will change all of them,” says Beck.

“Instead of thinking, ‘I’m going to lose the farm,’ (shift) to thinking, ‘okay, here’s the fact of the situation: we are out of water.’ Well, I can haul water from here. Or ‘we are out of feed.’ Okay, I’m going to look on the internet for feed, or something where you are pinpointing or picking out one problem at a time and trying to find possible solutions to that.”

Cynthia Beck speaks about stress and well-being during a CCA webinar.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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