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Regulating Emotions

Regulating Emotions

Clinical psychologist Tracey Collins is all too familiar with the struggles facing farmers and how the weight of those struggles can affect families and relationships, especially when past trauma rears its head.

Collins's early career was spent dairy farming in Taranaki.

Collins and her husband were farming successfully, even picking up the 1997 Sharemilker of the Year in the Dairy Industry Awards.

A decision to change jobs and downsize led to Collins's husband feeling a sense of isolation and failure.

"In the process, people looked at him like he was going backwards because he wasn't going to be farming larger numbers and more aggressively, which was what was expected," Collins says.

Moving to a new district had also meant moving away from his social network, a common issue in the often transient nature of dairy farming.

Sadly, he took his own life shortly after.

Collins gave up dairy farming following her husband's death.

She retrained, completing a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Psychology and Biology, moving on to complete her Masters in Biology and Biochemistry.

Collins spent the next nine years working as an IVF embryologist.

Tragedy was to strike again when Collins's sister took her own life.

Needing to regroup, Collins went to Peru and volunteered in an orphanage and home for teenage mothers, which Collins describes as an "awakening".

"There was abuse, it was horrific.

"But, I could see that my psych training was kicking in and that I could have meaning and purpose in my work."

Collins returned to study again, qualifying as a clinical psychologist.

Collins' research centred around how childhood trauma affects relationships and people's ability to manage emotions.

Collins now works with rural clients through Will to Live and the Rural Support Trust.

"I use all of my life experiences, intuition and ten years of tertiary education to help people with challenges."

Regulating Emotions

Emotional regulation is a reasonable response to stress, while emotional dysregulation can look like overly intense emotions, impulsive behaviour and inability to manage emotions.

For instance, pausing to collect your thoughts before responding to a situation is an example of emotional regulation.

Conversely, emotional dysregulation equates to someone 'losing it', Collins said.

"They'll start to get angry or upset, and they'll start to feel that in their body."

That can feel like an elevated heart rate, clenched fists, and a tight throat.

"Generally, those reactions are bigger than what the context would indicate is appropriate."

Sometimes, dysregulation can be more subtle, such as shutting down or running away from the situation.

In times of stress, we often look at ways to self-soothe rather than deal with the situation or the emotions that have surfaced.

"We use drugs, sex, online shopping or working."

Collins said those reactions stem from childhood trauma, surfacing in the present moment and making it challenging to react reasonably and appropriately.

Farmers commonly tend to use work as a coping mechanism.

In farming families, children are often rewarded with love and attention for helping on the farm.

To regulate emotions, Collins said, it comes down to recognising patterns and understanding why those feelings are coming to the surface and if the coping mechanisms we use are working for us.

"It's tough to do by yourself.

"You are better off getting help from a professional, which also gives you accountability."

As well as seeking help, Collins recommends thinking about how to cope better when the pressure isn't as intense and you can think clearly.

In times of stress, when our brain is in the primal threat response, we can't use our prefrontal cortex to think rationally.

Breathing into your belly in times of stress can help regulate emotions.

"The research suggests two minutes of breathing into your belly helps your body get out of that primal response mode.

"Then, as soon as you feel your body start to re-regulate, you can choose who you want to be in that moment."

Dealing with childhood trauma

While many people believe a significant event can cause childhood trauma, small events often have a considerable impact.

Sometimes, it can be as much about the things that didn't happen to us as the things that did.

"Maybe your needs weren't being met, or you had to behave in certain ways as a kid to receive love and attention from your parents," Collins said.

Ways we learn to cope as children can play out in adult relationships.

Women often bear the brunt of farming husbands who are not coping with on-farm stress and pressure.

"He might be angry or stressed, so she's trying to keep things calm for the kids.

"Then the relationship starts to break down if it's constant over time, and there's no balance."

Prioritising the family over the farm is essential, regardless of the outcomes, Collins said.

"The most precious thing is your family, not the farm.

"What are you doing this for? Your family."

It's important to remember that nothing is permanent when things are tough.

"Things change.

"So if you understand that you can't predict the future, think: What can I control now?

"What can I be grateful for now, and what sort of support can I get to get through this tough time?"

by Claire Inkson