BATON ROUGE, La. — Weather conditions in Louisiana last fall created havoc for farmers trying to harvest their crops. The harvest downturn also affected the livelihoods for rural businesses and their employees who depend on agriculture.

And those events translate to stress, since people facing economic uncertainty have to deal with the stress of the situation, says Diane Sasser, a family development specialist with the LSU AgCenter.

"There are two types of stress — positive and negative," Sasser says, pointing out that stress can come from a variety of situations. "Positive stress, the kind you experience when you get married or have your first child, can be good for you. Negative stress, such as divorce or loss of a spouse, can be harmful."

Sasser says negative stress can increase a person's risk of getting diseases. Or if a person already has a disease, stress increases the risk of natural defenses being overwhelmed by it.

The LSU AgCenter specialist says the most stressful life events, such as those experienced by some farmers lately, include the death of a spouse or close family member, divorce, major illness, a day when nothing goes right, machinery breakdowns, a disease outbreak or loss of a valuable animal and the loss of help or no help when it's needed.

Signs of stress often show up in a person's behavior or the behavior of family members. Sasser says some of these signs include the following:

• Weight loss or gain.

• Constant problems sleeping.

• Agitated or greatly slowed-down behavior.

• Tiredness.

• Inability to think clearly.

• Feelings of worthlessness.

• Thoughts of death or suicide.

• Changes in routine or social withdrawal.

• Increase in illness or accidents.

• Decline in personal, farm, home appearance.

• Neglect or abuse of children or animals.

• Dramatic change in children's behavior.

• Substance abuse, spousal abuse, verbal and physical abuse.

• Giving away treasured possessions.

The LSU AgCenter specialist also suggests a number of ways people can handle stress.

"Live in the present, but learn from the past," she says. "Take time for yourself without feeling guilty about it. Do something enjoyable. Take time for quiet moments and music."

The family development specialist also suggests keeping expectations realistic.

"Accept what you cannot change, and change the things you can control," Sasser says, suggesting people in stressful situations talk to trusted friends, spiritual leaders or professional counselors.

Sasser also recommends regular exercise, proper diet and enough sleep, as well as creating more time with significant others.

"Building your network of support, which can be made up of family, friends and community, can reduce stress," she says.

The LSU AgCenter specialist also suggests people help friends who are experiencing stress.

"Take threats of suicide seriously," she says.

Sasser recommends practicing "active" listening, which includes eye contact, head nodding, a forward posture and, when appropriate, touching. She also suggests "reflecting" listening by concentrating on what is being said, trying to listen more than respond and reflecting the feelings behind what is being said.

"Remember that everyone has the right to his own unique feelings, ideas and values and that a person's feelings and values are never wrong," Sasser says.

She recommends encouraging friends to get spiritual and/or professional help.

Sasser also suggests avoiding giving advice, sympathy or reassurance — or placing blame. During conversations, don't interrupt, lecture or pretend to have all the answers, she cautions.

"Don't assume the situation will take care of itself," Sasser says. "And don't be sworn to secrecy, especially if a friend threatens to take his own life."

Finally, Sasser says, do not act shocked at what someone says, challenge statements or argue or debate moral issues.

Rick Bogren writes for the LSU AgCenter.