In my 30-plus years of working with farm families, the negative effects of farm distress on behavioral well-being and brain health have become quite apparent. Farmer well-being is very important to a farm family’s success, and University of Guelph researchers demonstrated a correlation (not causation) between the mental health of farmers and the production and health of their dairy cattle herds.

Tranel larry
Dairy Field Specialist / Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

It is important to understand farm “stress” when it gets to the point of being labeled “distress” and its impact on farmer mental health. 

According to the National Ag Safety database, younger farmers and those employed off the farm were more stressed than older farmers and full-time farmers, respectively. Dairy and mixed enterprises also had more stress than single-producer operations. 

Much attention is targeted at men with farm stress. However, this author’s experience acknowledges that farm women are often carrying the burden of not just their own stress but also that of their spouse, the farm household and their children as well. 

A farm woman with an off-farm job faces very difficult demands in addition to being the traditional nurturer for the rest of the family. In fact, over 50% of farm women experience time stress often or very often, and they face higher levels of social-psychological stress than men due to their multiple roles. Some farm women may have symptoms of anxiety because of their multiple roles in balancing farm, non-farm, family and community activities. Spousal equity, children, off-farm work, life events, role conflict, spouse support, mastery, farm values and perception of what is at stake are some predictors of farm stress. 


How we think of stress and how we handle stress might be as important as the stress itself.

A study of 30,000 people showed a 43% increase in dying from stress but only for those reportedly under stress who also thought stress was bad for them. For those who didn’t think stress was bad, there wasn’t a difference. Note, there is correlation but not causation in this statistic. However, it points toward our thoughts regarding farm stress as being good or bad is of utmost importance. There is a huge difference between good stress and distress. 

A fear is that all the attention on farm stress might encourage farmers to increase their negative emotionality of stress and then come to believe they are more stressed than they would be otherwise. Acknowledging stress as good is good, as it can change our body stress responses to improve health, but exercise caution. There is a big difference between correlation of stress and positive thoughts of stress as being good, but that does not imply causation. Simply thinking positively about stress will not cause serious stress or distress to go away.

Those who think stress is bad have increased heart rate and blood vessel constriction. Those thinking stress is good still have increased heart rate, but the blood vessels stay relaxed just as if experiencing joy and courage, according to Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal. How you think about stress matters, so get better at thinking about and managing it, rather than trying to get rid of it.

Even cooler is that we can also manipulate (hack, hijack, mitigate or trick) stress with our body responses (breathe, movement, smile, posture, etc.) to change our hormone response, to better access the higher-reasoning portion of our brain to better manage the stress or distress balance in our lives. Instead of demonizing stress, try thinking "my body is helping me rise to the challenge." Stress arouses us to engage in both self-preservation and rise to a higher meaning in life. 

We have two minds. Our primitive mind magnifies risk and puts one in protective mode, where hesitation, guilt, shame, fear and other protector emotions reside and often negatively exhibit themselves. Our pre-frontal cortex, where higher reasoning takes place, is cut off from operating very much when our mind is in this protective mode. Our natural instinct, which developed over millions of years, is to respond to much in life in our protective or impulsive mode, using our more primitive brain.

The goal of this article is to help farmers focus on higher reasoning and positive thoughts of good stress by sharing means of mitigating, through mindset tactics, the not-so-positive distress in their lives. Most people are capable of outsmarting their primitive mind for a higher purpose. But because it is not so natural, we have to be intentional to overcome it. 

We all struggle at times with self-doubt as we try to order our lives amid chaos and difficulty. Knowing what we can do is usually easier than actually doing it. When we see risk, we quickly go into protection mode, often becoming overwhelmed by the risks and refraining from the higher-purpose reasoning, and end up self-defeating our good behaviors. Our self-consciousness and self-doubt get us into ruts that often diminish our growth and self-worth. As humans and as farmers, we need to get into a higher-reasoning mode more often and sooner using our natural protection mode to balance risk without stunting our human potential. Let’s better trust ourselves; deal with our stress, our personality and our emotions; and take action to better our lives. It’s a lifestyle habit to learn, so how can we inspire ourselves rising to the challenge with stress as an impetus to become more?