April 2019

A "PRIMER" on farm stress resiliency

This is the second article in a series from the ISU Extension and Outreach Dairy Team on Dealing with Farm Stress. More farm stress resources.

Farming is dangerous and stressful, no doubt. Farmers have varying degrees of resiliency to deal with the physical and mental dangers of farming, leading to varying stress levels. The integrated blend of family, farming and nature can cause unique situations of stress in farm families.

Stress is normal and can be healthy as it might push us to do things that can promote growth. But, too much acute stress or piled up chronic stress can make it difficult to:

  • Concentrate, remember, and process information
  • Organize, calculate, and make decisions
  • Sleep, relax, and breathe properly
  • Communicate, share, and bond as a family


Stress can become a source of conflict but can also help families grow together. Many farm families are strong because they have gone through a tough time together. Too much stress can lead to anxiety, doubt, depression and hopelessness. Developing coping skills can help families have more resiliency to farm stress.

Resiliency can be a learned, life skill. It is a person’s ability to deal with stress, using skills, to better cope and possibly even overcome the root causes or maybe just its effects. Since stress reduction techniques are a learned skill, the aim of this article is to assist farmers and those working with them with a "PRIMER" acronym tool to better deal with farm stress. The tool is a six step process outlined below. The "PRIMER" Tool will then be detailed along with skills and goals that pertain to each step.


Perception is heavily related to the image or picture we have in our minds of whatever situation, coupled with any meaning or attitude attached to that image or picture. An occurrence might happen to two people and one might very positively perceive it and the other very negatively with a wide range of other "perceptions" in between.

A farm family’s perception can pertain to their internal environment, such as perceived interpersonal and familial strengths, as well as their external environment, including positive and negative experiences pertaining to the family’s ability to adapt. (Lavee et al., 1985).

Research suggests that families who reinterpret initial negative to more positive meanings of their overall crisis situations, are more likely to be in control of their stressors, to find possible solutions to crisis situations and to adapt well eventually to the crisis (Xu, 2007). The problem is not that there are problems or stress, the problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having a problem is a problem.

stressed goal

Seeing stress as normal and a means of growth is a great tool. Accepting that life is difficult at times and that it is in the process of overcoming difficulty that gives life some of its meaning by helping us grow, is often an attitude that can lead to a more positive perception of stressful situations.


Reality is the sum of a person’s internal capacity and external environment to understand the situation surrounding stress or a crisis event. Some situations take families by surprise or are beyond their control. If life events come too soon, are delayed or fail to materialize, health, happiness, and well-being may be affected (Schlossberg, et. al., 1996). Intensified emotionality and/or behavioral disorganization in families and their members are likely to occur as a result (Toberto, 1991). Another crucial variable in dealing with the unexpected is family development and environmental fit (Eccles et. al., 1993).

Ambiguous loss is often a reality and a difficult stress to deal with as something is being lost, but not knowing what is happening; what might happen; or even what can be done to prevent the loss due to circumstances beyond a person’s control (Boss). So, the reality of farm and family stress can be normal living or it can cause many physical, mental, personal and family ailments. The goal is to understand the reality of the stress environment and seek remedy.


Identify emotions of stress related circumstances. Emotions are often so intertwined and often mangled that identifying the underlying causes or emotion is not easy. For instance, an exhibit of anger, a secondary emotion, often is expressed due to another emotion. Anxiety and depression often have a root cause. Once we realize our perception and the reality of the situation, we look inward to identify causes so as not to transfer negative emotions to or onto others.

When angry, it might be easiest to transfer the cause to the person closest to us, a spouse for instance, since they were part of the environment when the situation occurred, though they were not the source. Thus, the identification of emotions and causes of stress is important so as not to wrongly blame or transfer negative emotions to someone who may just be an innocent bystander. Know that facts are much easier to untangle than emotions coming from a multitude of experiences.

The goal is to have positive emotions regarding stressful and other situations. Situations exhibit chemical reactions in our bodies that trigger our emotions. Our brains may label the experience as good, bad, happy or sad. It’s mind over matter as positive thoughts are a precursor to positive feelings or emotions. So, the skill to learn is how to identify emotions that have occurred while thinking positive thoughts. Thus, we are about as happy as we make up our minds to be. Choose happy and return there even when life gets us down, though granted, easier said than done.


Manage through stress knowing all situations have some hope, alternatives or options. Identify what can be controlled and accept what is beyond control without blaming oneself. Understand that lack of clarity of the future can induce stress as it brings worry, confusion, conflict and even shame (Boss). Assess stress symptoms - rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, headaches, anxiety, outbursts, lack of focus and hope - to know stress levels.

When symptoms arise, use "BEE SET" - Breathe, Exercise, Eat, Sublime, Express and Talk to manage stress. When stressed, shallow breathing becomes normal. Breathe deep using stomach breathing, slow and drawn out, to get more oxygen to the brain for better decision-making. Exercise to heart pumping levels to increase blood and oxygen flow to brain. Eat healthy to feel better. Sublime, or trade pain, using visual thinking of happy times and places to relax mindset and change thoughts. Express acceptance of the situation to help focus on a response or solution instead of the problem. Talk yourself through felt emotions with positive "I can do this" attitude, coupled with breathing, exercise, and subliming activities. Use the "BEE SET" tool to take the STING out of stress. The Best Place to "BEE" is Together, so "SET" your stress straight.


Extend oneself to others as social isolation and loneliness can further add to stress. Those in family environments are best helped by family members, but introverted males often do not extend their thoughts and feelings readily to allow for healthy family support. Guilt, shame and social stigma often inhibit extending to others for help, as well.

Feeling close to others increases oxytocin in the blood. Doing things for others increases happiness and reduces focus on self and personal problems - a subliming tactic. Force oneself to find things to smile and laugh about - laughter being the best medicine is more than a metaphor.

Seek advice from others as many have experience with stress and difficulty as it is a common part of life, so realize one is not alone. Verbalizing or writing concerns often helps clarify thoughts and organize action plans. Lack of social support, on the other hand, can be a cause of future depression and loss of hope.

The goal is to become more intertwined in other’s lives as stressed people are often helped by family and friends who care. When extending to others,   we often find new perspectives and mindsets, not to mention better feelings toward stressful situations at hand. Lastly, by extending oneself to others for help, consolation or comradery, we often experience a basic human need of compassion that helps humans realize we are not alone in our issues.


Resources are important in life. Families that are able to make positive meaning of their stressors and use effective coping strategies as well as internal and external resources are more likely to adapt (Xu, 2007). This applies to individuals, also. Internal resources and coping strategies were shared in previous sections. External resource needs tend to focus on things that help develop skills in:

  1. Interpersonal Communication - everyone has their own beliefs, feelings, needs and agenda to be shared. Knowing healthy/ideal versus unhealthy/ common behaviors can separate success and failure in overcoming stress or conflict.
  2. Family and Community Support - immediate and intergenerational families, and intertwined communities can be a source of both stress and strength - attend to self-help and other resources, and other people’s needs as family and community support is a two way street.
  3. Problem Solving Techniques - use processes to: define the problem/stress; consider pros and cons to alternatives; select a plan; take action steps; identify resources; and use group/family meetings. Be "proactive" in problem solving.
  4. Goal Setting - Make them SMART - Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Based.

The Iowa Concern Hotline, is a confidential, free resource available for Iowans in need.


Larry Tranel, dairy specialist, 563-583-6496, tranel@iastate.edu


Larry Tranel

dairy specialist
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