Stress is a part of daily life. We often say, “this is stressful!” or “I’m so stressed-out this week!” But what is stress, really?  

Stress is simply the body’s reaction to a demand. These demands are called “stressors”. Stressors can be positive or negative and range from the pressures of daily life—like chores, exercise, and work tasks—to more major events, such as a life-threatening illness or an accident. Stress produces a chemical, physiological reaction in the body and mind. Some of us may be more sensitive to certain stressors depending on many factors, including our bodies’ specific chemistry and our past experiences, which may have included  trauma. Many researchers have organized the type of stress we experience into three categories: positive, tolerable, and toxic (see image below):

How Stress Affects Your Brain 

A TED Ed Talk by Madhumita Murgia.  Stress isn't always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you're playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it's continuous, it actually begins to change your brain. Madhumita Murgia shows how chronic stress can affect brain size, its structure, and how it functions, right down to the level of your genes. [Directed by Andrew Zimbelman, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Josh Smoak].

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How Stress Affects Your Body

A TED Ed video animation by Sharon Horesh Bergquist. Our hard-wired stress response is designed to give us the quick burst of heightened alertness and energy needed to perform our best. But stress isn’t all good. When activated too long or too often, stress can damage virtually every part of our body. Sharon Horesh Bergquist gives us a look at what goes on inside our body when we are chronically stressed.

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Stress can be positive!

We now know from research that some stress can actually be positive!  As humans, stress has helped us survive for centuries. Stress tells our bodies to react to threats or situations quickly and efficiently. Our bodies react to stress in many ways, and some amount of stress can actually help us accomplish goals and succeed when faced with challenges.

Although stress is a normal part of life and can be good for us, too much stress can be detrimental to our health. Whether stress is positive and beneficial (also known as eustress) , or negative and harmful (also known as distress), is largely specific to how long a stressor lasts, how severe the stressor may be, and an individual’s lifestyle and stress tolerance. Chronic stress is stress that lasts a long time and is ongoing. Chronic stress and negative stress can sometimes be the same thing, and they have the greatest impact on our wellbeing and productivity.

Negative or chronic stress may result in:

  • sleep problems
  • irritability
  • sadness
  • a lack of interest in things you used to find pleasure in
  • decline in self-care or care of others (children, animals, home, farm)
  • headaches
  • substance misuse
  • digestive issues
  • weight loss or weight gain
  • memory and concentration problems
  • a lowered ability to fight infections

podcast icon Podcasts:

Enjoy this 2-part podcast series by Ariana de Leña on farmer stress and anxiety


Finding Care and Support

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it could be an indication that negative or chronic stress is to blame. Click here to learn more about how to cope with stress, and where to go to get the right care and support. Both coping skills and support can drastically reduce the negative symptoms of stress.    

So where does this stress come from? In addition to everyday life stressors, research indicates that farmers and ranchers are often more exposed to certain stressors due to the work and culture that accompanies farm/ranch life, including:

  • isolation (both geographic and social)
  • fluctuating prices of commodities
  • changing government regulations
  • inability to control the weather
  • family role pressures, such as maintaining a farm/ranch that has been handed down, or worrying about who in the next generation will take over the farm/ranch
  • work-related burnout
  • not being able to easily separate ‘work life’ from ‘home life’


What is Trauma?

Trauma is the name we give to the exposure to an event or series of events that is emotionally disturbing or life-threatening. Trauma can last far longer than the actual stressful event, and can vary in severity.

Trauma Terminology

Toxic Stress: Strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity that stimulates the body’s natural protections against stress and can have a long-term negative impact on neurobiology, psychology, and physical health.

Allostatic Load: Wear-and-tear on the body from toxic stress that can lead to poor health and health risk behaviors.

Protective Factors: Social conditions or personal attributes that help reduce or buffer the risks of trauma for an individual, family, or community.