The Stress Continuum

The Stress Continuum was first created by the US Marine Corps for use in combat setting. Used to measure how soldiers were managing stress in combat, it has now been applied to a variety of settings, including firefighters, Law Enforcement, and Healthcare Workers. The continuum is kind of a self-assessment tool to provide those affected by stress to detect potential and actual problems caused by overwhelming stress. It is very clear that first-responders deal with very high levels of stress. That is why they are highly trained (and tested) and why there needs to be more attention paid to their mental health.

What does that have to do with parenting?

Parents can also be like first-responders. We help when we are called, we deal with difficult situations, and sometimes we save lives. However, we weren’t asked to take courses and pass tests in order to obtain credentials that certify our competency for the role of parenting. We are often trying to get a certain amount of basics done even as our bodies and brains are crying out for a break from all the pressure. It’s so important to remember that we cannot produce at a level of ‘thriving’ when we are at the level of ‘overwhelmed’.

Here is a chart to check where we are on the Stress Continuum: Overwhelmed, Surviving, or Thriving and what we can do to make sure that we aren’t adding another layer of stress because we expect a lot more from ourselves.

FeelingsAnger, anxiety, depression, helplessnessDefensiveness, irritation, nervousness, preservationConfidence, curiosity, focus,
IntentionsCopingGetting things donePlanning, organizing, and implementing
Themes“I can’t do this.”“I’ve got to keep
“I’ve got this.”
SymptomsNumbness, panic, sleep issuesInconsistency, moodiness, tensionFlexibility, generosity, productivity
ActionsFighting, Fleeing, or FreezingDoingBeing
RelationshipsDifficult to maintainTransactional Healthy boundaries
Becoming aware Assessing habits and developing routinesEvolving routines and sustaining health
Breaking it down
Avoiding triggers
Balancing everything
Seeking safety
Enjoying life
Creating safety for all
“What’s the next step?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Done is better than perfect.”
“I am okay.”
“I can do my best!”
“I’m more than okay.”

The stress continuum is a great way to check in with yourself and your children to see what stage you are in before and during an interaction. If you are both on the overwhelmed end of the continuum, the interaction isn’t going to be very productive or positive. Adjusting your expectation for the potential outcome and doing your best may help you prevent another layer of pressure you put on yourself to achieve a perfect outcome.

It is difficult to help our children thrive if we ourselves are not thriving.

Let’s be kind to ourselves if we are not where we want to be on the continuum. We can only do our best.


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