Uniformed service member points out ways to combat stress listed on a poster.

Understanding and Dealing With Combat Stress and PTSD

Combat stress, also known as battle fatigue, is a common response to the mental and emotional strain when confronted with dangerous and traumatic situations. It is a natural reaction to the wear and tear of the body and mind after extended and demanding operations.

Recognizing combat stress and stress symptoms

It can be difficult to detect combat stress because the symptoms include a range of physical, behavioral and emotional signs. However, there are some key symptoms, which include:

  • Irritability and anger outbursts
  • Excessive fear and worry
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Depression and apathy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems sleeping
  • Changes in behavior or personality  

How to deal with combat stress

It is important not to blame yourself or a family member for experiencing combat stress. It has nothing to do with weakness or a character flaw. Like an overused muscle, the brain simply needs to heal from too much exposure to trauma and stress. Here are a few steps you can take to recover:

  • Attend to your health. Stress can be an important signal that we are overextending our bodies. It is important to stop and attend to the body’s needs by eating right, exercising and getting adequate rest.
  • Rest. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep restores the body and can protect you from the negative consequences of too much stress.
  • Reach out for help. Working with a counselor can be very helpful in identifying some thoughts and behaviors that might be worsening your stress. A trained expert can also share some strategies that will promote positive health. If you feel as though you are in crisis, or know anyone who is in crisis, please call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and press 1.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. You can beat back stress by learning how to relax. Make sure you do things during the day that you enjoy and use your sense of humor. Deep breathing exercises can also release stress by relaxing the central nervous system.

Combat stress or PTSD?

Combat stress is often confused with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault or disaster. While many of the symptoms are similar between the two conditions, they are different.

Combat stress usually happens for brief periods of time and is considered a natural reaction to the traumatic events that service members experience. Symptoms often disappear after a service member is home for a few months, or even weeks.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, on the other hand, is more severe. It can often interfere with a person’s daily responsibilities and demands a more aggressive treatment. PTSD usually requires sessions with a mental health professional and methods to process difficult emotions.

A person diagnosed with PTSD often experiences specific symptoms – such as recurrent dreams or flashbacks – following a traumatic event as part of the combat experience.

In summary, combat stress is a common reaction to demanding and traumatic experiences. By following some simple strategies, service members can recover and resume their everyday lives.