Service member relaxing

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 that can result from dangerous and traumatic experiences. 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 need 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. Military OneSource confidential non-medical counseling provides service members and their loved ones with resources and support to address a variety of issues and build important skills to tackle life’s challenges. Consultants are available 24/7/365. Call 800-342-9647, use OCONUS dialing options, or schedule a live chat.

    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 decrease stress and build resilience by learning how to relax and pay attention to positive things. Do things during the day that you enjoy – listen to music, take a walk, remind yourself of things you are grateful for, and use your sense of humor. Simple breathing exercises can also release stress by relaxing the central nervous system. Check out these Department of Defense recommended wellness apps, and resilience tools. These mobile applications are free and for iOS and/or Android devices.

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, PTSD tends to be more severe and usually requires working with a mental health professional. Combat stress is a more common reaction to demanding and traumatic experiences. Service members can usually recover and resume their everyday lives by following some simple strategies and taking time to heal.

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