Learning to recognize the signs of combat stress in yourself, another service member or a family member who has returned from a war zone can help you call on the right resources to begin the healing process.
Combat stress and stress injuries
Combat stress is the natural response of the body and brain to the stressors of combat, traumatic experiences and the wear and tear of extended and demanding operations. Although there are many causes and signs of combat stress, certain key symptoms are common in most cases:
- Problems sleeping
- Uncharacteristic irritability or angry outbursts
- Unusual anxiety or panic attacks
- Signs of depression such as apathy, changes in appetite, loss of interest in hobbies or activities, or poor hygiene
- Physical symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, nausea, diarrhea or constipation
- Other changes in behavior, personality or thinking
Combat stress sometimes leads to stress injuries, which can cause physical changes to the brain that alter the way it processes information and handles stress. You should be aware of the following when dealing with a stress injury:
- Stress injuries can change the way a person functions mentally, emotionally, behaviorally and physically.
- The likelihood of having a combat stress injury rises as combat exposure increases.
- The earlier you identify the signs of a stress injury, the faster a full recovery can occur.
- If left untreated, a stress injury may develop into more chronic and hard-to-treat problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
- There is no guaranteed way to prevent or protect yourself from a stress injury, but there are things you can do to help yourself and others recover.
Different people handle stress — and combat stress — differently, and it’s not clear why one person may have a more severe reaction than another. Here’s what you need to know about stress reactions:
- Stress reactions can last from a few days to a few weeks to as long as a year.
- Delayed stress reactions can surface long after a traumatic incident or extended exposure to difficult conditions has occurred.
- An inability to adapt to everyday life after returning from deployment can be a reaction to combat stress.
How to get help
If you or someone you know is suffering from a combat stress injury, it is important to get professional help as soon as possible. Reach out to one of the following resources if you have symptoms of combat stress or stress injury, or if you are experiencing severe stress reactions:
- Combat Stress Control Teams provide on-site support during deployment.
- Your unit chaplain may offer counseling and guidance on many issues that affect deployed or returning service members and their families.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs has readjustment counseling for combat veterans and their families, including those still on active duty, at community-based Vet Centers.
- TRICARE provides medical counseling services either at a military treatment facility or through a network provider in your area. Contact your primary care manager or your regional TRICARE office for a referral.
- The Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence provides free resources on traumatic brain injury to help service members, veterans, family members and health care providers. Resources include educational materials, fact sheets, clinical recommendations and much more.
- Veterans Crisis Line offers confidential support 24/7/365 and is staffed by qualified responders from the Department of Veterans Affairs — some of whom have served in the military themselves. Call 800-273-8255, then press 1, or access online chat by texting to 838255.
- Non-military support channels such as community-based or religious programs can offer guidance and help in your recovery.
If you are suffering from combat stress, you are not alone. Reach out to get the help and treatment you need to be able to live your life fully.