Stress in the Armed Forces

Stress in the armed forces refers to the physical, emotional, and psychological strain that military personnel experience due to the unique demands and challenges of military life. Military life is characterized by exposure to combat, deployment, separation from family, and traumatic events, which can lead to a range of mental health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

Stress Factors Impacting Military Personnel

For starters, frequent relocation and long deployments away from friends and family Some service members move to a new base every couple of years, and deployments can last up to a year. Constantly uprooting your life and being separated from your support system is hugely stressful. Combat and trauma exposure also pose risks. Witnessing violence, injury, or death can lead to severe mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Even training for combat situations where there's a possibility of injury or death can be traumatic. The demanding workload and long hours are another source of strain. Military life is highly regimented, with little flexibility or control over your schedule. You're expected to follow orders and meet high standards of performance, often working 12-hour shifts, nights, weekends, and holidays.

The Impact of Deployments on Mental Health

Deployments are tough on service members and their loved ones. Being away from home for months, often in dangerous areas, takes a major psychological toll.

  • Repeated deployments increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other issues. Studies show that soldiers deployed multiple times have higher rates of mental health problems.

  • The stress of deployment also impacts relationships. Long separations can strain marriages and connections with children. Reintegrating into family life after deployment requires effort and patience.

  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and physical injuries are common in war zones and contribute to mental health issues. Blast exposures and head injuries have been linked to PTSD, depression, and cognitive decline.

  • The military culture of toughness discourages some from seeking help. But there are treatments available, including talk therapy, medication, and alternative options like yoga or meditation. Don't suffer in silence; get the support you need.

Symptom and Incidence Course

Combat stress manifests itself in a U-shaped pattern. The incidence rate is higher in the early stages of a dispute, declines as adaptation takes place, and then increases once more as tiredness and stress build up. During the first week of battle, military personnel become vividly aware of their inexperience as well as the threats of death and damage to both themselves and other members of their unit. The "loneliness of the battlefield" is lessened by enhanced group identification and cohesion as they gain experience and become better equipped to assess their environment and the risks of warfare.

After 30 days of continuous warfare, performance clearly begins to diminish. Non-effectiveness often becomes apparent after 90 days of conflict as a result of an increase in the frequency of traumatic incidents, the cumulative effect of weariness, and other variables. Sadly, the effects of battle stress last for a very long time after the fighting has stopped.

Building Resilience Through Leadership and Unit Support

Building resilience in military units starts with good leadership. Leaders who foster strong relationships with their subordinates and encourage social support among unit members are key to overcoming stress.

Promote Social Support

Social support from unit members is vital. Leaders should encourage −

  • Team-building activities to strengthen bonds between members Things like group meals, recreational trips, and team exercises.

  • A "battle buddy" system where members are paired to look out for one another. This could include regular check-ins and ensuring each other’s basic and mental health needs are met.

  • An open environment where members feel comfortable discussing stress, trauma, relationship issues, or other personal difficulties. Speaking about these challenges can help prevent feelings of isolation and make the issues feel more surmountable.

Set Clear Expectations

Leaders must provide members with a sense of purpose and guidance. They should −

  • Clearly communicate the unit’s mission and goals. Members will feel more motivated and resilient when they understand their role.

  • Give constructive feedback and mentorship. This helps members gain confidence in their abilities and a sense of progress.

  • Delegate responsibility when appropriate. Having agency and control over tasks boosts morale and resilience. But leaders must also provide enough oversight and support.

Lead by Example

Leaders should model the mind-set and behaviours they want to see. Expressing vulnerability, sharing stories of overcoming adversity, and maintaining an optimistic attitude can help build trust and resilience in a unit. Leaders should also make themselves available to listen and provide mentorship.

The Effectiveness of Resilience Training Programmes

Resilience training programs aim to strengthen service members’ ability to adapt to stressful situations. Several approaches have been developed to build resilience, with mixed results.

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)

SIT exposes participants to stressful scenarios in a controlled setting. This helps desensitize them to stressful stimuli and teaches coping strategies. SIT has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and PTSD symptoms in some studies.

Battle mind Training

Battle-mind aims to prepare service members for combat stress by promoting a "warrior ethos." It focuses on mental toughness, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. Although popular in some military branches, little evidence supports its efficacy.

Post-Deployment Battle-mind

Post-Deployment Battle-mind debriefs service members after deployment to address transition challenges. It shows some promise for reducing PTSD and depression symptoms. However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness relative to other approaches.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR incorporates mindfulness meditation, yoga, and relaxation techniques. Some research shows MBSR can decrease stress, anxiety, and depression in service members. However, MBSR may not directly target trauma-related symptoms.

Recommendations for Future Research and Practise

To build on the existing research on stress and resilience in military personnel, future studies should focus on −

Longitudinal Research

  • Conduct long-term studies following military members from recruitment through post-service to gain insights into how stress and resilience change over time.

  • Track the impact of specific stressors like combat exposure, frequent relocations, and long separations from family.

  • Identify what resources and coping strategies are most helpful at different points in your career and post-service.

Diversity and inclusion

  • Recruit more diverse samples, including women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

  • Examine how experiences of stress and resilience may differ based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors.

  • Ensure that research and interventions are culturally sensitive and appropriate for diverse groups.

Prevention and Early Intervention

  • Develop and test resilience training programmes for new recruits to equip them with skills to manage stress from the start of their service.

  • Provide mental health screenings at regular intervals to identify those at high risk of conditions like PTSD, depression, or anxiety and connect them with resources.

  • Make counselling and therapy options more available and destigmatize seeking mental healthcare.

Improved Measurement

  • Develop more consistent ways of measuring key concepts like perceived stress, resilience, social support, and coping strategies across studies.

  • Include physiological measures of stress, not just self-reported ones.

  • Use daily diaries, ecological momentary assessments, and experiential sampling methods to get real-time data on stress and coping.


A high-level overview of what the research says about stress and resilience in the armed forces The takeaway is that, while military service often exposes individuals to traumatic events that can have lasting psychological impacts, many service members demonstrate remarkable resilience.

By understanding the factors that contribute to resilience, we can work to foster it in those currently serving and help veterans strengthen it after they've left active duty.

Updated on: 25-Oct-2023


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