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Behavioral Fitness: Coping Skills Build Resilience

Army soldier with dog

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Terence Ewings/Released

The demanding military environment often causes stress, whether it’s experienced during a difficult deployment or readjusting to daily life at home.1 Some people may turn to food or alcohol to cope, but these habits can lead you down an unhealthy path.2 Being “behaviorally fit” means controlling your actions to the benefit of your health. You can navigate through tough times, and build your resilience at the same time, by:

  • Managing stress in healthy ways, like through exercise or spiritual activities
  • Reaching out for support, which is a sign of strength

Read on to learn about the steps you can take to cope with military life and transitional times in a healthy way. These behavioral fitness tips can help you stay physically and mentally strong – whether you are preparing for another deployment or re-establishing yourself at home.

Benefits of Behavioral Fitness

Coping with the physical and psychological demands of a deployment can be challenging. The stress can play out in many ways, such as trouble sleeping, rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, headaches, bad dreams or feelings of anger and guilt.2,3 It is also common to experience these same reactions as you reintegrate back to life at home. Behavioral fitness helps build your resilience,2 benefiting your military career and your personal life. Specifically, coping with stress in healthy ways can help you:4

  • Be in a good mood
  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • Sleep well
  • Feel less physical pain
  • Lower your chances of getting sick
  • Heal better

Healthy coping skills, like pursuing hobbies and other creative activities, can also lower your risk of substance misuse, sleep loss, relationship difficulties and more—all problems that can affect your well-being and your career.2

Behavioral Fitness Tips

Performing your duties in a hectic, often dangerous, environment can be physically and psychologically stressful. Stress levels depend on the type of duty you had, the trauma you witnessed or experienced, your family dynamics and how much time you’ve spent away, among other day-to-day experiences.5 You are not alone in feeling this way, even after you return from a difficult deployment. However your stress plays out, you can tackle it by:3,5

  • Identifying the people you can turn to. For emotional support, identify a friend, family member, chaplain or psychological health professional. Identify those who can help with problem solving (e.g.,job hunting coach or a financial advisor).
  • Not turning to illegal drugs or alcohol to feel better. Illegal drugs and alcohol cause more problems – they do not solve them. Substance misuse can spiral out of control, leading to continued difficulty with combat stress, tension, sleep, relationships and managing responsibilities.
  • Breaking problems down into smaller steps. Stay in control by tackling problems head on. Break big problems down into smaller, manageable pieces that you can take on one at a time.
  • Relying on your strengths. You have success fully overcome challenges and stressful times before. Try to take those same steps to tackle new problems.
  • Taking care of yourself. Improve your sleep habits when you can, get plenty of exercise and try relaxation practices such as meditation to lower your stress.
  • Staying connected. Upon returning home, get involved in social activities and keep up your relationships with family members and friends. Spend time together doing activities you enjoy. It may be difficult to discuss what you experienced during a deployment with family members or friends at first. Whenever you realize that it would be helpful to talk, you can also reach out to a counselor, chaplain, a Military Family Life Consultant (MFLC), as well as Military OneSource or the DCoE Outreach Center for support. 

It is important to recognize when stress has gone too far. If any of the following symptoms or problems apply to you, reach out to a health care professional for help right away:3

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of guilt or shame that won’t go away, or feeling like you can’t stop worrying or feeling angry or sad
  • Excessive drinking or substance misuse that negatively affects normal work, family or other regular activities
  • Problems sleeping – either too much or too little
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Verbal or physical violence at home
  • Headaches,backaches or other stress-related physical problems

Keep in mind that many service members who deal with stress reactions due to deployment will feel better, even if it takes some time. Just be sure to reach out for support when needed, which is one more way a warrior can show strength – especially if you feel stress getting in the way of life at home, in your community or at work.

What Line Leaders Can Do

To help warriors build resilience, line leaders need to take a big picture approach to encouraging behavioral fitness. This type of fitness involves strengthening awide range of areas – including psychological, social, family, spiritual, physical and nutritional fitness.1 To this end, line leaders can:

  • Reinforce messages about the impact of smoking, and drug and alcohol use. Educate your units that tobacco use, alcohol abuse, and substance misuse can damage health and performance. Promote responsible behavior and healthy coping skills, like exercise or meditation, to help warriors build resilience during deployments and back at home.1,2
  • Educate your unit about the importance of exercise and nutrition. Reinforce overall wellness habits such as year-round fitness training and making healthy food choices.
  • Encourage healthy sleep habits. Take steps to improve sleep for your units as much as possible during deployments.
  • Promote peer support. Remind service members to look out for one another and encourage activities that bring people together, such as group meals or exercise.
  • Remind warriors that their safety at home is in their hands. Once back home, warriors may be in safer environments, but unsafe habits can harm them or someone else. Remind warriors to wear helmets and seatbelts, and avoid talking on cellphones and texting while driving.
  • Help warriors learn coping skills that build resilience. You can teach warriors that the coping skills they put to use during missions are valuable skills that can serve them well in their daily lives back home. 

It is also important to remind warriors that reaching out for support for stress and other psychological health concerns is a sign of strength.

Additional Resources


1Robert Bray and others. “Behavioral and Occupational Fitness” [PDF 5.39MB], Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century, Supplement to Military Medicine, Volume 175. Published August 2010
2How Stress Affects Your Health, American Psychological Association. Last accessed June 17, 2014.
3Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Military Personnel [PDF 2.64 MB], National Center for PTSD, U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs. Published September 2010
4DCoE in Action-Vol. 3/No. 8 [PDF 4.72 MB], Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, Published August 2010.
5Homecoming: Resilience in a Time of War, American Psychological Association. Last accessed June 17, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 06/17/14
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