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Helping Families Understand Combat Stress

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Roger S. Duncan Released

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist
Roger S. Duncan Released

Welcoming home a loved one after a separation is an emotional time for service members and their families. While deployed, your service member may have gone through very stressful situations, such as being in combat, living in unsafe conditions or having unit members injured or killed. Some service members may continue to feel the effects of deployment after returning home. These reactions can occur in even the toughest warrior.

What are the Signs of Combat Stress?

Learning signs of combat stress can help you better understand what your service member is experiencing. While the signs can change over time, below are some of the common combat stress signs you may observe:

  • Being "on guard" or easily startled
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Sleeping troubles such as oversleeping or restlessness
  • Misusing alcohol or substances
  • Increasing disruptive behaviors
  • Recurring mood swings 
  • Feelings of anxiety, anger or helplessness

Reactions such as feeling on edge or trouble concentrating, for example, can make going back to work difficult. Feeling angry could lead to an increase in arguments with friends and family, and sleeping troubles can affect many regular activities. These reactions can occur immediately or may not occur until weeks or months after a homecoming. They can last a few days to several weeks or longer [PDF 734.16KB].

What is a Trigger?

A trigger could be any situation that leads to a reminder of the stress of combat. These may include:

  • Links to combat such as a certain smell, sound or sight. Examples include the smell of oil, hearing gunfire on TV, or helicopters flying overhead
  • Events that cause emotional reactions. Examples include arguments with loved ones, financial stress or flashbacks
  • Places or things that can feel unsafe. Examples include large crowds or traffic jams

If your service member shows a reaction, it means he or she may have experienced a trigger. It can be helpful to discuss the likely triggers to allow you and your family to understand what might cause the upsetting reaction.

By talking about this, your family can understand how the service member copes when the triggers occur and to find ways to cope with them. This will help your entire family better prepare for such reactions as it can be scary for you or your children. Remember to have patience and be supportive while the family adapts to the changes.

How Can You Help?

As a family member, you are often the first to notice combat stress in your loved one. Like physical injuries, a stress injury may require treatment, time and the support of family and friends to heal. If these reactions continue for more than 8 weeks [PDF 734.16KB] or if your loved one is using harmful ways to cope, such as substance misuse, encourage them to seek care.

The Military Health System has trained providers, such as psychologists, to treat concerns that can arise from combat stress. Encourage your loved one to reach out to their health care provider if they appear to be struggling. Remember, access to clinical resources may differ depending on your location.

Reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved is in a crisis, contact the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1. For additional support, call the Psychological Health Resource Center at 866-966-1020 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants 24/7, or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also visit our “Seek Help, Find Care” page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources

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