Any role in the military can be stressful. However, for those like special operators, explosive ordinance technicians, submariners, aviators and others, stress is a significant part of the job. The extreme stress faced by these warriors, and others, can lead to psychological health concerns.
Recent research focusing on special operations forces (SOF) highlights the risks faced by service members working in any high-stress role. Heavy physical, mental and emotional strain can lead to psychological health concerns. These can include depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder.
It is important for all warriors to learn stress-management techniques. Stress can cause anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability, heavy drinking or other concerns. If you experience any of these symptoms, or have other concerns, talk to a health care provider now. Your provider can address your concerns and help you develop a stress-management plan. Getting care early helps you stay mission ready. It also avoids new or worsening symptoms.
The Effects of Stress on SOF
SOF personnel are an example of service members supporting high-stress operations. The nature of their work is sensitive, and they make frequent deployments, often on short notice. They have strong resilience skills because of SOF selection screenings and their follow-on training. However, they aren’t immune to the effects of high-stress operations. In one survey about twice as many members of SOF units reported symptoms associated with PTSD when compared to members of conventional units.
Others, like drone pilots, face similar stressors. Executing critical missions, dealing with life-and-death decisions and safeguarding classified information all adds up. That makes robust skills for managing stress crucial if you’re in these types of roles.
Skills That Aid Job Performance Under High Stress
The ability to perform under high stress is critical to mission readiness. Service members, like special operators, use stress inoculation training to stay focused and effective when the going gets tough. This type of training teaches you skills to manage stress responses at critical times by:
- Controlling emotions. Reduce negative thinking and fear. This avoids distracting thoughts during a critical mission.
- Calming physical reactions to stress. Use regular, slow breathing from your diaphragm and progressive muscle relaxation. This reduces your heart rate and anxiety.
- Training with repetition. Repeat tasks that require a consistent response until you can do them on autopilot.
- Visualizing tasks. Envision successfully using your skills in action right before you need them.
- Learning prioritization. Order tasks to deal with information overload and manage multiple high-priority assignments at the same time.
- Building team skills. Communicate, give constructive feedback, coordinate group efforts and ask for help when needed.
Additional skills woven into service-specific trainings for high-stress operations include:
- Situational awareness
- Attentional conditioning
- Muscle control
Stress Reduction Techniques
All warriors with high-stress jobs can benefit from basic stress-reduction techniques. To reduce stress:
- Exercise regularly. Cardio and strength training reduce stress levels and keep you mission ready.
- Get good sleep. Poor sleep or not enough sleep has a significant negative impact on wellbeing.
- Eat healthy. A good diet helps keep your body and mind in shape.
- Participate in relaxing activities. Breathing-based meditation and yoga, for example, can improve symptoms and reduce anxiety.
- Stay connected. The support of friends and family improves psychological health when facing stress.
Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also see a list of key psychological health resources here.
- Psychological Health Resource Center
- Military OneSource
- Vets for Warriors
- National Institute of Mental Health “5 Things You Should Know about Stress”
- Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD
- Real Warriors Campaign “Helping Families Understand Combat Stress”
- Real Warriors Campaign “Combat Stress: A Natural Result of Heavy Mental and Emotional Work”
- Bryan, C. J., Stephenson, J. A., Morrow, C. E., Staal, M., & Haskell, J. (2014). Posttraumatic stress symptoms and work-related accomplishment as predictors of general health and medical utilization among special operations forces personnel. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 202(2), 105-110. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000076.
- Chappelle, W., Goodman, T., Reardon, L., & Thompson, W. (2014). An analysis of post-traumatic stress symptoms in United States Air Force drone operators. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(2014), 480-487. Doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.003.
- Hing, M., Cabrera, J., Barstow, C., Forsten, R. (2012). Special operations forces and incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. National Institutes of Health.
- Ogle, A. D., & Young, J. A. (2016). USAF special tactics operator combat exposure and psychological stress. Military Psychology, 28(3), 123-133. doi: 10.1037/mil0000121.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). 5 things you should know about stress.
- Robson, S. & Manacapilli, T. (2014). Enhancing performance under stress. RAND.
- Russell, D. W., Benedek, D. M., Naifeh, J. A., Fullerton, C. S., Benevides, N., Ursano, R. J., Cacciopo, J. T. (2016). Social support and mental health outcomes among U.S. army special operations personnel. Military Psychology, 28(6), 361. doi: 10.1037/mil0000114.
- Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing‐based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in US Military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of traumatic stress, 27(4), 397-405. doi: 10.1002/jts.21936.
- Skare, M., Hopkins, W. G., & Solberg, P. A. (2017). Determinants of vitality during a training cycle in a cohort of special-forces operators(link is external). Military Psychology, 29(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1037/mil0000129.