Stress

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Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a perceived pressure, challenge, or threat. It is normal to experience stress in response to the demands of everyday life, and some degree of stress can be helpful in supporting performance and enhancing motivation.

Stress is a particularly relevant topic for military mental health providers, leaders, and service members. Military life exposes service members to uniquely stressful tasks and events, particularly during deployment. In a combat setting, the body’s physiological stress response helps to keep service members alert and safe, given the real dangers that may be present.

Combat and operational stress reactions (COSRs) are physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral reactions, adverse consequences, or psychological injuries that can occur in service members following exposure to stressful or traumatic events in combat or military operations. Combat and operational stress (COSC) programs were developed to prevent, identify, and manage adverse COSRs in units.

In addition to the challenges of military life, service members face all of the same challenges and stressors as civilians. General life stressors, such as a sick child at home or conflict with a friend, and adverse events like death of a loved one or a spouse’s job loss can create or compound stress for service members. Even positive events, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or a promotion, can cause stress. Any of these life events are inherently stressful, and service members may have a particularly difficult time navigating life stressors that are unexpected or beyond their control.

When stress becomes chronic or excessive, it can interfere with performance, negatively affect interpersonal relationships, and have detrimental effects on one’s physical wellbeing, mental health, and mission readiness.

Symptoms of Excess Stress

Common signs and symptoms of excess stress include:

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Irritability and anger

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling restless or overwhelmed

  • Worry and anxiety

  • Sadness and depression

  • Headaches

  • Muscle tension

  • Stomach upset

  • Chest pain

Resources

The following resources can support service members, leaders, and providers in addressing stress.

  • Health Topics: Stress This page from the U.S. National Library of Medicine/MedlinePlus provides an overview and links to many aspects of stress, including symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and therapies, coping strategies, stress-related research and statistics, and patient handouts.
  • Kinds of Stress This web page from the American Psychological Association describes the different kinds of stress—acute, episodic, and chronic—outlines signs and symptoms, and explains the potential causes of them.  
  • Manage Stress Workbook This 20-page workbook from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention contains self-help resources for tracking stress, identifying symptoms and sources of stress in one’s life, instructions for a range of coping strategies, and exercises.
  • Five Tips to Help Manage Stress This web page from the American Psychological Association offers five tips for managing stress. 
  • Relaxation Techniques for Stress This page from the U.S. National Library of Medicine/MedlinePlus lists exercises that can help manage stress and ease the effects of stress on the body. It provides information on techniques for promoting relaxation, including deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Counseling Options for Service Members and Their Families This web page from Military OneSource provides a list of options for in-person, web-based, and phone counseling for service members and their families.