The Impact of Stress on Veterans

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.

Editorial Policy

Last Updated - 06/30/2024

View our editorial policy
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling (719) 602-0914 now.

Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Veterans face unique stressors such as combat experiences, PTSD, and reintegration challenges.
  • Combat stress can lead to chronic conditions like PTSD, affecting veterans’ psychological health and social connections.
  • Reintegration stress includes difficulties in employment, relationships, and societal perception, with social connectedness being key to improving outcomes.
  • Combat stress reactions (COSRs) can have physiological effects like increased heart rate and blood pressure, potentially leading to long-term health issues.
  • PTSD in veterans can manifest through intrusive memories, avoidance, negative mood changes, and hyperarousal, impacting daily life and relationships.
  • Physical health implications of stress in veterans include cardiovascular disease and sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea.
  • Mental health consequences of veteran stress include depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, with an increased risk of suicide.
  • Effective stress management for veterans involves meditation, therapy, counseling, and support groups.
  • Therapy and counseling, including evidence-based psychotherapies, are crucial for managing PTSD and comorbid conditions.
  • Support groups provide a community for veterans to share experiences and learn practical stress management techniques.

Stress in Veterans: Combat, PTSD, and Civilian Reintegration

Veterans face a distinct set of stressors upon returning to civilian life, stemming from combat experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the challenges of reintegration. 

Combat Stress in Veterans

Combat stress, also known as combat and operational stress reactions (COSRs), encompasses a range of physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses experienced by service members exposed to stressful or traumatic events in military operations.

Impact of Combat Stress

According to the Department of Defense Instruction 6490.05, COSRs may lead to adverse consequences or psychological injuries, highlighting the profound impact of combat on veterans.

Physiological Responses to Stress

The American Psychological Association explains that stress can trigger the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, resulting in increased production of stress hormones like cortisol. This can lead to heightened heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, as well as altered digestive and glucose levels.

Physical Effects of Combat Stress

Physiologically, the acute stress of combat can lead to increased heart rate and stronger heart muscle contractions, with stress hormones acting as messengers for these effects.

Emotional Toll of Combat

The emotional toll of combat can manifest in various ways, including burnout, characterized by a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout among veterans can stem from prolonged exposure to intense stressors of combat, such as witnessing or experiencing life-threatening events, losing comrades, and the high demands of operational duties.

Mental Health Impact

The cumulative effect of these stressors can contribute to the development of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

Behavioral Changes

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™ report  indicates that nearly half of adults report negative behavioral changes due to increased stress, including tension, irritability, mood swings, and anger, which can be particularly relevant for veterans with combat experience.

Support and Interventions

Recognizing the multifaceted nature of combat stress is essential for providing appropriate support and interventions for veterans. Effective management of COSRs requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the physiological and psychological aspects of stress, ensuring veterans receive the care they need to cope with the aftereffects of their service.

PTSD in Veterans

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent mental health condition among veterans, with varying incidence rates depending on service era: 11-20% for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, approximately 12% for Gulf War veterans, and 15% for Vietnam veterans.

Non-Combat-Related PTSD

PTSD can also result from non-combat-related trauma, such as sexual harassment or assault, with about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men reporting such experiences at the VA.

Symptoms of PTSD

The condition manifests through a range of symptoms that can severely disrupt daily life:

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event, which can include flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma, leading to social withdrawal and emotional numbing.
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood, such as distorted beliefs about oneself or others, ongoing fear, guilt, or shame.
  • Hyperarousal, reflected in being easily startled, feeling tense, difficulty sleeping, and angry outbursts.

Impact on Daily Life

These symptoms can lead to significant impairments in personal and professional relationships and, in some cases, can be debilitating. Veterans with PTSD may struggle with concentration, suffer from insomnia, and experience a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Importance of Early Intervention

It’s crucial for veterans experiencing symptoms of PTSD to seek help promptly, as early intervention can greatly enhance recovery. Resources such as the Veterans Crisis Line and the VA’s specialized PTSD treatment programs are available to support veterans in managing their symptoms and improving their quality of life.

Seeking Support

For more information on PTSD and available support, veterans can visit the National Center for PTSD or contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

Navigating Reintegration Stress for Veterans

Reintegration stress encompasses the multifaceted challenges veterans face when transitioning from military to civilian life. This transition can be a complex process involving adaptation to new social norms, re-establishment of family roles, and finding a new sense of purpose outside the military structure.

Domains of Reintegration Stress

Research identifies key domains of reintegration stress, including:

  • Psychological health, manifesting as behavioral, mental, or emotional symptoms.
  • Social interactions, which may involve strained family or marital relationships.
  • Physical health adjustments to civilian life.
  • Employment challenges, such as finding work matching veterans’ skills and experience.
  • Housing stability and financial management in a civilian context.
  • Education pursuits and potential legal issues impacting reintegration success.
  • Spiritual well-being and overall community functioning.

Interventions and Strategies

Practitioners are encouraged to consider the individual within the broader context of their community, recognizing the need for interventions across various domains. Strategies such as therapy, counseling, and support groups are vital for managing reintegration stress.

Addressing Invisible Injuries

It’s crucial to address invisible injuries like PTSD, which can exacerbate reintegration challenges and affect overall well-being.

Role of Support Systems

Support systems and programs are crucial in facilitating this transition, providing veterans with the resources and assistance needed to navigate the complexities of civilian life.

Physical Health Implications of Stress in Veterans

Veterans are exposed to unique stressors that can have significant physical health repercussions. The stress of combat, reintegration into civilian life, and the enduring effects of PTSD contribute to a range of stress-related conditions.

Stress and Heart Disease in Veterans

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a significant health concern for veterans, with stress playing a crucial role in increasing the risk of heart conditions. Veterans face unique stressors such as combat exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life, all of which can contribute to cardiovascular strain.

Impact of Stressors on Veterans

Research indicates that these stressors can lead to higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and depression, exacerbating the risk of cardiac death in this population.

Unique Challenges for Women Veterans

Women veterans present a unique case, as they have higher rates of CVD compared to civilian women. Factors such as complications during pregnancy can significantly increase their risk of heart disease and stroke later in life.

Mental Health and Cardiovascular Risk

Veterans with mental illnesses, including more severe conditions like primary psychotic disorders, show an increased risk of CVD, even after accounting for conventional risk factors.

Global Perspective on Military Service and CVD

The link between military service and CVD is not limited to US military veterans. International studies suggest that combat-related traumatic injury is also associated with increased cardiovascular risk.

Addressing Veterans’ Cardiovascular Challenges

As the veteran population evolves, with increasing numbers of women and diverse service experiences, understanding and addressing their specific cardiovascular challenges is critical for their long-term health and well-being.

Stress and Sleep Disorders in Veterans

Veterans often face unique stressors that can significantly impact their sleep health. Chronic stress, a common experience among veterans due to factors like combat exposure and reintegration challenges, is closely linked to sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea. Research indicates that medical conditions associated with chronic insomnia, including hypertension and obstructive sleep apnea, are prevalent among veterans.

Prevalence and Impact of Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders affecting veterans, with a significant number experiencing symptoms post-deployment. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the severity of this issue and provides disability ratings for sleep disorders, reflecting their impact on daily life.

Rise in Diagnosed Sleep Disorders

The prevalence of diagnosed sleep disorders in veterans has risen markedly, with sleep apnea being the most common diagnosis.

VA Efforts and Changes in Ratings

Changes to VA ratings for sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, are underway to align more closely with the impact of the condition and its response to treatment. This includes reevaluating the necessity of ‘automatic’ ratings for the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices.

Management and Guidelines

The management of chronic insomnia and sleep apnea is a critical concern within the VA Health Care system, as highlighted by the Management of Chronic Insomnia Disorder and Obstructive Sleep Apnea guidelines.

Clinical Practice and Support

Addressing sleep disorders in veterans is vital for their overall health and well-being. The VA and Department of Defense have developed clinical practice guidelines to provide evidence-based recommendations for practitioners, ensuring veterans receive the best possible care for their sleep-related issues.

Mental Health Consequences of Stress in Veterans

Chronic stress in veterans can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders (SUDs). Factors contributing to these conditions often stem from experiences unique to military service, such as combat exposure and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life.

Risk of Depression Due to Combat and Trauma

According to research, the stressors of combat, separation from support systems, and witnessing traumatic events increase the risk of depression among veterans.

Focus on Suicide Prevention

The Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) have emphasized suicide prevention, recognizing the rise in suicide attempts among veterans during recent conflicts.

Depression and Anxiety in Veterans

Veterans are at a heightened risk for developing depression and anxiety, conditions often exacerbated by chronic stress from their military experiences. The transition from active duty to civilian life can introduce additional stressors, further impacting their mental health.

Economic Impact of PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety

A study indicated that the costs of treating veterans with PTSD, which frequently co-occurs with depression and anxiety, could exceed $950 billion, suggesting a substantial and enduring impact of these conditions.

Impact of Chronic Stress on Neurobiology and Behavior

Research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) elucidates how chronic stress may lead to anxious depression through pathological alterations in neurobiology and behavior. Veterans’ mental health is further complicated by factors such as combat exposure, separation from support systems, and the stress of reintegration into civilian life.

VA’s Response: Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT)

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has acknowledged this crisis, implementing the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) model to improve outcomes for veterans with serious mental illnesses.

Urgency of Suicide Prevention

Alarmingly, veteran suicides have significantly increased, as reported by, underscoring the urgent need for effective mental health interventions.

Multifaceted Approach to Addressing the Crisis

Addressing the mental health crisis among veterans requires a multifaceted approach, including therapy, medication, and support groups, to manage the complex interplay of depression, anxiety, and stress that many veterans face.

Substance Abuse in Veterans

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are a prevalent and serious concern among military veterans, often interlinked with stress-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Overlap with Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

A staggering 98.3% of veterans assessed at intake for treatment met the criteria for a substance-related and addictive disorder, with a significant overlap with trauma- and stressor-related disorders (53.3%) and depressive disorders (42.4%).

Self-Medication Hypothesis

Research highlights the complex interplay between these conditions, suggesting that the self-medication hypothesis may partially explain the high rates of substance use; veterans may use substances as a means to cope with or avoid the negative affective states associated with PTSD and other mental health challenges.

Prescription Opioid Use and Risk

The relationship between stress and substance use is not only confined to PTSD. Veterans with various mental health diagnoses are more likely to receive prescriptions for opioids, and those with PTSD are often prescribed higher doses, which increases the risk of developing opioid use disorders.

Influence of Combat Exposure and Demographics

The prevalence of SUDs is also influenced by a range of factors, including demographics and military service experiences, such as combat exposure, which is strongly associated with problematic alcohol use. Studies have shown that veterans with high levels of combat exposure are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking compared to their peers with less exposure.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the interconnection between stress, substance use, and mental health symptoms among veterans became even more pronounced.

Need for Targeted Treatment Outreach

Veterans with pre-existing depression reported higher levels of alcohol and cannabis use, underscoring the need for targeted treatment outreach during times of increased stress.

Role of Social Support Systems

Research suggests that interventions should also consider the social support systems of veterans, as limited social support and loneliness can exacerbate substance use, particularly among those with pre-pandemic mental health conditions.

Effective Stress Management Techniques for Veterans

Veterans often face unique challenges that can lead to stress, and managing this stress is crucial for their well-being. Meditation and mindfulness have been identified as powerful tools for stress reduction. These practices help veterans stay present and focused, reducing the rumination that can exacerbate stress. The Department of Veterans Affairs emphasizes mindfulness as a way to center oneself, acknowledging the importance of being in the present moment to alleviate stress.

The Role of Therapy and Counseling in Veteran Stress Management

Therapy and counseling are critical components in managing stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans.

Evidence-Based Psychotherapies for PTSD

Evidence-based psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are considered first-line treatments for PTSD.

Highly Recommended Therapies

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE) therapy are highly recommended for treating PTSD symptoms.

Effectiveness of Psychotherapies

Studies have shown these therapies to be more effective in reducing PTSD symptoms than other non-drug treatments.

Managing Comorbid Conditions

For veterans with comorbid conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, therapy is even more vital.

Nuanced Approach

Comorbidities often complicate treatment, requiring a more nuanced therapeutic approach.

Importance of Therapeutic Alliance

The therapeutic alliance, the relationship between therapist and client, is crucial in PTSD treatment.

Positive Association with Treatment Outcomes

Patient-reported therapeutic alliance positively impacts treatment outcomes in veterans undergoing therapies like CPT.

Pharmacotherapy and PTSD Treatment

Pharmacotherapy, including SSRIs like sertraline and paroxetine, is often used alongside therapy for PTSD treatment.

FDA-Approved Medications

These medications are FDA-approved for PTSD treatment and recommended by the VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guidelines.

VA Resources and Support

VA resources offer various treatment options and support for veterans, emphasizing both medication and therapy in managing stress and PTSD.

Tailored Treatment Approaches

Each veteran’s experience with stress and trauma is unique, necessitating a tailored treatment plan.

Building Therapeutic Relationships

Tailored therapy and counseling, supported by empirical evidence and focused on building strong therapeutic relationships, can significantly improve veterans’ ability to manage stress and lead healthier lives post-service.

Medication Management for Stress-Related Conditions in Veterans

Medication plays a crucial role in managing stress-related conditions in veterans, especially for those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Traditional Pharmacotherapy for PTSD

Traditional pharmacotherapy includes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), considered first-line treatments for PTSD.

Symptom Alleviation

These medications can alleviate symptoms such as anxiety, flashbacks, and depression, contributing to an improved quality of life.

Exploring Innovative Treatment Options

In recent years, there has been a significant shift towards exploring innovative treatment options for veterans.

Interest in Psychedelic Compounds

The Department of Veterans Affairs has shown growing interest in the potential of psychedelic compounds like MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD and depression.

Research on Therapeutic Effects

Research is underway to evaluate the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics for veterans, acknowledging the limitations of traditional medications.

VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guidelines

The VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guidelines provide a comprehensive framework for managing PTSD, incorporating evidence-based recommendations for pharmacological treatments.

Continual Updates

These guidelines are continually updated to reflect the latest research findings, ensuring veterans receive the most effective and current care possible.

Combining Medication with Other Modalities

While medication can be effective, it is most beneficial when combined with other treatment modalities such as therapy, counseling, and support groups.

Importance of Personalized Treatment Plans

Personalized treatment plans that consider veterans’ unique experiences and health profiles are essential for successful stress management and recovery.

The Role of Support Groups in Veteran Stress Management

Support groups are a vital resource for veterans coping with stress, offering a sense of community and shared experience that can significantly enhance mental well-being.

Importance of Social Support Networks

According to the American Psychological Association, social support networks are crucial in stress management for veterans, including community centers and local organizations.

Platform for Connection and Resources

These groups provide a platform for veterans to connect, share their experiences, and access resources that aid in their reintegration into civilian life.

Example: Veterans Socials Initiative

The Veterans Socials initiative exemplifies such support, creating spaces for veterans to build social connections and enjoy activities with peers and community members.

Prominent Programs and Support

Similarly, the National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention highlights programs like the VA’s Whole Health Wellbeing Program and the Veterans Crisis Line.

Tools and 24/7 Support

These programs provide self-help tools and 24/7 support, underscoring the importance of social support in managing stress and promoting overall health.

Research Insights on Social Support

Research published in Nature supports the notion that social support is critical for veterans’ mental health.

Skill-Training Interventions

Support groups can offer skill-training interventions that improve veterans’ ability to manage emotions and enhance their perceived social support, as suggested by studies cited in the National Institutes of Health.

Mitigating Stress and Enhancing Coping

By fostering strong social bonds and providing coping mechanisms, support groups can help mitigate the effects of stress, depression, and anxiety among veterans.

Addiction Care and Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake

There are quite a few different options for people who are seeking treatment for drug & alcohol addiction. Your individualized treatment plan at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake may include:

  • Medical detox: Patients detox from substances in a clinical environment where doctors monitor health and provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inpatient treatment: Patients in inpatient treatment live at our facility and attend a full schedule of individual and group therapy, counseling and peer support sessions.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP): PHPs provide patients with additional flexibility and independence than inpatient programs.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): IOPs help patients transition to life outside of rehab, with fewer hours of care and more time building skills and habits for recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient care provides ongoing treatment after an inpatient stay and supports patients as they transition back into their daily lives.
  • Aftercare: Aftercare programs help support long-term recovery through clinical and medical recommendations for follow-up care, relapse prevention plans and more.

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is here to support you throughout the entire recovery process. It’s time to get your life back. Call our Recovery Advocates today.


Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.