How to Recognize the Signs of Combat Stress

Service member going into counseling office.

*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article below is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

It's not unusual for a service member participating in combat (or seeing its aftermath) to be filled with complicated and conflicting emotions, often including fear, sadness, helplessness and horror. Learning to recognize the signs of combat stress in yourself, another service member or a family member who has returned from a war zone can help you call on the right resources to begin the healing process.

Combat stress and stress injuries


the counseling options available to service members and their families.

Combat stress describes the natural responses of the body and brain to the stressors of combat, traumatic experiences, and the wear and tear of extended and demanding operations. Although there are many causes and signs of combat stress, certain key symptoms are common in most cases:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Uncharacteristic irritability or angry outbursts
  • Unusual anxiety or panic attacks
  • Signs of depression (such as apathy, loss of interest in hobbies or activities, or poor hygiene)
  • Other changes in behavior, personality or thinking

Combat stress sometimes leads to stress injuries, which cause physical changes to the brain that alter the way it processes information and handles stress. You should be aware of the following when dealing with a stress injury:

  • Stress injuries can change the way a person functions mentally, emotionally, behaviorally and physically.
  • The likelihood of having a combat stress injury rises as combat exposure increases.
  • The earlier you identify the signs of a stress injury, the faster a full recovery can occur.
  • If left untreated, a stress injury may develop into more chronic and hard-to-treat problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • There is no guaranteed way to prevent or protect yourself from a stress injury, but there are things you can do to help yourself and others recover.

Stress reactions

Different people handle stress — and combat stress — differently, and it's not clear why one person may have a more severe reaction than another. Here's what you need to know about stress reactions:

  • Stress reactions can last from a few days to a few weeks.
  • Delayed stress reactions can surface long after a traumatic incident or extended exposure to difficult conditions has occurred.
  • An inability to adapt to everyday life after returning from deployment can be a reaction to combat stress.

How to get help


where to turn if you need immediate help.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a combat stress injury, it is important to get professional help as soon as possible.

Reach out to one of the following resources if you have symptoms of combat stress or stress injury, or if you are experiencing severe stress reactions:

  • Combat Stress Control Teams provide on-site support during deployment.
  • Your unit chaplain may offer counseling and guidance on many issues that affect deployed or returning service members and their families.
  • Military and family life counselors offer short-term, non-medical counseling free of charge to military members and their families; contact your installation's Military and Family Support Center to access the program.
  • Military OneSource provides free, confidential, non-medical counseling services for military members and their families by phone (800-342-9647), online, face-to-face or by video chat.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs has readjustment counseling for combat veterans and their families, including those still on active duty, at community-based Vet Centers.
  • TRICARE provides medical counseling services either at a military treatment facility or through a network provider in your area; contact your Primary Care Manager or your regional TRICARE office for a referral.
  • Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Outreach Center — This Department of Defense call center is available 24/7 to provide information and local resources to service members with questions or concerns about psychological health issues and traumatic brain injury. Call 866-966-1020.
  • Non-military support channels such as community-based or religious programs can offer guidance and help in your recovery; costs will vary.

Combat stress is not a sign of weakness; many exceptionally strong service members are affected. A stress injury is no more a reflection on your character or courage than if you had asthma or pneumonia. What does define your character as a service member is choosing to get the help and treatment you need to be able to live your life fully.


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