Transition Stress: A Silent Problem for Military Veterans

Serving in uniform can provide easy answers to heavy questions. A mission brings purpose; your rank and job provide a place in the hierarchy; your squad provides camaraderie; and shared hardship reinforces that bond. Without a doubt, military life, provides structure and a sense of belonging that few other organizations, employers or life experiences can offer. So, what happens when our veterans transition back into civilian life?

While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a much-discussed affliction, a seemingly more prevalent problem is going largely overlooked: “transition stress”. For those who have never served in the military, it may come as a surprise to learn that one of the hardest challenges veterans face is making the transition back to civilian life. However, experts studying veteran health issues are seeing transition stress more and more frequently.

What is Transition Stress?

Transition stress encompasses several issues facing transitioning military veterans, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and other behavioral difficulties. They include a loss of purpose and sense of identity, difficulties securing employment, conflicted relationships with family and friends, and other general challenges adapting to post-military life.

Transition stress has little to do with adrenaline-filled highs of war-time service. More commonly, it’s a nostalgic longing for that sense of place and self that many within the military felt, regardless of their MOS or theater of operations.

Generation X has served as an all-volunteer force, one which voluntarily enlisted, often right out of high school to serve the United States military. Many of us, (myself included) were asking ourselves the existential questions when we chose to enlist: Who am I? What do I want to do? What’s the meaning of life? And the military provided for that. They tell you: You have purpose. What you’re doing is meaningful. You matter. The military provided structure during an uncertain time in or lives. But when our time of service ends, where does one go from there?

Finding employment can be especially problematic for newly discharged veterans, many of whom entered the military after high school and have little experience with searching for jobs, preparing resumés and interviewing with potential employers. Still others have trouble connecting with friends and loved ones once they return home, which can lead to feelings of depression and isolation. Transition stress also encompasses the loss of identity or purpose individuals sometimes feel as the result of leaving their military career behind.

How is transition stress different from PTSD?

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is a mental health condition “triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it” whose symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety or uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Transition stress is therefore distinctly different from PTSD, as its symptoms are centered primarily on readjusting to present life as opposed to dealing with a specific traumatic event from the past. However, because experts have only recently begun to study the impact of transition stress on veterans and to advocate for further research, very little information exists about the subject.

Is there help available for veterans with transition stress?

Services and support are limited for veterans currently dealing with transition stress, but the hope is that these will become more available as research continues and awareness about the condition increases.

While many existing programs and services, such as the pre-discharge Transition Assistance Program (TAP), focus more on the logistics of helping veterans return to civilian life (i.e. getting a job, buying a home, learning new skills), few offer help for those already dealing with the mental health effects of starting their new civilian life.