Image of a man in uniform returning home depicting the military transition to civilian life.

Challenges of the Military Transition to Civilian Life

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Blog

Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be a challenging journey. Military life offers structured routines, defined roles, and a sense of camaraderie that can make civilian life feel unfamiliar and unwelcoming. Some veterans also return to civilian life with physical and mental health complications that make the transition process even more challenging. 

Fortunately, help and support during military transition is available. In this guide, we’ll explore common challenges of the military transition to civilian life, including mental health and substance abuse. We’ll also offer a range of treatment options and mental health services that can support veterans throughout the transition process. 

Common challenges during transition to civilian life

If you or a loved one are struggling during the transition from military to civilian life, you’re not alone. One survey by Pew Research Center found that between 27% and 44% of veterans report having difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Factors that can make readjustment more difficult include: 

  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Being seriously injured
  • Serving in the years after 9/11
  • Being involved in combat
  • Knowing someone who was killed or injured. 

Below, we outline some of the most common challenges experienced by veterans returning to civilian life.

Finding employment

One survey of 1,000 U.S. military veterans found that finding employment was the most significant challenge, with 33% of respondents calling it their biggest hurdle. While the military teaches many transferable skills, 20% of veterans surveyed had never created a resume and it took an average of four months for veterans to find a civilian job.

Many veterans will have never searched, applied, or interviewed for a civilian job before and will have to learn these skills and learn how to translate their military duties into civilian terms for a resume. 

Social integration

The process of transitioning from military to civilian life can be isolating. Many veterans will find it difficult to relate to people who don’t know or understand their experiences, and that can include friends and family members. Building new social networks and finding a sense of belonging outside of the military community can be difficult – as can be parting ways with friends made in the military. 

Reconnecting with family

Veterans may struggle to reconnect with family members and re-establish relationships that may have been strained by long deployments. Families may have established new routines, roles, and dynamics during a veteran’s absence and both the family and veteran will have to adjust to the changes.

Absence of familiar routine/structure

The military lifestyle is highly structured, with clear routines and a defined chain of command. People are told when to sleep and wake and what to wear and eat. This kind of structure doesn’t exist outside the military, which can leave veterans feeling unanchored and directionless. They may struggle to adjust to the new freedom and choices or find ways to create their own structure.

Identity & purpose

Many people enter the military during a period of emerging adulthood and begin to form their identity and purpose around it. When this purpose and identity disappears, it can leave veterans feeling adrift and unsure of who they are or what their purpose is in life. It can be challenging to find new roles and goals that provide the same sense of fulfillment and direction. 

Returning to work

While some veterans struggle with finding employment for the first time, others are dealing with the challenge of returning to a previous job. Those deployed with the National Guard or Reserve may struggle to resume previous roles and can sometimes find themselves back at work just days after leaving a combat zone. The process of returning to work after deployment requires catching up, learning new skills, or adjusting to social changes and new roles in the workplace. 

Connecting to services

The military provides access to doctors, dentists, barbers, and other services. When transitioning back to civilian life, veterans must learn to connect to these providers on their own. They’ll also have to navigate the various benefits, services, and entitlements available from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which can be complex and frustrating. 

Transition stress & mental health

The experience of heightened stress when transitioning from military to civilian life is often referred to as ‘transition stress’. Transition stress is a standard reaction for veterans rejoining civilian life, and experiencing stress isn’t necessarily bad. When the stress becomes overwhelming or persists for long periods of time, however, it can begin to have a serious impact on a veteran’s mental and physical health. 

Symptoms of transition stress include fear & worry about: 

  • Reconnecting with family and friends
  • Adjusting to a new routine and lifestyle
  • Finding employment. 

Transition stress can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Grief over the death of a fellow service member, or the loss of military lifestyle
  • Idealized memories about time in the military
  • Shame and guilt over acts committed during service
  • Fear about confirming other people’s negative perceptions of veterans.

Between 44% and 72% of veterans will experience transition stress when returning home from active duty. However, when feelings persist beyond the initial transitional period then it could be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety. Because the symptoms of these mood disorders often overlap with those of transition stress, misdiagnoses are common. 

Transition stress vs PTSD

There can be some confusion between transition stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their similar symptoms. However, they are distinct experiences that require different approaches to support and treatment. 

  • Transition stress: This is a common response for Veterans returning to civilian life, referring to the heightened stress, anxiety, and difficulties associated with adapting to civilian life after military service. 
  • PTSD: This is a psychological disorder triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It involves intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic experience that persist long after the event has ended.

PTSD and veterans

It’s estimated that between 3% and 29% of veterans will experience PTSD at some point in their life.

This is commonly associated with: 

  • Exposure to combat
  • Experiencing a physical or sexual assault
  • Hearing about or witnessing the death or serious injury of a loved one
  • Acts of terrorism. 

Common symptoms of PTSD include: 

  • Recurring distressing memories, flashbacks, and nightmares of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, people, and things that are a reminder of the trauma
  • Negative thoughts and feelings or emotional numbness
  • Hypervigilance, angry outbursts, or self-destructive behavior. 

Differences between PTSD & transition stress

There are many differences between PTSD and the natural transition stress that comes with readjusting to civilian life. These include: 

  • Nature of stress: Transition stress is related to adapting to civilian life, while PTSD is a response to witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.
  • Duration & severity: Transition stress is likely to improve as veterans adjust to civilian life, while PTSD involves long-lasting symptoms that require treatment.
  • Treatment approaches: Transition stress can often be managed through stress-reduction strategies and support networks, while PTSD often requires specialized mental health treatment, such as medication, talk therapy, or TMS therapy

Mental health challenges experienced by veterans during transition to civilian life

Transition stress is just one mental health condition experienced by veterans transitioning to civilian life. However, there are other mental health challenges that veterans face, including depression, anxiety, and traumatic brain injury. 

In some cases, veterans can suffer from more than one of these mental health disorders – for example, they might have both depression and PTSD. These challenges can exacerbate the difficulty of returning to civilian life and require careful support and treatment.  


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1 in 3 veterans demonstrate symptoms of depression.

These symptoms include: 

  • Persistent sadness
  • Lack of enjoyment or pleasure in activities once found enjoyable
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Veterans can experience depression for various reasons, depending on their history and current life circumstances. However some factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing depression, such as: 

  • Suffering traumatic brain injury during combat
  • Being in combat
  • Substance abuse
  • Experiencing physical or sexual assault. 


Military veterans can also experience high rates of chronic anxiety. One study found that 7.9% of veterans screened positive for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and 1 in 4 experienced mild anxiety. Veterans can also experience panic disorder or social anxiety. 

Symptoms of anxiety include: 

  • Constant fear or worry
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble making decisions 
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Sense of impending danger or panic.

Read more: Depression vs. Anxiety: Which One Do I Have? Symptoms & Treatment.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Traumatic brain injury is caused by a physical blow to the head or an injury that disrupts normal brain function. Symptoms of TBI can range from mild (i.e. headaches, dizziness, fatigue) to severe (memory loss, cognitive impairment, emotional instability). The effects of TBI can make the transition back to civilian life more complicated for veterans. 

Substance abuse when readjusting to civilian life

The stresses of returning to civilian life, sometimes coupled with mental health challenges, puts veterans at high risk of  substance abuse. Veterans may turn to alcohol or drug use to help them cope with trauma, anxiety, depression, injury, physical pain, and other lingering effects of combat. The sooner these unhealthy coping mechanisms are recognized and treated, the easier it is to stop the patterns of behavior from playing out.

The rates of substance abuse in active-duty service members and veterans are often higher than those of civilians, with 46% of veterans reporting alcohol or substance abuse during active duty and 42% reporting alcohol or drug use after returning to civilian life. 

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that: 

  • Alcohol use disorder is the most common substance use disorder in military personnel
  • Veterans are more likely to engage in heavy drinking than non-veterans
  • Around 65% of veterans entering addiction treatment report alcohol as their primary substance of abuse. 

While many veterans turn to alcohol and other substances as a way to cope with the transition to civilian life, it can actually make the adjustment process more difficult. Instead of improving symptoms and stress levels, substance use actually makes mental health symptoms worse over time. 

Warning signs of alcohol abuse can include: 

  • Drinking larger amounts or more often than intended
  • Trying and being unable to cut down on drinking
  • Needing to consume more alcohol to produce the desired effects
  • Continuing to drink even when experiencing physical or mental health problems
  • Getting into situations where drinking increases the risk of injury, like driving intoxicated
  • Feeling sick when you don’t drink
  • Damage to personal or professional relationships due to drinking
  • Legal, financial, housing, or employment issues caused by alcohol.  

Learn more about the link between alcohol & depression: How Alcohol Makes Your Depression Symptoms Worse.

Studies show that the more stress and difficulty experienced by a service member returning to civilian life, the more likely they are to rely on alcohol or other substances as a coping mechanism. For that reason, it’s essential that veterans returning to civilian life have the support they need during the transition. 

Support & treatment options for veterans transitioning to civilian life

If you or a loved one are struggling with readjusting to civilian life, help is available. There are a variety of support and treatment options that can help you navigate the challenges and build a successful post-military life. These include:

Employment & education support

One of the biggest struggles of returning to civilian life is finding employment or pursuing higher education.

Below are some support services available: 

  • Career counseling & job placement services: Organizations such as Hire Heroes USA offer free job search assistance, including resume writing, interview preparation, and finding placements. These services can help you translate military skills to civilian job markets and make finding employment easier.
  • Education support: The GI Bill provides financial support for qualifying veterans and their families pursuing higher education. These benefits can make it easier to pursue new skills and qualifications. 
  • Support for service-connected disabilities: The Veteran Readiness and Employment program can help people with a service-connected disability prepare for, find, and maintain suitable careers, education, or training.  employment options and seek education or training. 

Mental health services

Struggling with mental health can make the transition to civilian life even more stressful and challenging. Thankfully, many treatments are available to support veterans with mental illness.

These include:

  • Counseling & talk therapy: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers mental health services for veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological effects of military sexual trauma (MST), depression, grief, and anxiety. This includes individual and group counseling, couples or family counseling, and more.
  • Substance use support: VA also offers various support and treatment services for veterans experiencing substance use problems. This includes substance addiction treatment, medically managed detoxification, outpatient counseling, and self-help groups.
  • Medication management: Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are often the first line of treatment when it comes to mental health. Working with a licensed medication management provider can ensure you find the right medication and dosage to relieve your symptoms and get the results you need. 
  • Esketamine (SPRAVATO)®: Esketamine is an FDA-approved nasal spray medication that provides quick and effective relief from depression symptoms during the time it takes for prescribed depression medication to take effect. It operates differently to traditional antidepressants and can be complementary in easing symptoms. 
  • TMS therapy: Veterans who have tried antidepressants without success, or experienced side effects, qualify for transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy. This non-invasive FDA-approved treatment has shown promise in relieving symptoms of treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and PTSD. TRICARE provides coverage for TMS therapy as part of its outpatient procedure care offerings, making this innovative treatment accessible to active-duty military members, retired military personnel, and their families.

Learn more: Who Qualifies for TMS Therapy? (TMS Requirements).

Support for veterans & their families

At BestMind Behavioral Health, it’s our mission to serve the mental health needs of our communities, and that includes our veterans and their families. If you’re struggling with the transition to civilian life, we have a range of mental health support services available, including medication management, TMS therapy, Esketamine (SPRAVATO)®, and customized depression treatment

Our services are flexible and can be accessed through both telemedicine and in-person at our treatment centers in Colorado and Oregon. You don’t have to go through this journey alone. Contact us now and allow our licensed experts to guide you through rewriting and reclaiming your narrative.