Supporting emotional regulation in veterans

10 June 2024

Transitioning out of the Defence Force and into the civilian world can be challenging and can often elicit an emotional response from veterans.

With the loss of familiarity and security, many veterans face difficulties transitioning from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for several reasons.

Some of these challenges may include practical issues such as financial uncertainty or the requirement to complete unfamiliar tasks such as finding housing and employment or making medical appointments.  

Some challenges may be psychological such as struggling with a loss of identity or sense of purpose, and these can create unhelpful emotional responses.  

Common reactions to transitioning from the Defence Force 

Some common emotional responses that veterans may feel in relation to these challenges include: 

  • Emotional avoidance: attempting to forget about Defence experiences and being reluctant to acknowledge changes in their situation. Over time these may lead to experiencing increased negative emotions. 
  • Emotional overwhelm: feeling an overwhelming level of one or more emotions, including anger, fear and guilt as a response to challenges such as routine, housing or employment. A reliance on anger as a default initial emotion may occur with veterans. This may occur as a learnt response that they have used in Defence to initiate action, which is of value in the Defence Force context. Anger is also a response to the ‘fight or flight’ system being triggered and may be part of a coping response. 
  • Frustration: navigating new and unfamiliar environments and civilian processes can bring about strong feelings of frustration, which may lead to increased feelings of anger. 
  • Loss of sense of identity or purpose: feeling a loss of identity or purpose is a common occurrence when transitioning out of the Defence Force as veterans face not only the loss of their routine and sense of security but also the camaraderie that is so vital in military life. 

The importance of emotional regulation 

Emotional regulation allows us to navigate the challenging aspects of our emotions and offers a way to best respond to challenges in a healthy, adaptative way. This involves recognising, understanding and appropriately expressing our emotions while being mindful of their intensity and duration. Some of the benefits of effective emotional regulation include: 

  • Allowing us to cope with stress through processing emotions and finding constructive methods of dealing with them, as opposed to emotional avoidance or emotional overwhelm. 
  • Allowing us to conduct appropriate decision making by maintaining rational decision-making abilities rather than acting impulsively on fleeting or sudden outbursts of emotion. 
  • Allowing us to maintain productivity by enhancing our attention span, ability to set goals and willingness to persist by focusing on future goals rather than only current challenges being faced. This in turn can create a sense of competence and increase self-confidence.  

Techniques to regulate your emotions 

It is possible to modify emotional reactions to triggering situations by frequent practice of techniques that increase our ability to appropriately manage emotional responses. By focusing on learning techniques and putting them into action to reach an alternative response, a new and controlled emotional reaction can be taught.  

A commonly taught technique to self-regulate emotional responses is grounding strategies. These strategies reduce the focus on the stress trigger and redirect a person’s focus to something calming or soothing. This could include walking, listening to music, deep breathing, or talking with a friend to reduce the impact of the stressful situation. 

Focusing on understanding emotional responses using a SUDS (Subjective Units of Distress Scale) can be beneficial for effective management of emotional regulation. SUDS relies on the individual gauging how stressed they are in the triggering moment on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no stress at all and 10 being overwhelmed by stress.  

This allows the person to assess how stressed they were in a given situation, recognise what may have triggered the stress, and learn how to direct their response based on their stress levels.  

For instance, a stress level of 5 may require the person to focus on deep breathing before re-engaging. However, a stress level of 9 may mean the person needs to walk away from the situation and calm down before taking any further action. 

Support at Mates4Mates 

Mates4Mates provides veterans and family members with access to psychologists, counsellors and social workers that can help support emotional regulation, including anger management, by helping a person to recognise their triggers and implement strategies for ongoing self-care and growth, 

Our clinicians can also assist veterans transitioning out of the Defence Force by discussing their concerns, breaking down the transition process to achievable steps and providing a safe and supportive space as veterans find their post-Defence identity. 

For more information about Mates4Mates services and how we can help to support you, reach out to us on 1300 4 MATES (62 837) for a confidential chat.     


Written by Marc MacDonald, Mates4Mates Psychologist 

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