Self-help

8 Tips for Making the Transition from Military to Civilian Life

There’s no sugarcoating it: The transition from military life to civilian life can be a tough one. The difference is drastic. Switching from the structured, disciplined life of military service to the often unpredictable nature of civilian life can feel like a night-and-day difference. For veterans, this process involves adapting to a new environment, career, […]

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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There’s no sugarcoating it: The transition from military life to civilian life can be a tough one.

The difference is drastic. Switching from the structured, disciplined life of military service to the often unpredictable nature of civilian life can feel like a night-and-day difference.

For veterans, this process involves adapting to a new environment, career, and lifestyle. You may feel like your life has completely changed overnight, and in a way, it has. Not to mention, you’ve likely experienced plenty of life-altering events while you were in service. This transitional time may be full of mixed emotions, and it’s natural to feel a lot of different feelings. 

Not sure where to start as you make the transition? Read on for therapist-backed tips for veterans as they transition from military to civilian life.

1. Plan ahead

Even before you make the transition, try to get a head start on planning. The earlier you prepare and the more you consider, the smoother your transition will likely be, says Michael Dutko, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy.

Start off broad with your plan, setting goals for what you’d like to accomplish post-military. What is most important to you? Your new career path? Spending time with your family? Finding a balance between both?

If you want to dive deep into career planning, make use of your Individual Transition Plan, or ITP. It’s a lengthy document, but it will help you cover lots of bases while you determine what kind of job you’d be qualified for and what you’d enjoy doing. 

All this being said, Dutko says you should acknowledge that everything won’t always go exactly as planned, and once you get going, you might encounter curveballs or speed bumps that change your course – and that’s OK. 

Remember, you aren’t in this alone. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers support and resources to veterans making the transition from military to civilian life. One example is the VA Solid Start program. VA will call you three times during the first year of your transition, offering help with everything from mental health support to career help to learning about your veteran benefits. 

2. Develop a strong support system

“Surrounding yourself with loved ones in the first few days or weeks is critical to help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, fear, or depression that one may experience returning from combat,” says Alicia Ellis, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner with Grow Therapy. This can help soften the blow of the intense transition.

Having a solid support system of people you can open up to is essential. While you might have lost touch with some of your social circle while you were active in the military, now is your chance to rebuild these relationships and expand your network. While it isn’t always easy to let your walls down and be vulnerable, doing so can help strengthen your relationships and improve your mental health. 

Surrounding yourself with loved ones in the first few days or weeks is critical to help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, fear, or depression that one may experience returning from combat.

- Alicia Ellis, PMHNP

Veterans are at risk for developing PTSD, and research shows that social support can help play a role in preventing the development of PTSD. Sharing your thoughts and fears with trusted loved ones during this time can help bring you strength, and feel grounded and less alone as you navigate the new, unfamiliar territory of civilian life.

3. Make room for all your emotions

You don’t need to engage in toxic positivity, looking only on the bright side of things and pretending that everything is fine. It’s crucial to acknowledge and validate your full range of feelings.  

The transition from military to civilian life is a major change, and it’s perfectly normal to experience a mix of emotions, from excitement and relief to anxiety and uncertainty.

“Obviously, you want to lean on the positives and the good things, but I think it’s also helpful to acknowledge some things that you’re going to miss or things that aren’t going to be there anymore,” Dutko says. This will help you fully embrace reality and see all sides of the situation. Let yourself feel however you’re feeling. There are no right or wrong emotions in this scenario. 

4. Practice self-care

Self-care will improve your mental health, giving you the emotional strength and resilience to handle whatever challenges or difficult emotions arise. Remember: Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s an investment in your well-being during this tumultuous time. Practicing self-care will help you thrive in your civilian life. 

This doesn’t have to be anything huge. Even doing just a few small things every day that make you happy will have an impact. “Find the little things that help, like a simple walk with your family or walking your dog. This increases the serotonin in your brain, increasing your mood,” says Hieu Tran, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner with Grow Therapy. “It’s the little things in life that add up and improve your overall mental health.”

Find the little things that help, like a simple walk with your family or walking your dog. This increases the serotonin in your brain, increasing your mood.

- Hieu Tran, PMHNP

Some tried-and-true self-care ideas include:

You may also find it beneficial to identify certain activities that improve your mood in a specific way. For example, Dutko says to be aware of activities you can do when you need to relax, or activities that help you feel excited. 

5. Don’t forget the health basics

While it may sound too simple, don’t underestimate the power of the small, basic things when you get home to bring you comfort and ease you back into civilian life. 

“If you’ve been deployed, it is especially important to replenish your sleep once returning home,” Ellis says. “Being in a safer environment, such as at home with family, can allow for much-needed safe sleep and rest, which allows the mind to settle.”  Not to mention, good sleep is crucial for good mental health.

If you’ve been deployed, it is especially important to replenish your sleep once returning home.

- Alicia Ellis, PMHNP

Eating a healthy, balanced diet can also benefit both your physical and mental health. Indulge in your favorite foods upon your return to give your body and soul a boost. “Getting a home-cooked meal is always a relief for the soldier and family,” says Ellis. “When you’re overseas and depending on freeze-dried food for nutrition, it’s a welcome relief to return to good home meals.”

Lastly, stay active with exercise. Ellis says physical activity releases endorphins, which are “feel good” hormones that will boost your mental health. Endorphins and other hormones released during exercise can improve your mood and reduce stress during this time. 

6. Avoid substance use.

The transition can be challenging emotionally and psychologically for many reasons. While it might be tempting to find temporary relief from substances, ultimately substance use can worsen any negative mental health symptoms, says Tran.

Not to mention, veterans may be at a higher risk for substance abuse than civilians are – and furthermore, if you’re a veteran with substance use disorder, you’re up to four times more likely to have a depression or PTSD diagnosis.

Ultimately, substance use during this transitional period isn’t a good idea. It’s important to have clear thinking and sound decision-making as you transition into civilian life, and substance use can cloud this as well as increase your risk for mental health struggles. 

7. Connect with fellow veterans

On top of connecting with your existing social circle at home, finding camaraderie amongst fellow veterans can make a huge difference. It’s very beneficial to connect with people who have gone through the same things as you, such as trauma, loss, and the transition from military to civilian life, says Tran. 

Aside from sharing stories, you’ll also hear new perspectives and learn new tools for coping with your struggles. You can call your local Vet Center to ask about peer support groups in your area or even online. 

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

“Many military people have that mindset of ‘I just have to power through everything, I don’t have a mental health issue,’” Tran says. The ego can get in the way of actually admitting that you need help, and, in turn, get in the way of getting much-needed treatment. Let go of the stigma and understand that asking for help does not make you weak. 

Be on the lookout for mental health red flags. For example, Tran says that uncontrollable emotions, panic attacks, acting out, and thoughts of harming yourself or others are red flags that you should ask for help. 

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, such as having thoughts of hurting yourself or suicidal ideation, don’t hesitate to reach out immediately. You can access the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 988 and then pressing 1. Alternatively, you can text 838255 or use their online chat feature.


Grow Therapy’s team of licensed therapists can help veterans dealing with mental health struggles. Browse online to find qualified therapists in your area who meet your needs and take your insurance. Our therapists offer sessions online or in-person to help you improve your mental health and well-being during this transitional time. Find a therapist with Grow Therapy now and have an appointment set up within the next few days. 

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About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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