The Relaxation Paradox

An Air Force Noncommissioned Officer rests on the ramp of a C-130J Hercules before a mission departing Maputo International Airport, Mozambique, March 30, 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corban Lundborg

Who doesn’t want to enjoy a life of ease and repose? It’s a common goal. Figuring out how to balance work and play, effort and rest, is a key aspect of wellness. For many veterans, however, relaxing is difficult. When “relaxation” does come, it’s more inactivity due to exhaustion rather than true rest; it’s shutting down because the battery is drained, not powering down in order to recharge the battery.

This is the relaxation paradox:

I want to clear my mind and enjoy life, but I cannot relax; everything matters, and people die when mistakes are made

If veterans don’t learn how to unwind, then life can be challenging.

Veterans Want to Enjoy Life…

Serving in the military is a physically and psychologically demanding occupation. It’s a huge commitment in time, both on a daily basis and through a lifetime. Working twelve-hour days is common, from physical fitness training before the sun comes up to the ending of the duty day. And that’s when there is no specific training or mission going on; sixteen to eighteen-hour days are not uncommon, and twenty-hour days are frequent. And while it sucks, sure, it’s also meaningful. After all of that effort, there is a desire to finally be done with all of this hard work.

The military leaves a huge hole in someone’s life once they leave it, however. There is a whole lot of space in someone’s life, both in terms of time and of meaning. That space has to be filled, or it will be filled for the veteran; often with things that are not beneficial or helpful. Part of enjoying life is fulfillment, having meaning and purpose, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

…But They Cannot Relax…

One of the problems with seeking meaning and purpose is that it takes effort. We can’t just sit back and wait for meaningful things to happen in our lives, like a Venus flytrap waiting for its next victim. Seeking purpose and finding meaning take action, and that’s something that a service member or veteran is really really good at: doing stuff. We get things done. We keep busy.

The problem comes when it becomes too much effort for too long. When veterans don’t have a project or a goal to pursue, they can get edgy. They need to find something to do. Whether it comes from personality, neurology, or just uncertainty, the inability to relax and simply enjoy the day is a forgotten skill.

…Because the Stakes are Too High

Another reason why some veterans find it difficult to relax is that we were engaged in a high-stakes occupation. The military is an inherently dangerous occupation, even without considering combat. There are thousands of ways to be injured, maimed, or killed; every individual must be constantly alert for safety violations and all recognize that they hold their fellow service members' lives in their hands.

A common phrase, both in combat and out of it, is “complacency kills.” The problem for many veterans is the term “relax” is a euphemism for “complacency.” Even I cringe a bit inside when I recommend that my therapy clients “take it easy.” Taking it easy is not what service members do! If we don’t learn how to “take it easy,” however, then we will hit that inevitable wall. We will crash and do damage to ourselves and those around us.


The key to resolving the relaxation paradox is to learn a new way of interacting with the world. We learned how NOT to relax…we can also learn HOW to relax. There are hundreds of ways to slow ourselves down and not be so intense. Meditation is one way; organizations like Veteran’s Path are helping service members and veterans understand how to incorporate meditation into their lives. Massage, float therapy, contemplative prayer; all of these have the benefit of reducing neurological activation while releasing tension. Even a hike in the mountains…not to conquer the mountain, but to experience the mountain. To enjoy it.

Another way to resolve the relaxation paradox is to change the way that we think. The post-military world that the veteran lives in is not a combat zone. It can be, if the veteran makes it that way, or if they seek out situations that are chaotic and dangerous; by and large, however, the same dangers that existed in the military do not exist in post-military life. Since the danger is not present and the stakes are no longer as high, there is no need to continue to have the “always on guard” mindset. To find a new mindset, a relaxed mindset as well as a relaxed body, can be really, really beneficial.

The good thing is, the veteran doesn’t need to figure out how to do this alone. There are many different relaxation techniques that a veteran can learn…it is just up to the veteran to seek them out.