A Healthy DOSE of Reality for Transitioning Military Leaders


Why does everything feel different when you leave the military? I thought the lack of responsibility and errant phone calls in the middle of the night would be a welcome change to my usual routine. I was wrong. When I returned my government issued phone, the quiet was replaced by an uncomfortable - and unsettling - silence. When I drove out the installation gate for the last time, I was no longer connected. The familiar conversations with friends and members of the unit were gone. Loneliness began to the fill the void once occupied by my sense of purpose as a military leader.

One of the things we love about the military is our sense of belonging. We've grown accustomed to the trust and relationships within the ranks of our formations. Being in a close knit unit feels like . . . family. Once we hang up that uniform, we are disconnected from that family. Who would've thought that I would actually miss waking up at 0300 for the division run that started at 0630? The impact of departing the trusted, social network in the military has significant repercussions on the body and mind of a new veteran.

We use words like “camaraderie” and phrases like “band of brothers and sisters” because the connection we feel burns deep in our hearts and the very marrow of our souls.

To be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about hormones or biochemistry while I was in the army. When I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek, I was intrigued by his discussion about the physiological underpinnings of organizational behavior. Leaders create a culture that allows subordinates to feel safe, valued, and connected. In his book, Sinek states that we are physiologically attuned to “employ a system of positive and negative feelings - happiness, pride, joy, or anxiety, for example - to promote behaviors that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate.” Sinek was talking about the impacts of leadership and culture on a physiological level.

Impulses for motivation and feelings of happiness have a biochemical foundation. According to Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, we have four chemicals in the brain that allow us feel that sense of happiness - dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (DOSE). From the context of motivating organizational behavior, Sinek considers the edges - dopamine and endorphins - the selfish chemicals while serotonin and oxytocin are the selfless chemicals that come from an inherent sense of safety and security. Together, the combinations of these hormones - or lack thereof - impact our motivations, performance, and sense of fulfillment. I found this topic intriguing, and I wondered how this biochemistry might apply to a leader transitioning from the military.

Selfish Chemicals: Dopamine and Endorphins

Dopamine is the feel good - the high - that motivates a particular behavior. It is the reward our brain provides the body for achieving a goal. When we finish a task, achieve a milestone, or accomplish an objective, the satisfaction we feel comes from dopamine. It is our own way of compensating ourselves for a job well done. When you get a good score on a test, receive an award, or get a promotion, dopamine gives you a bump.

This chemical is considered selfish because we alone reap the benefit of this hormonal push. Once we have the 'feel good,' we crave more. We are incentivized to repeat behaviors that result in the high from the release of dopamine. The first success creates a neural template that remembers the activities necessary to receive that same hit in the future. On a physiological and subconscious level, we actively seek the continuous drip of dopamine.

Endorphins are often associated with the runner’s high or the physical exertion from a hard workout. We recognize the benefit of persevering through a painful exercise because of the gain it provides to our strength, endurance, or overall fitness - and it feels good! Endorphins allow us to push through that pain to get the gain.

The military experience presents us with plenty of opportunities to drive through the pain of our comfort zone for personal and professional growth. We feel the rush of endorphins to push through the anxiety, stress, and physical hardship of combat. The euphoria we feel during combat is a mix of these intoxicating hormones coursing through our system. The addiction becomes so powerful that we long for a return to the environment that provided the fix. We need that feeling of euphoria. Because the military has a higher incidence of life and death situations, we are more exposed to the chemicals designed to help us push through the physical hardship and achieve success under conditions of extreme duress. We want to fly higher. After we return from the battlefield, we still long for the rush.

Selfless Chemicals: Serotonin and Oxytocin

Serotonin and oxytocin provide the positive emotions that come from our sense of security, purpose, belonging, trust, and camaraderie. Are these not the qualities that we value the most in the military culture? Serotonin flows from a sense of value and importance. We wear the uniform with pride. The rank gives us status. We salute and receive the same courtesy when passing a fellow soldier. We greet one another with callsigns and unit mottos. We are volunteers and valued members of an organization with exclusive membership. We proudly represent the ideals of our nation. Serotonin is the reason why this feels good to us.

Because of the strength in the bonds of trust we share with one another, we refer to our units as a band of brothers and sisters. It feels good to be a part of the team. We have oxytocin to thank for that. Oxytocin has been shown to increase positive emotions, altruism, trust, and sociability. Oxytocin gives us the sense of connection we feel among our fellow service members and their families. Oxytocin provides the positive emotions associated with trust and belonging.

Chemical Resonance from Years of Military Service

Years of military service conditions our body to a certain familiarity - a habit - of physiological responses. When confronted with the fight or flight response of a dangerous situation, the shot of epinephrine sends a surge of energy coursing through our veins. Cortisol hones our focus. Our systems are mobilized for action, and our dopamine circuits provide the template to achieve the mission and our endorphins help us push through the pain. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Surrounding us is a wide circle of protection from serotonin and oxytocin from the importance and belonging in the military culture. Our training and experience provides the Pavlovian conditioning for us to not only survive - but also to thrive!

We remained in the military for so long because it aligned with our sense of purpose. Over time, we achieved a certain chemical resonance. That’s the reason why we find the military life so satisfying despite the hardship and sacrifice. Trust and purpose mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release, which produces happiness. Can you think of another organization across our society that does better regarding a culture of respect and trust than does the military?

After years of military service, we have grown accustomed to the security provided by a culture that nurtures the physiological benefits of serotonin and oxytocin. When we leave the military, we shed the comfort of that security and suffer the consequences of withdrawal.

Once we leave the military, we lose the buffer provided by the serotonin and oxytocin. Our outer shield is gone. We forfeit the security provided by culture that reinforces the release of serotonin and oxytocin. We no longer belong to the family. We remove the rank, badges, unit patches and the assorted accoutrements of military service that reminded everyone (including ourselves) of our status and belonging to something greater than ourselves. We lose the chemical concoction that fueled our routine.

We face the stress of a new situation with the same drive and perseverance to achieve, but because we lack that familiar cushioning and security, it feels different. Our bodies crave the old routines while struggling to develop new ones. We have to adapt all over again, and growth processes can be very painful. Disconnecting from the military is so hard that it hurts. Social disconnection - when we leave the military - triggers the same neural pathways in the brain that recognize physical pain. In other words it really hurts when we transition from the military.

The Intervention for Your Addiction

Understanding your values and sense of purpose is critical to finding your new profession - one that will provide you with the right fix. In many cases, it means returning to the original motivation that inspired your military service in the first place. We've gotten so used to being a soldier that we've mistaken the values and purpose of the military for our own. Set your intentions for something greater beyond the military. Accept that the military is part of the journey - not the journey itself. The challenge is finding the right environment that fuels our success in the same way the military did for so many years.

The reason why everything feels different when we leave the military is because our bodies are physiologically conditioned for the military culture. At our core, we are all addicts. After years of successful military service, we become attached to the military lifestyle. Once removed from the environment that fueled our addiction, we go through withdrawal. Leaving that life is painful. As strange as it seems, we miss the phone calls and way too early morning formations for unit runs. We remember fondly the things we used to complain about because we miss our DOSE of fringe benefits. That was the good stuff. If you reduce transition into a job search program, you won't find the good stuff because you aren't looking for it. When we transition, we require a new DOSE of reality to find purpose, fulfillment and happiness in life beyond the military.