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Facing Unemployment: Ten Steps to Handling Your Unemployment Anxiety

Helpful ideas to get you through a difficult time.

Throughout the country we hear of factories closing, massive layoffs as companies retrench, stores going out of business and people everywhere facing unemployment. In January, 598,000 new people were added to the ranks of the unemployed in the United States for a total unemployment rate of 7.6 percent. The total number of unemployed people reached 11.6 million in January 2009. Most forecasters expect the unemployment rate to go higher—perhaps to 9 or 10 percent.

The unemployed face an increased risk of binge drinking, depression, anxiety, and suicide. There is a decreased quality of mental health, life satisfaction, and objective physical well-being. The unemployed are likely to worry about their financial situation, never knowing for sure when they will find a new job. It’s a difficult time—but not an impossible one.

Over the years my colleagues and I have worked with many unemployed people and many of us have family members and friends who have faced unemployment. Some unemployed people may adjust reasonably well to the situation, viewing the situation as temporary, caused by factors beyond their control, and even as a time to get away from the stress of work. Although unemployment is generally associated with decreased income (unless one has a severance package), some unemployed people have been flexible about their spending habits and have been able to adjust to the changing situation.

But many unemployed people suffer from depression, anxiety, rumination, and a sense of hopelessness. Fortunately, there are some guides to how to cope with this difficult situation.

10 Steps to Handling Your Unemployment Anxiety

1. Validate that it’s difficult. One of the most important things to do is to treat yourself with kindness and warmth during this time. Be compassionate to yourself. You can tell yourself that you have every right to feel sad, anxious, angry and even confused. You are human and these are natural feelings during this time. Having said that, it’s also important to think of moving to the next step—as soon as it seems feasible for you. You are not going to be better off feeling terrible for too long.

2. Accept the reality as it is. There are a lot of things that we have learned to accept in life—traffic, unfairness, getting older, disappointments, and losses. Accepting reality simply means that you recognize that it is what it is—without protesting or ruminating about it. For example, Ted’s company was downsizing and he was laid off. He finally recognized that he had to live with what was given—however unfair and unpleasant it was. It was hard to accept, but there really wasn’t any better alternative. At least accepting it gave him a starting point: “Where do I go from here?”

3. Normalize the problem. When you watch the news you recognize that you are not alone. Millions of people are in the same boat. That doesn’t mean the boat is sinking, it only means that market economies like ours go through ups and downs. Usually, a recession is followed by eight years of growth. If you are out of work, join the crowd. But also recognize that you will probably be back at work sooner than later. You never know. All recessions end. And unemployment is always part of a recession.

4. Develop a daily plan of action. Just because your prior job ended doesn’t mean you don’t have a current job. Your current job is looking for a job. Dedicate a couple of hours each day to your job search. This can include looking at ads, contacting people who are potential leads in a network of people in your field, and asking for more leads to contact. You can expect that there will be lots of dead-ends, but –like sales—looking for a job takes persistence. You never know when a job opens up and you happen to be the person they are looking for.

5. Schedule some fun for yourself. Although you are unemployed, you don’t have to be morose. Keep yourself busy by scheduling daily activities that are interesting, fun or even challenging. Get out your old hobbies or start a new one. Get more exercise rather than lie around brooding. Have lunch with friends, take a course, read a book, or travel. I suggest to people that you think of this as “in-between time”—kind of like a sabbatical from your prior job. You may as well make use of the time now, because when you are back to work you will kick yourself for not having had some fun when you had the time.

6. Don’t put yourself down. Self-criticism is a major burden during this time for you. Losing a job doesn’t make you a loser—it means that you are part of the workforce that is always changing. Write down these negative put-down thoughts and challenge them with reality. For example, “I’m a loser” can be challenged with the fact that you got an education, you worked, you probably got good feedback on some things, you have friends who value you and you are trying to help yourself. In fact, think about how you would be kind to a stranger going through this rough time. Then, be kind to yourself.

7. Don’t ruminate. If you are like a lot of unemployed people you are spending too much time brooding and chewing over negative thoughts like, “Why me?”, “Will I ever find a job”, and “I can’t believe this has happened." Unemployment is a natural condition of free-market economies and it’s important to recognize that you didn’t make the economy work the way it is not working now. When you start ruminating ask yourself, “Is there any productive action that this will lead to?” If not, then plan some productive action aimed toward another goal—for example, having fun, acquiring new skills, socializing, exercising, etc.

8. Join a community. Don’t isolate yourself during this time. Get involved in communities, such as your church or synagogue or your alumni association. There are online communities, including or or many other opportunities to connect with people. Getting involved in professional organizations, political interest groups, environmental groups and other organized activities can give you a sense of connectedness and a feeling that you are valued. Communities help sustain us during difficult times and give us a larger meaning of life at all times. We weren’t meant to exist in isolation.

9. Help someone else. One of the best ways to put things in perspective is to find someone else who needs you. There are endless opportunities to feel like you matter. One man told me that one of the most meaningful things that he ever did was to volunteer at a homeless shelter. Other people have found that reading to the blind, volunteering at an animal shelter, visiting people in the hospital, or helping others was the best way that they could help themselves. In New York, you can access countless opportunities online: Simply search the web for your specific areas of interest to volunteer. This helps you feel great about yourself because, in fact, you do matter. Someone needs you.

10. Stretch time. It’s natural for you to feel a sense of urgency in finding a job, but if you can keep yourself within a tight financial budget and weather the storm, there really may be no urgency. One man felt discouraged after several months of unemployment, but when I suggested the possibility of stretching time to give himself more of an opportunity, he felt immensely relieved. He eventually did get a job and he looks back at that prior time as one that was difficult but also one that helped him know who his real friends are.

These are just a few ideas that we have found helpful in helping people get through this difficult time. Please let us know what you have found useful in your experience of being unemployed.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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