A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, March 23, 2009

Handling the stress of unemployment

(Above: Bob)

Have you been laid off? Or are you scared that you're about to be? My friend, Dr. Robert Leahy, author of "The Worry Cure" and president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, sent me a few tips on how to handle the stress:

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. 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. It's hard to accept, but there really isn't any better alternative. At least accepting it gives you 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.

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. 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. Think of this 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 work force 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 alumni association. There are on-line communities, including Linkedin.com or Facebook.com. 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 the 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. 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.

Note: A more complete version of these tips can be found on Bob's blog: http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-files/200902/facing-unemployment-ten-steps-handling-your-unemployment-anxiety