Archive for the ‘Emotional Issues’ Category

BookCover_v1Unemployment has more than just an economic impact on our lives. M. Harvey Brenner (1973, 1999) in Mental Illness and the Economy estimates that every 1% gain in unemployment over 3 years is accompanied by 20,240 cardio failures, 495 alcohol deaths, 920 suicides, 628 homicides and 4,227 admissions to psychiatric hospitals. Yet, little attention is paid to the psychological impact of unemployment.

In my new Kindle book, How to Stay Up in a Down Job Market: Survival Skills for the Unemployed, I address 9 strategies you can begin implementing immediately to start fighting the emotional storm that often accompanies unemployment. This concise book is not meant to be a panacea; I can’t give you a 30-day money back guarantee. However, I can assure you that there are psychological strategies you can learn to employ that will prove helpful. Because unemployment is such a threat to our well being, it is critical that you reduce the psychological impact of job loss. While it is hoped this book will be helpful, it cannot replace the help a physician or mental health professional can provide when needed.

The research clearly indicates that unemployment creates a level of prolonged stress which can be debilitating in terms of one’s physical and mental wellbeing. There are a number of simple strategies presented in the book that focus on reducing the stress you are experiencing.

Central to my approach is that if we want to change how we feel there are two buttons we can push. We can change our thinking and/or change our actions. When an event occurs, we immediately begin to evaluate it. Our evaluations might be rational and helpful. Unfortunately, sometimes they are irrational and lead to emotional upset and self-defeating behavior. This can especially occur when confronted with adversity. The book addresses how you can challenge irrational thoughts and the necessity to replace them with positive thinking. A simple example would go something like this: “I lost my job, I’ll never find another in this economy.” A more helpful and rational thought would be: “It will be tough to find another job and might take awhile. I better work on it everyday.”

If we want to change how we feel, we also need to focus on our actions. Of course, we need to engage in job search activities, but the book emphasizes the need to also engage in activities that improve our mood and motivation. In my opinion, it is critical to include activities such as reading, gardening, walking, exercise, or anything else you enjoy.

We can use such activities to reinforce the completion of less inherently interesting chores like searching job boards each day. It has been my experience with clients who find themselves really stuck, that focusing on activities proves more useful at first than attacking irrational thinking. For one of my unemployed clients, taking the time some mornings to drive her children to school gave her a sense of satisfaction and helped start her day. When she was working, she never had been able to drop them off or pick them up. Another client, an unemployed father for the first time could help his children with homework. It helped him feel he was contributing to the family’s welfare even though he was out of work.

While we know that finding a new position takes hard work, we often ignore our physical and mental health. Just reading this book will not change how you feel. If you want to limit the potential damage of unemployment to you and your family’s well being, you will have to work just as hard everyday to sustain your physical and emotional health. The book is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.


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Social isolation is a major threat to people who have been unemployed for a prolonged period.  One obvious cause is the loss of daily contact with co-workers and other professional colleagues.  Another cause arises from people withdrawing from friends and family because of embarrassment and/or the need to cut back on the expenses associated with socializing.  Certainly, there are other possible factors.

The devastating impact of social isolation was highlighted in a recent “60 Minutes” telecast entitled “Platform to Employment” which described a successful program to help long term unemployed gain re-employment.  Interviews of the participants brought home the debilitating psychological pain, which often accompanies unemployment.  Repeatedly, those interviewed referred to the loss of self-confidence and self esteem as well as feelings of shame and embarrassment.  Over time they began to view themselves as failures.  One participant shared her biggest worry; namely, for the first time in her life she feared she would not be able to take care of herself.  It is feelings such as that which cause the unemployed to slowly withdraw into themselves and become more and more socially isolated.

Our bodies are programmed to respond to danger – or threats to our security — by releasing the hormones which lead to the Fight or Flight Response.  We are built to endure short periods of stress.  Prolonged stress or worry has been shown to lead to physical and mental illness.  In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sapolsky refers to research, which indicates that social isolation for prolonged periods can lead to elevated levels of stress hormones.

In today’s economy, the unemployed can be subjected to prolonged periods of worry and stress.  The resulting self-doubt and loss of confidence leads to their social withdrawal and inevitably increases their stress levels.  It therefore is critical that the unemployed seek social support, which Sapolsky recommends as an antidote to stress.

A few years ago, I presented a workshop for at a local community college.  The workshop focused on psychological strategies that could be effective in combating the emotional storm of unemployment.  It quickly became clear that an unintended benefit of the program was providing participants with social connections.  In fact, on the last night of the workshop, the group decided to approach college administrators to request a room so that they could continue meeting on a regular basis.

A couple of months later, I presented the same workshop to a similar group, which had been meeting at a church.  It struck me that this group was coping better with the stress of unemployment because of the support they provided each other.  One example of their efforts was a clothing drive for members to replace worn out items as well as obtain acceptable clothing for interviews.  They also canvassed local merchants who were willing to provide unemployed members with discounted services and products.

My experience with these two groups convinced me to encourage unemployed people to find or start support groups.  To find an existing support group, consult the community activities section of your local newspaper, or look into nearby faith organizations.  I have found these support groups to be open to anyone who is interested, regardless of religious affiliation.

If you want to start a group, a faith organization, community college, or volunteer fire department is a good place to start looking for free space.  Topics can range from helping one another with resumes, to providing job leads, to discussing strategies for salary negotiation, how to explain gaps in your resume, or how to handle tough interview questions.  Material need not be prepared in advance.  My bet is that you will be amazed at how many really good suggestions can be inspired by people of like minds.

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Maybe talking isn’t always the answer.  Try listening.

Many years ago while my wife was pregnant with our first child, I took a workshop based on Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. The book emphasizes active listening, a communication technique, which requires the listener to feed back to the speaker what she/he hears by re-stating or paraphrasing.  The feedback also can consist of labeling the emotion that the listener thinks underlies the speaker’s message.  Dr. Gordon’s approach to communication has been central to improving my parenting skills as well as my work as a psychologist.  Not surprisingly, I have used his methods to help clients improve communication skills with their children, bosses, employees and spouses.  Inevitably, the vast majority reports improvement in their ability to communicate and resolve conflicts.

Unemployment impacts significantly on the entire family.  Men and women sometimes find themselves unsure of how to respond to their spouse.  Should they make suggestions, act as a cheerleader or just stay out of the way?  I strongly suggest one strategy: be a good listener.  A good listener can be as helpful as a good advisor.   Think back, have you ever called a friend to talk about a problem you faced and come to a solution even though your friend said vey little?  Sometimes just having someone listen to you is the best help you can get.

When someone is under emotional strain, – like a person who is unemployed – what he or she says is often distorted by the strong feelings driving the message.  An active listener sometimes restates a speaker’s statement; thereby, giving the other person a chance to hear and reconsider what they are saying.  This can enable the speaker to clarify the message and sometimes identify their feelings.  Talking through what someone is thinking and feeling can help them stay motivated and on task.

Let’s assume the husband is the unemployed member of the family.  For instance he comes into the kitchen and says angrily: “Isn’t dinner ready yet!”  You might be tempted to respond angrily yourself, but try restating his message: “You’re really hungry, aren’t you?” Responding by restating helps the speaker hear what they are saying and gives them a chance to restate their message more clearly. He answers: “I worked all day on the computer looking for a job. “I really don’t think I got anywhere.” His wife responds by identifying the emotion underlying his second message: “Sounds like searching for a job has you really frustrated and angry.” He realizes he is not really angry that dinner isn’t ready but frustrated at the process of looking for work.  Labeling the emotion that underlies a message facilitates the release of emotions.  He responds: “I need to take a break.” “When will dinner be ready?”

The first step for the listener is to maintain good eye contact and focus on the message.  It is important to pick a time and place where there are no distractions so that you can stay focused on what your husband is saying.  While listening, try to repeat in your own words what your spouse says. Avoid trying to provide solutions or advice. The goal is to convey you are there for him/her.  It isn’t necessary to respond verbally to everything they say. Sometimes silence is enough. Use body language like nodding your head  to indicate your interest and attention.

In summary, active listening is a great way to help your spouse through the emotional storm of unemployment.  Do not jump in with solutions, judge or criticize.  Listen intently, sometimes just restating what you heard and, at other times, labeling the emotion underlying his message.  The unemployed often withdraw and feel socially isolated.  Active listening will communicate your acceptance and your willingness to help.

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Ignoring the stress you may be experiencing is not in your best interest and won’t necessarily get you another job faster. In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky cites research, which clearly indicates that stress has a significantly negative impact on physical and mental well-being.  Its effects on our cardiovascular system, immune system, memory, and mental health are now well documented.

Our nervous system is built to prepare us for danger.   When confronted with a life threatening event, our nervous system triggers the fight or flight response.  Hormones are released and chemical messages are sent to every part of our body.  As a result, we experience short bursts of energy that can save our lives.  Obviously, the stress response supports our survival as a species, but it turns out to be a double-edged sword.  Unfortunately, we are capable of initiating the stress response not only to physical danger, but also when confronted with psychological fears and worries. The stress response, if engaged for prolonged periods, can be devastating.  A survey study entitled The Anguish of Unemployment (2009) conducted by The John J. Heldrich Center for Work and Development at Rutgers University emphasized the impact of unemployment on our mental health.  Long-term unemployment, as we face today, is linked to depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and domestic violence.  Considering the threat prolonged periods of stress present to our well being, it is truly critical that we engage in activities that have been shown to reduce the effects of stress on our bodies and minds.

You can easily find articles and books on coping with stress.  Two strategies that I recommend are exercise and diaphragmatic breathing. Your physician can give you advice on the type and duration of an exercise program that’s right for you. For diaphragmatic breathing most authorities suggest twenty to thirty minutes a session three or more times a week. Personally, I rely on diaphragmatic breathing five to ten minutes a day.  Search the Internet and you’ll find several descriptions and demonstrations. The idea is to inhale slowly, expanding your diaphragm (the area just below your rib cage). Then exhale slowly.  I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth.  I begin by clearing my mind and concentrate solely on the sensation produced by the flow of air.  The experience not only reduces mental stress, it leaves my body feeling physically relaxed.

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Being unemployed clearly takes its toll on one’s mood.  In previous articles we’ve talked about the importance of engaging in pleasurable activities to help create a positive frame of mind and reinforce your job search activities. Frankly, looking for another position is hard work with long periods of little or no reward.  Having fun can be your reward on days when you’ve spent “thankless” time on the computer and phone following up on leads. (See our other articles: “Have Fun for Little or No Money,” “Unemployed and Feeling Down?  Try Laughter.”) First of all, everyone deserves to have fun without feeling guilty.  Secondly, an improved mood gives you the energy and enthusiasm to do all the tasks involved in finding a new job or career.

The great outdoors is a wonderful place to find enjoyment, often without spending a lot or anything at all.  The phrase “great outdoors” is generally reserved for places such as national parks or exotic locales that provide high adventure, but we’d like to expand the definition to include any place that’s not indoors.  Why?  Because there’s so much to observe and enjoy in our own neighborhoods and backyards that frequently goes undiscovered.
The next time you take a walk, do it with a purpose.  Notice the different styles of architecture in the houses and buildings.  Think about what and why you like or dislike what you see.  Notice how appearances have changed in the time you’ve been in an area.  Make note of color schemes you might like to use some day.  Do some research on trees and birds native to your state.  See how many you can identify in your neighborhood or nearby park.
Instead of driving or taking public transportation for errands, go by foot or bicycle.  If you don’t already have a bike, look for one at a yard sale.  Adult bicycles can readily be found for $25 or less. Maybe you have a neighbor who wouldn’t mind, or might actually appreciate, your taking their dog for a walk from time to time.  Use some of your free time to take care of easy things around the house like weeding flowerbeds, making simple repairs, or painting a fence.  Find less expensive ways to enjoy hobbies.  Going to a driving range or playing on a public course can be a good alternative to a more expensive country club.
Chances are you know some other folks who are unemployed.  Why not suggest getting together for group walks or team sports?  If necessary you can modify rules to play softball or basketball with less than a full complement of players.
Whatever you do, you’ll find the mental and physical benefits of enjoying the great outdoors can have positive effect on how you think and feel.

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Being unemployed almost surely means cutting back on expenses.  That doesn’t mean you have cut back on enjoying life.  Engaging in pleasurable activities is a key factor in keeping one’s mood elevated.  The better your mood, the more effective you will be in pursuing job search activities.  Not to mention that you’ll relate better to family and friends.
We don’t know why, but people always seem to equate having a good time with going some place with a price tag.  Movies, concerts, sports events, restaurants, amusement parks come immediately to mind.  However there are scores of things to do that won’t make a dent in your budget.
Let’s start with activities that can be enjoyed at home.  Some of these might seem a little corny, but remember our objective is to save money.  Box games like Scrabble and Monopoly come readily to mind.  You probably have half a dozen hidden away in a closet.  While not as elegant as their electronic cousins, these games can be played by several people at once and are appropriate for kids, as well as adults.  Games such as these can be played at a leisurely pace, are sociable even though they are competitive, and allow for conversation even while being played.
Let’s not forget about good old reliable board games like chess, checkers, Chinese checkers and backgammon.  How about simple pencil and paper games like Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe?  When was the last time you played parlor games?  “Fictionary” is an all time favorite among adults.  Charades is another classic that youngsters get a kick out of, too.
If you’re not familiar with any of these, do a quick Google search.  If you strike out, write to us and we’ll send you instructions.  No doubt you have other ideas about having a good time on the cheap. Be sure to share them in the comments section below.

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We hear from many unemployed people that holidays are exceptionally stressful, especially those associated with gift giving.  There are many reasons why this is understandable.  It is hard to be joyful when one hasn’t gotten over having lost one’s job.  Secondly, it’s hard to feel generous when regular income has been greatly reduced, if not eliminated.  Realistically, a new position may not appear before the New Year.  Focusing solely on your lack of resources will only amplify your level of stress.  Frankly, family and friends understand your situation and would prefer that you not dig yourself into a deeper hole.  Those close to you will most likely feel good knowing that you are not fretting away this holiday season.
Experience is sometimes the best teacher.  Many of you may recall from older relatives who lived through The Great Depression, holidays were no less joyous when a typical gift might have been an orange or a bag of candy.  Maybe this is a year when you re-think gift giving and come up ideas that don’t put a crimp in your wallet.
Here are some examples:
1.     Make some CDs of your favorite music that others might enjoy.
2.     Has someone admired one of your possessions you no longer need?  Imagine how appreciative the recipient would be if you gave them something you personally valued.
3.     Create a photo album of memorable moments shared with a loved one.
4.     There are tons of things that can come out of your kitchen like baked goods, preserves, pickled veggies, or your favorite sauces.
5.     How about creating gift certificates good for car washes, household chores, or baby-sitting?
We’d like to hear your suggestions.  Not only for economical gifts, but for ways you can avoid the holiday blues.

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