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Posts Tagged ‘Emotional Issues’

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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I placed a question mark at the end of the title in anticipation that you might wonder how in the world you will be able to “count blessings” when you have just suffered an overwhelming blow. It seems cliché and almost unsympathetic to suggest that you should simply focus on the positive when it probably feels like the cons of your life far outweigh the pros at the moment. I know it seems like a contradiction, but research suggests that the positive emotions brought on by counting your blessings can be helpful in multiple ways, so I hope you read on anyway!
Research has shown that experiencing positive emotions can broaden your perspective, helping you think creatively and see alternatives or solutions that you may not otherwise have been able to see (Frederickson, 2001). Other research suggests that happiness may actually precede success in multiple areas of your life (i.e., relationships, career, income, health), and not the other way around (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). If positive emotions stimulate successful outcomes, it makes sense to devote time to increasing your positive feelings during this difficult time. Research suggests that counting your blessings can do just that.
On a practical level, taking note of the good things in your life can help you utilize your time off in a meaningful and productive way. For example, you may now have the latitude to reevaluate your career path, spend more time with friends and family, or consider other options such as exploring additional education or training. You may not have this kind of free time again until retirement, so use it to make sure the next steps in your career and life are the right ones. In addition, your positive affect may shine during interviews, causing employers to be impressed by your resilience and demeanor.
So how do you count these blessings? A typical prompt goes like this: “There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the events of the past week and write down up to five things that happened for which you are grateful or thankful.” An alternative is to write down three things you have been able to do as a result of being unemployed that you would not have been able to do otherwise. Counting blessings just once a week increased self-reported happiness over a six-week period (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, Schkade, 2005), and, simply thinking gratefully (without writing it down), also increased positive emotions (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003). The point is to start realizing the blessings in your life. The resulting positive emotions will help motivate, energize, and fuel your job search. Given that this will only take 5-10 minutes of your time, it is definitely worth a try!

The Author:
Kristin Layous is a former career counselor who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology at the University of California, Riverside under the direction of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, Positive Psychology, 9, 111-131.
Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 431-452.

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While you might dread telling your children you are out of work, it probably will go better than you think. From a psychological perspective, it is most likely that their emotional response will parallel yours and your spouse’s. A positive attitude does not only affect your chances of getting another job, but is also critically important for the mental health of your family.

Start by discussing the approach you intend to take with your spouse. Be sure to take your children’s ages into account. Kids are not “little adults.” Their thinking skills do not completely develop until adolescence. The younger the child the more concrete is their thinking. Be clear and specific with young ones. “Mom will be working at home looking for a new job.” “Dad wants to find a better job.” You may want to set house rules for when you are on the computer or having a phone interview.

Teenagers can be egocentric. They are likely to question how your unemployment will affect them. Be truthful, but avoid being too dramatic. If cutting back expenses will alter their lifestyle, let them know ahead of time. Ask for their input. You might be surprised at how well they step up to the plate.

If your youngster expresses concerns, acknowledge her feelings as well as the issue. This a good time to use what is called “active listening”. If asked, “Will this interfere with my going to college?” before responding, label the feeling your child is expressing. “You’re worried about paying for college, aren’t you? Let’s talk about ways we can make it work.”

When all is said and done, it will be your attitude that prevails. If you stay positive, the children most likely will.

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