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Life Ed: Keeping A Healthy Frame Of Mind During Unemployment

Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D. provides expert help on how to keep a healthy frame of mind during the stress of unemployment.
Image: People use mobile phones.
People use mobile phones.David Ramos / Getty Images file

Whether you’re in your twenties struggling to get a foothold in the job market, or grappling with long-term unemployment following a lay-off, facing down the five-day week without the structure, social stimulation, goals and challenges that come with a job, can play havoc with your confidence, undermine your sense of self, and inhibit your social life. In fact, a recent Gallup survey found that Americans who are out-of-work, are twice as likely to suffer from depression as their employed peers.

Here to provide expert help on how to maintain a healthy frame of mind during a period of unemployment, is Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., the Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, a Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical College, and the author of 23 books in psychology including Keeping Your Head after Losing Your Job.

What To Watch Out For And What To Do To Help Yourself

  • Self-Esteem: Many people who are unemployed feel guilty, ashamed, and lose their self-confidence. If you find yourself feeling down about yourself, try to recognize that millions of people are out of work, and that this can and will happen to people you respect and love. Think about unemployment as “the situation,” not “this is me.” You are not your job. Think about all the other roles that you have in life: husband or wife, friend, parent, member of the community, someone who learns, plays, laughs, and helps others. Your job is only one part of who you are. Try to develop some compassion towards yourself during this difficult time. For example, ask yourself what you would say to your best friend who is going through unemployment, and then direct that care and compassion towards yourself. Being unemployed is not a “moral failing,” it is a universal part of life. It is temporary.
  • Isolation: Work often gives you a daily opportunity to interact with people. When you lose your job you may lose a lot of this daily contact and, if you are embarrassed, you may avoid people. Ironically, many people find their next job through their networks and if you isolate yourself you will deprive yourself of that resource. Make sure that every day you get out of your house and interact with people. Tell friends and family that you are unemployed. People often find that getting out and seeing people is the best way to overcome their shame. You will learn that almost everyone you know has either been unemployed or has a close family member who has been unemployed.
  • Passivity: Along with isolating yourself, you may find yourself sitting passively at home with nothing to do. Your daily structure has disappeared and now you sit around and worry about your future, which makes you more depressed, more isolated, and more hopeless. To challenge this, you need to recognize that you have two jobs: one is to find a job, and the other is to take care of yourself. Spend some time each day with your job search, but schedule productive and fun activities too. You can exercise, work on chores around the house, spend more time with the kids, see your friends, turn yourself into a tourist, or take a course and acquire new skills.
  • Worry and Rumination: Many people who are unemployed spend a lot of time worried about the future (“Will I ever get a job?”) or ruminating about the past (“Why did this happen to me?”) It’s natural to worry and ruminate to some degree, but you may find that this makes you more depressed and anxious. To manage your worries, try the following:

1. Set aside 30 minutes each day when you will only worry or ruminate; this will ensure that the rest of the day is free for productive activities.

2. When you sit down with your worries, ask yourself if there is any productive action that you can take today to solve the problem. If there is (for example, getting a job application in), then do it. If not, recognize that you will need to accept the uncertainty or unfairness for now, but that you can shift your attention to other positive activities, such as exercise, friends, your kids, acquiring skills, planning the next day’s activities.

  • Help Others: One of the best ways to structure your time and build your sense of self-worth, is to help other people. There are always other people who are worse off than we are. Check out volunteer opportunities in your area and see if there is something that you can do to help others. This solves a lot of your problems: you are less isolated, you structure your time, you feel useful, and sometimes volunteer work can lead to a paying job.
  • Acquire Skills: People who acquire new skills are often more likely to get hired in a new job. You can look into taking courses, developing new credentials, apprenticing or volunteering. Acquiring new skills takes time and money, but it may be the best longer-term investment that you can make. And, while you are acquiring new skills, you will feel that you are empowering yourself, overcoming your feelings of hopelessness, and creating new opportunities.

How To Find A Therapist

If you are finding the period of unemployment particularly difficult, you might consider getting additional support. Referrals for professional are available at and

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