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News / Health / Health Wire

How to protect your mental health while processing layoffs or job loss

By Michelle Baruchman, The Seattle Times
Published: March 6, 2023, 6:02am

When you lose your job, it can suddenly feel like you’ve been plunged 20,000 feet below sea level. You try to pull yourself back up, but the weight of what’s on top of you — financial anxiety, betrayal by your company, older wounds of personal inadequacy — can keep you stuck.

It’s normal to feel sad, angry, scared and even jealous after getting fired or laid off, experts say.

Jobs take up a majority of our time and can be deeply tied to our sense of self-worth and success. Our work can also be a distraction, shielding us from other insecurities. When that job is pulled, we are forced to reckon with those feelings.

As companies around the Puget Sound, including large employers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Boeing and REI, lay off thousands of employees, a wave of workers are grappling with how to process job losses and economic uncertainty.

Therapists in the Seattle area have shared tips for how to process the experience and move forward.

What is job grief?

Work is a huge part of who we are, how we live our lives and how we support ourselves and others. Losing your job “can really rock you to your core,” said DeHeavalyn Pullium, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington.

Like the death of a loved one, getting fired or laid off is a loss and you may feel similar emotions. Initially, you may experience shock and disbelief, followed by resentment. Then you may feel sadness. Like a breakup, you may also feel rejection.

“Allow yourself to feel through the emotions, and then let them go,” said John Buscher, a licensed mental health counselor.

Grieving may include going to therapy, talking to friends, journaling, exercise, meditation — any practice to help process emotions and information.

The goal is to work toward acceptance — not that you agree with or like what happened, but that you are not fighting against the reality, said Lauren Richer, founder of Anchor Light Therapy.

But for many, reaching that point can take time.

For one thing, the decision was likely out of your control. “Very few things are in our control, but we have a sense that they are,” Richer said. “When that gets rattled a little bit, that can be really challenging.”

Even if the job loss was not related to performance, “it still is perceived by some as a form of rejection” she said, because they were chosen among the rest of the staff to be let go.

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“Recognize that a job loss can be a very difficult and traumatic experience. Give yourself the opportunity to grieve it,” Richer said.

Financial stress

In an expensive city like Seattle, valid questions around financial security may become pressing. Take a moment and breathe. Approaching the situation with a level head can lead to more thoughtful choices.

For workers who have been laid off from big tech companies, Andrew Rogers, a clinical mental health counselor in Tacoma, reminds his clients that many of them have been given severance packages and “they’re not actually in the dire (financial) emergency that their brain wants to say.”

A layoff may trigger deeper feelings about class anxiety, especially if you’re the first person in your family to reach a higher income bracket. Avoid catastrophizing, or searching for the worst possible outcome, in fear, Pullium said. Instead of thinking you will automatically fall into poverty, ask yourself, “what would it actually take to go all the way back there from this financial point, and what options are in between that can act as a buffer?”

For example, there may be payment plan programs to help lower student loan payments and friends who can help you find solutions.

Buscher suggests setting a budget and looking for a temporary job, like working at a grocery store. Some companies provide an employee discount on groceries, which can help save money. You might also qualify for unemployment or food assistance and shouldn’t feel guilty about taking advantage of those services if you need them.

If you have a therapist, ask them if they’d be willing to lower their fees while you are out of work.

Find community

When we’re feeling vulnerable, we tend to become reclusive and may not want to share what we’re experiencing.

“I encourage people to not isolate themselves,” Rogers said. “It’s really important during this time to stay connected and really lean into friendships, family members, and a community that they’re a part of.”

Practice being open about the layoff. Socializing and connecting with people can be an antidote to shame and allows other people with similar experiences to learn they’re not alone.

Buscher suggests reaching out to former colleagues or finding other people looking for work through meetups and job clubs. Those people can help share job leads and provide networking opportunities.

Volunteering can also fill that sense of contribution to society that may be lacking while unemployed.

Within intimate relationships, people who have been laid off may be withdrawn or have a difficult temperament, and a job loss can be a huge stressor.

“Talking to a couples therapist may be really beneficial to help both parties express their emotions, anxieties and fears and help them find tools to be supportive partners,” Rogers said.

Practical tips

Without familiar structure, our brains have a tendency to ruminate. Negative thoughts can create a constant loop in our brain. Buscher suggests replacing “Why did I get fired?” with “What one thing could I do today to move toward finding a job?”

Take some time to reflect and consider what you need and want in your next job.

Schedule dedicated hours to job hunt. And limit reading about layoffs, especially at night before bed.

The extra time may also be an opportunity for you to catch up on appointments and try new hobbies or activities.

It’s also important to understand your job search in greater context, Pullium said. If you’re doing everything you can to put yourself out there, but the economy is not in a place to provide jobs, “we have to acknowledge that some things can’t be fixed. … Some things are systemic or societal issues.”

Manage your feelings

It’s easy to measure yourself against others after losing a job, especially when people seem like direct comparisons. When friends or colleagues get jobs and we’re still struggling, our brains tell us something is wrong with us.

It’s more likely that we may be not seeing the other side of things. We don’t always know their personal situations and there may still be lots of people who aren’t getting jobs.

“This is just a really hard process, and everyone has their own path on it,” Rogers said. “Keep focused on what you can be doing instead of getting clipped by what other people are doing.”

Jealousy is normal, said Tim Stanley, a licensed mental health counselor. Sometimes saying it out loud or telling a friend can help open communication.

As an indication of desire, jealousy can be helpful, Pullium said. Understand what you’re wanting and that it isn’t quite here yet, and allow it to motivate action: “I wonder what a plan would be for me to get closer to that thing.”

People who were spared a layoff while watching colleagues lose jobs may also experience survivor’s guilt — where someone experienced a loss that you did not and you feel a level of guilt or responsibility.

Rogers suggests switching the guilt into gratitude while still being compassionate toward people who have lost their jobs.

Middle managers, who are not making the decision to conduct layoffs but may still be responsible for carrying them out, may also experience guilt or shame.

“It’s soul crushing for people to make those cuts, and it hurts so much,” he said. “A lot of times, they have to cut off a piece of themselves in order to even do it.”

Getting professional help

Almost everyone will feel a little depressed right after they’re laid off. It’s normal to feel sadness and grief. If it’s been more than three months and you’re still feeling depressed and withdrawn or finding it difficult to think about new possibilities, experts suggest finding a mental health professional to talk to.

There is a diagnosis called “adjustment disorder, where people get stuck in the grief or loss or traumatic event that has happened for them, and they struggle to move forward,” Richer said.

Monitor your mood the same way you would a physical injury, Stanley said. If you’re not feeling better after several weeks, it may indicate something needs deeper attention.

Some people might feel shame if they’re diagnosed as depressed, but Stanley said it’s important to be compassionate and honest with ourselves when we’re stuck. It’s more problematic when someone is stuck and avoids talking about it.

If you’re becoming hyper vigilant, can’t sleep at night, or are having physical symptoms like a racing heart, you may be experiencing extreme symptoms of anxiety and could also benefit from treatment.

Processing your feelings with a professional can be an opportunity to explore the feelings that are coming up and find a way together to move forward.