Losing a job hurts—and sometimes the pain extends beyond the pocketbook, hitting the heart and mind, too. But recent research suggests the misery of unemployment leads to few long-term psychological effects. Indeed, most of us are naturally resilient, says George Bonanno, who coauthored a December study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics.
"We dread something like this happening, but when it actually does, most of us are OK—even though we hear about the extremes, the sad stories [of] people who are devastated," says Bonanno, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York.
With the unemployment rate still high—more than 15 million Americans are currently jobless—experts suggest these coping strategies to improve mental well-being:
Remember: The pain won't last forever. If you were happy prior to losing your job, you'll be happy again, says Bonanno, whose findings suggest it takes about a year to bounce back. "Nobody loses a job and doesn't get upset," Bonanno says. "But when we feel that way, it's hard to believe the upset will ever go away." It's important to remind yourself that all difficult situations pass, and eventually you will feel like yourself again.
Protect yourself from gloom-and-doomers. Misery loves company, but make it your mission to dodge negativity. "Stay away from gloomy people," says Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, author of Money Harmony. "And keep your distance from literature and movies that will bum you out." Opt for tried-and-true tactics to lift your spirits, like making plans to do things you enjoy, or spending time with supportive friends. Resist the urge to detach: Job loss often inspires shame and isolation, which can hinder your emotional recovery, Mellan says.
Take care of yourself. When Cynthia Dailey-Hewkin, 69, of St. Helens, Ore., lost her job at a nuclear plant in the '90s, she was mid-divorce, caring for her dying mother, and moving out of the family home she'd helped build. "The emotional toll was becoming very evident, and I knew that if I didn't do something, I could easily buckle under all that pressure," she says. So she gave up junk food and took up running, which she continues today. By treating herself with respect, she says, her emotional pain became more tolerable.
Lend a hand. Volunteering offers physical and emotional benefits, including less stress, less depression, and longer lives, research suggests. Giving back makes us feel happier and healthier, in part because it triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals. "Going to a homeless shelter or seeing people who have nothing can be very therapeutic," Mellan says. "It really puts things into perspective."
Keep a journal. Research published in 1994 found that laid-off men who spent 30 minutes a day writing about being unemployed returned to work significantly faster than those who didn't journal. The exercise defused their intense emotions and changed the way they thought about their situation. Mellan suggests a different exercise: listing three things you're grateful for every day. "It really is helpful to focus on the positives and not all the things you're feeling bad about," she says. For Dailey-Hewkin, keeping a compliments journal—a record of nice things others said to her—helped boost her morale during an otherwise bleak time.
Communicate with your spouse. If you're the primary breadwinner, job loss can be particularly distressing and may incite hurtful comments from a worried spouse. (You knew this was coming. You should have thought of doing other things. How could you let this happen? It's your fault for not being prepared.) Explain your feelings to your partner and make clear your need for support. Be there for your spouse if the situation is reversed, says Gaby Cora, a psychiatrist and wellness coach in Miami.
[ Tip For Wives: Lay off Your Laid-off Husband] Join a support group. The national nonprofit 40Plus, for example, is designed to help middle-aged adults network with other job seekers and learn new skills. The Washington, D.C. chapter offers workshops on interview skills, resume-tweaking, and how to find a new position.