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Long-term joblessness: 4 ways to survive mentally

COMMENTARY Long-term unemployment doesn't just put a huge dent in a person's savings account -- it can also damage the psyche. After financial loss, the greatest psychological impact of being out of work for a long time is loss of confidence, says clinical psychologist and executive coach Marilyn Puder-York. "The people most vulnerable to this reaction are those who are used to receiving a large component of self-esteem from their work or job."

And since you don't have to spend more than five minutes at a cocktail party, gym, or even the playground before someone asks about your profession, it's safe to say that everyone's identity is tied to their work to some degree.

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As of early February, 5.5 million Americans had been out of work for more than 6 months. Meanwhile, "The longer the unemployment without the person finding alternative ways to feel good about themselves, the stronger the impact and therefore the stronger psychological symptoms they may experience," Puder-York says. She adds that eventually the mental blow from losing a job can affect one's ability to get a new one. "The loss of confidence can definitely hinder the person's presence in subsequent interviews and networking meetings." Plus, you have to be motivated to send out cover letters and resumes in order to get those meetings.

After months or even years of unemployment, it's not surprising that a candidate would be less than motivated, somewhat desperate, or even angry -- that's only human. If you're dealing with long-term unemployment, there are ways to mitigate its effect on your mental health -- and help you bounce back professionally. Here are some tips:

Set attainable goals. Getting a job is clearly the main goal, but that's not easy and could take a while. "Setting both short- and long-term goals is important. Choose small, specific goals if you're overwhelmed," suggests organizational psychologist Joti Samra. For instance, try researching X number of new jobs, sending out Y resumes and speaking to Z old contacts about new opportunities. Updating your LinkedIn page or resume are other quantifiable -- and achievable -- steps that will help you find work.

Do something for someone else. Helping others through volunteer work is like prescription-free Prozac -- it can instantly give you perspective and help you feel better about your own situation (For ideas about what to do, try It may also help you find a job. "Volunteering can show off your skills," says business psychologist Stephen Laser, author of "Out of Work and Over 40." If you've been in sales, help an organization raise funds. If you're in accounting, offer to keep the books. Someone there might say, "Wow, she'd be great in my company.'"

Keep positive company. Laser also suggests joining any unemployment support groups in your community that are facilitated by professionals. But make sure you're not hanging around the local coffee shop or bar too much with other folks who are in the same boat, which might just be downright depressing.

Simulate a work week. Acting like your employed self can help you keep feeling like your old self. That might mean keeping a normal working-hour schedule during the week and taking some time off at night and on the weekends to recharge your batteries. Get ready for your day by following a regular routine. "Get up, shower, and go to a library or coffee shop. It separates out the search from the rest of your life," Samra says. Get in a workout, which research shows can help boost your mood. And don't forget to keep your social calender, because isolation will only let you dwell on your problems.

If you're feeling overwhelmed and experiencing symptoms of depression, consider seeing a mental health specialist (your family doc can recommend one). Treating depression is not only better for you, but it can also help you get back in the employment game.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Pictofigo

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