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How Do You Cope with Losing Your Job?

Editor's note: The local resource number to call for social service support is 2-1-1.

How Do You Cope with Losing Your Job?
With the county's jobless rate at 9.4 percent, many San Diegans have had to adapt to a life without work. We speak with a local psychotherapist about how people are coping with losing their jobs.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Everybody knows that when you lose a job, you're supposed to look for work. You're supposed to get on the phone and you're supposed to check the employment websites, and send out resumes. But everybody also knows you don't look for work 24 hours a day, you don't even usually do it for eight hours each day. So, that leaves unemployed people with a lot of time of their hands. Since the state unemployment rate is now 11½%, a significant number of people are now trying to cope with that no-job time on your hands. Some are doing quite well, discovering new things to do, developing new interests. Some are not doing well at all, getting bored, restless and angry. And most people are probably somewhere in the middle. With me to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of being unemployed is my guest, Dr. David Peters, MFT, a family psychotherapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. Welcome, Dr. Peters.


DAVID PETERS (Marriage and Family Therapist): You can call me David, Maureen. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much. And I'd also like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you been coping with a job loss lately, either personally or in your family? What are you doing with your time? Call us at 1-888-895-5727. Well, Doctor, I know that you make two major distinctions when you're talking about people who've been laid off, those who have enough money to squeak by for awhile, and those who have no backup plan. Now it's obvious, you know, the sense of urgency is increased if you have no money.

PETERS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: But I'm wondering if people aren't prone to get just as angry and negative about losing their jobs even if they have a little money in the bank?

PETERS: Definitely so. I think everybody feels victimized and they go through the same series of – the phases of shock and denial and anger, this sort of thing, when you lose a job. Those who are – there's a difference between being financially prepared for a job loss and being emotionally prepared for the job loss. So I've had people who were financially really very, very comfortable really upset about a job loss, very much upset about the loss of income, how much it's costing them. And I've had one couple complain that they had only two million dollars left in their retirement. It wasn't anywhere near what they thought they were going to have, which is very different than a family of four, you know, with an income of $40,000.00 a year who has maybe $20,000.00 in a retirement plan and they have far fewer resources to rely on. So being mentally prepared, I think, is the biggest factor.


CAVANAUGH: So even when it comes to unemployment, the idea of perception, how you see yourself in this situation, really sort of defines how you're dealing with it.

PETERS: Exactly. And this is what we know in the mental health field is how you perceive, or how your mind constructs a situation, has a great impact in how you tolerate it. People in very uncomfortable circumstances can look at it in a way so that they can see opportunity or look in the long run and say, well, I may be without much money but I've got a lot of people who love me, my life will still recover. The positive or negative statements we say to ourself (sic) determine how depressed or how optimistic we're going to be. And so it's really, really important to observe your own thoughts. Am I thinking only in the negative? Am I ruminating? Am I getting into a lot of hopeless statements or angry statements every day in my head? Or am I coming to accept the reality and looking for what's positive, looking for the opportunity. And this is easy to say and difficult to do. You know, when you're the one who's lost your job and you've got to feed children and – and the mortgage is not being paid, it's difficult to think positively. But it is critical to think in terms of what can I do? Where do I have power? Rather than get sunk in the sense of I don't matter to anybody and I'm hopeless and – and there's nothing I can do.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with David Peters, MFT. He's a family psychotherapist. And you say that feelings of passivity and helplessness are also things to avoid, not just anger and negativity but also that feeling of, I guess, giving up.

PETERS: Definitely so. There are some clients I've worked with who've lost their jobs who I ask, how are you doing at home? They say, well, nothing. I'm sitting at home. I'm watching TV. And you can see they're not, you know, they're not bathing, they're not getting on their nice clothes, they're sitting on the couch vegetating. And it's the worst thing you can do because you really come to lose that which makes you human, your ability to do something, your ability to create something, your ability to figure out a problem. And so it's real critical to think in terms of how active can I be at this time? And that activity level may be spending a full time – I say – tell it to people, think of it as a full time job looking for a job. You know, you do have a job; your job is to look for a job. And you have to get up every morning, you have to get your breakfast, brush your teeth, take your shower, and then go to work. And plan your day, what can I do now? And this is difficult to do because you run out of things to do to look for a job.


PETERS: So it ends up a part time job at best unless you've got many connections. But this can also be a time where you challenge yourself to learn some new skills to develop your potential to get a new job. For some people who they can see the job loss is going to take some time, I've known some who've taken classes at the community college to build up new skills. Some have decided to take a technical training course in a particular skill that they know is necessary or wanted or valuable in the workplace. So these are opportunities then to prepare for the future. Maybe it involves just reading more in your profession, boning up on your skills through your own book learning, or doing research online so that you can build your skills. I have one client who had been, most of her time, working for a school district in the lunchroom and noted that, well, many jobs she saw required that you really know how to word process and use spreadsheets and the like. And I said, well, you've got a computer at home, do you have the ability to teach yourself? You're an intelligent person, you know, get out there and learn how. And so by getting a little – just enough momentum and faith in herself, she's on the computer learning how to use a spreadsheet and, you know, you can take little courses on how to do that at the adult school and community colleges or you can learn online. And you can purchase little packages…


PETERS: …that teach you these things. So if you can demonstrate new skills to a prospective employer, then you've got a better opportunity. So this is really a time to resist passively watching television, you know, during the day and get out there and rebuild yourself.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about what to do when – once you've been laid off and you're unemployed. All right, if you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727. And right now, Eric in North Park is on the line. Good morning, Eric, and welcome to These Days.

ERIC (Caller, North Park): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: How can we help you?

ERIC: I was just – I find that this topic is pretty fascinating because I was laid off in December and I've been just trying to, like you said, reinvent myself, getting back into hobbies. I am dealing with going through a divorce, and – but simultaneously, I am doing new things like studying hydrogen cells for combustion engines, which is something I'd like to do on the side, and I also build vintage motorcycles so I use Craigslist and eBay, and I would just encourage people instead of just looking for a job, maybe think of something that you've never been able to do before with the time that you have and – and maybe some tips for, you know, for reinventing yourself in a time like this would be great.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for that, Eric. And do you have any tips for reinventing yourself when you find yourself unemployed and perhaps looking at it, it's going to take a while to get another job.

PETERS: Well, Eric's point and his example is a great demonstration of exactly what to do. What are you interested in? Find what am I interested in? Can I do something in my area of interest? And could that be of value? In his case, he's looking at hydrogen fuel cells where we know this is the energy of the future and maybe he's tooling himself up to get a job somewhere with that. Maybe it's going to open up opportunities. And he's also doing projects in areas that are personally interest of him – in his interest just to keep himself stimulated. And when we embark in projects that are creative, we're stimulating our brain, we're keeping ourself active. It's literally keeping the brain alive and at its best when we're staying active with creative projects that are of interest to us. And keeping the brain alive, keeping the brain active, is part of keeping the self whole. You know, when you lose a job – Eric's lost his job and he's losing a marriage, it's a double loss. He's a prime candidate to sink into helplessness and depression but by investing in what he enjoys about life, he's stating literally, I am, I exist, I matter and I'm alive and active in the world. And when you do that, you keep your brain open to find new opportunities. Those who stay active are the ones who find the new opportunities because their eyes are up, their eyes are on the horizon. They're listening and looking and interacting with people so they're the ones most likely to get reemployed somewhere, whereas when you're passive, you're at home laying on the couch, watching reruns…


PETERS: …and you miss all the opportunities that go by.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I was thinking back to when I've been laid off in my career and, you know, sleeping late and watching TV, that's the kind of thing I've done, and I realize now it's all wrong. But isn't there a time where you just sort of have to decompress after the shock of losing your job?

PETERS: Absolutely. I think it's perfectly acceptable to go through a short period of mourning. I think we got to remember that losing a job is a loss. It is similar to losing a family or losing a spouse. We go through a grieving process. You can be in a period of shock and a period of anger and sadness about this, and sometimes you need to take a week just to heal, to nuture yourself. But it's really important to note, okay, I'm going to do this grieving purposefully and in a short period of time, I'm going to whine about it, moan about it, complain to people, you know, do whatever I need to do to be sad but put it in a limited period of time. And after a week, say, all right, now that's done. Now I've got to get moving…


PETERS: …because once you're stuck you're at risk of clinical depression. And in clinical depression, you're – the brain literally slows down. Your metabolism slows down. You're on the couch kind of in a half-fog, eating unhealthy foods, gaining weight, and you're not thinking new thoughts. The brain becomes less human because it's thinking fewer thoughts. You're sort of stagnated, and this then becomes a health risk to you. So keeping mentally active is really critical. And then we can also keep physically active. One thing that I tell my clients is that if you can stay physically active every day, you can ward off depression. What we know now from research is that getting good cardiovascular exercise five days a week is the equivalent of taking 20 milligrams of Prozac in terms of the lift to your serotonin levels in your bloodstream. Well, this is really nice for someone who's vulnerable to depression. And so if you're at home feeling anxious, feeling depressed, becoming obsessive, being tearful, the most important thing you can do is get out of the house and get physically active…


PETERS: …for 50 minutes a day every day, and then you come home a little bit more open, a little bit more high. Your brain works more quickly and you're more agile and you're able to see new opportunities and you're protecting your brain then from depression now and from future depressions. This is very, very critical.

CAVANAUGH: That's very, very good advice. Unfortunately, we're just about out of time. I wanted to ask you, though, in closing, if someone is really having a difficult time dealing with depression or being stuck and not being able to move on and really is not coping well with being unemployed, I know it's probably not the time to begin seeing a therapist because most people lose their insurance when they lose their jobs, but are there any maybe public low cost options for people to try to just talk to somebody?

PETERS: There are, and it can be difficult to find. But I think the best way to do it is use a very convenient service we have in San Diego. If you just get on the phone and dial 211 (sic), you can be hooked up to a panel of people who have computers in front of them with a large database of all the social services available in San Diego for almost any need. This includes food, housing, transportation, but also includes mental health services. They can help set you up with community agencies who may be able to help. And some people do have a couple of months of health insurance remaining and it could be very, very critical to jump in quickly, go two sessions a week with a therapist for the one month you still have of your health plan so that you can get tips and get your momentum going to stay active and be better prepared for finding that next job.

CAVANAUGH: David, thank you. Lots of good advice.

PETERS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with David Peters, MFT, a family psychotherapist, with a private practice in Mission Valley. And a reminder, you can continue this conversation online. We encourage you to post your comments about coping with unemployment at And tomorrow at this time we'll be talking kind of maybe the flip side of this topic. We'll be talking about strategies to help you find a new job in this down economy. That's Wednesday morning at nine right here on These Days. We'll be back in just a few minutes. These Days on KPBS.