Unemployed? 10 Ways to Fight Depression in Your Job Search

Job loss, unemployment and never-ending job searches can make even the most upbeat people feel depressed. Follow IT professionals' and mental health experts' tried-and-true advice for preventing depression before it derails your job search.

Job loss and unemployment hit their victims hard. When people lose their jobs, they also lose a significant component of their identity, along with their daily routines and financial security. Job loss and unemployment upend people's feelings of self-worth, comfort, security and personal control.

"In the current economic environment, job loss is a serious trauma," says Stuart Schneiderman, a former psychoanalyst who's now an executive coach. "People are terrified that they aren't going to get a new job."

[ To find out how unemployment affects people's lives, see IT Careers: Can You Survive Unemployment? ]

An individual who experiences job loss reacts to it the way he'd react to any other major trauma, adds Schneiderman, whether the death of a close family member, a divorce or a car accident: They feel defeated, demoralized, a sense of loss, disoriented, worthless, rejected and scared.

Today's merciless job searches compound people's feelings of fear and worthlessness. The lack of feedback job seekers receive from recruiters and employers—despite the efforts they exert—leads them to doubt their value.

"When an $8-an-hour HR intern doesn't return your e-mails, you start to think: Was I a good programmer? Was I a good strategist? Was I a good operations manager," says Jason Alba, the founder of the JibberJobber career management software and blog, who was unemployed four years ago. "I remember questioning everything, all the things I had brought to the table."

The emotions job seekers experience, while normal in context, can spiral into paralyzing depression. Mental health experts say negative, self-defeating thoughts take over people's minds and govern their behavior. People over-eat or under-eat, sleep too much or too little. When depression sets in, conducting a job search and crawling out of unemployment grows even harder.

"If you're working eight to 10 hours a day [at your job search]...getting bad results, you're not going to be in the right mind frame to send out that next e-mail or make that next call," says Alba.

That's why it's critical for job seekers take measures to prevent it. Unemployed IT executives and mental health experts shared their advice for staving off depression during unemployment and a job search.

1. Maintain a Routine. When you lose your job, you lose a lot of structure in your life. It's easy to sleep late every morning and to put off your job search, but those are some of the most unconstructive behaviors you can indulge in. The extra time in bed can lead to self-pity and self-punishment, says Schneiderman.

Instead, think of your job search as your new job and devote eight hours a day, five days a week to it. Shower and get dressed first thing every morning.

"Maintain as many of your work habits as you can," says Schneiderman. "Keep your life structured and organized. If you let it go, it becomes chaotic and erratic."

2. Exercise. Unemployment is stressful and scary. Exercise relieves stress, and the endorphin rush it creates is a proven mood-booster.

George Moraetes, an information security executive who has not been able to find steady work in two years, takes long walks or jogs when his job search or pressure from his family gets him down. "Physical activity helps a lot," he says. "It is the best anti-depressant. You feel better. You feel energized."

3. Keep a Job Search Journal. One of the most frustrating aspects of today's job searches is the lack of feedback from employers and recruiters, say unemployed IT executives. It makes them feel like they're not making any progress, like they have no control over their employment situation, and those feelings sometimes cause them to question why they're bothering to send out résumés and attend networking events.

Keeping a job search journal, in which you record such activities as the calls you make, the job opportunities you discover, the résumés you send and the people you meet at networking events, can help job seekers see all the effort they're making, says Lisa Caldas Kappesser, an executive coach and author of The Smart New Way to Get Hired: Use Emotional Intelligence and Land the Right Job (JIST 2010). This arduous work may not be leading to a job yet, but job seekers can at least feel good about themselves knowing they're doing everything in their power to find a new job.

A job search journal also helps seekers show their families, who may not understand how difficult a job search is, exactly what they're doing and what they've accomplished, adds Kappesser.

4. Reach Out to People. It's normal not to want to socialize after a job loss has bruised your ego, but since you never know where your next job opportunity might come from, being open with people about your employment situation is in your best interest. (See How to Network: 12 Tips for Shy People.)

"Don't keep your job loss a secret," says Schneiderman. "When people give you advice, take it—as long as it's not idiotic or insane."

Kappesser recommends seeking out positive people and avoiding negative people.

5. Attend a Support Group. Lou Bonica, an IT and operations executive now in month seven of his job search, says he initially fought going to support groups for unemployed executives. "I thought they were going to be pity parties," he says.

He was proven wrong. "When you're in a room with some very accomplished, brilliant people, you realize a layoff is not what it used to be," says Bonica. "It's not because you did something bad. You're just a victim of circumstance."

JibberJobber's Alba says networking and support groups for unemployed executives alleviated his loneliness and improved his self-esteem, which took a beating after he was laid off from his job as a general manager of a software company in early 2006. "Listening to all these executives in transition helped my perspective," says Alba. "It helped me realize that I wasn't alone, and that I wasn't in this situation because I was a loser."

6. Participate in Productive Distractions. If you need a break from the drudgery and thanklessness of your job search, you can engage in activities that don't involve résumés but that still complement your effort to find a new job.

Alba recommends doing volunteering work—not necessarily with a nonprofit, but with a for-profit company. Volunteering one's time or expertise at established businesses enables people to keep their skills sharp, be around other people and network with employees inside the company, says Alba.

He recommends introducing yourself to everyone in the company who walks by so you can build new relationships. When you have a job interview or a job prospect at another employer, he adds, you can ask the people where you're volunteering if they know anyone at the company where you're applying.

And don't worry about giving away your know-how for free, says Alba. The potential benefits of volunteering for for-profit companies outweigh the risks. (Notably, Alba's current full-time job, JibberJobber, began as his job search distraction.)

Bonica has offered his Web 2.0 savvy to outplacement groups, where he's delivered presentations on how to use social media in one's job search. Giving back makes him feel good: "It made me feel like I was doing work again," he says.

Starting the blog, A CIO's Voice, was Arun Manansingh's productive distraction during his recent 17-month job search.

"Sending out massive amounts of résumés and not getting feedback was really heart-breaking," says Manansingh, now CIO of The Judlau Companies. "Starting the blog took my mind away from looking for a job. It helped me get myself back out there." (Though newly employed, Manasingh continues to update A CIO's Voice.)

The blog also helped him network, and it led to job prospects. Other unemployed executives found his blog and contacted him. They became friends and got together on a weekly basis for lunch or via conference call. Manansingh says the CIOs he met through his blog became a powerful support network.

7. Seek Inspiration. David Krull, who's been forced to cobble together contract IT project management work since 2002 because of the economy, watches inspirational movies and listens to motivational tapes to keep his spirits up. His favorites include Rudy, Mr. Holland's Opus and The Secret. A Christian, Krull is also a big proponent of prayer as a way to stay centered and grounded in an uncertain world.

8. Persevere. "To overcome trauma, you have to understand what it does to the mind," says Schneiderman. "A trauma warps your judgment. You can't rely on your personal judgment any more. You can't trust your instincts. You can't trust your feelings. Once you've been through a trauma, your mind goes into trauma avoidance mode."

In other words, your mind may lead you toward not finding another job. Consequently, Schneiderman says you need to do the opposite of what you feel like doing: You need to persevere. "A lot of dealing with trauma is forcing yourself to do what's right," he says, "when your mind is telling you that you really just want to stay in bed."

IT executives say they've had days when they didn't feel like getting out of bed because their job searches were going so poorly. On days like that, Manansingh says he recognized what he was feeling and knew the best antidote was to get out of the house and meet people for lunch.

9. Get Professional Help. Don't wait until you're deeply depressed to get help. "The minute you feel yourself falling into a rut, call someone," says Schneiderman. "The more you get into these things, the more difficult it is to get out of them."

The challenge for people who've lost their jobs, however, is that they may not be able to afford professional help when they need it because they no longer have health insurance, says Moraetes, the information security executive. What's more, he adds, because they may be experiencing symptoms of depression for the first time in their lives, they don't know how to deal with it or where to go for help.

Adam Russo, a licensed social worker and executive director of Edgewood Clinical Services in Naperville, Ill., says nonprofit mental health centers and county mental health agencies may provide counseling services for free or at a reduced rate. "The hard part is," he says, "these agencies are waitlisted a mile long."

Russo recommends looking into organizations such as the Easter Sales, Catholic Charities and the United Way to find local groups that offer pro bono counseling services.

Kappesser, who is also a licensed social worker, notes that private practices often work on a sliding scale. "If you call and share with the intake worker that you are feeling depressed and needing help, often they will triage you and get you in to see a doctor," she says.

10. Maintain Work-Life Balance. The more your self-worth and identity is tied up in your job, the harder job loss will hit you psychologically. So when you return to work, make a concerted effort to live a more balanced life. Don't let your job consume you. Get more involved with your family and community. "Find ways to define yourself other than your job," says Russo, "because once that's gone, what do you have left?"

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.

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