Tips for Surviving Unemployment With Your Mental Health Intact

Posted on July 16th, 2013
Posted in Research

Job loss is stressful, and the recent recession has caused a substantial increase in unemployment across the country. Anyone who has been fired or laid off understands how the strain and uncertainty can throw a wrench into one’s emotional well-being. Periods of unemployment – particularly lengthy ones – often elicit feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression.  They can also leave some individuals with a sense of failure, worthlessness and shame.  Being without a much-needed job can be very difficult situation – one that’s overwhelming enough to trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms.  It’s not uncommon for jobless individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the anxiety and seek a temporary escape from their challenging situation.

Job Loss and Substance Abuse

The sharp increase in unemployment during the recent recession raised overall rates of a number of social problems, including far too many suicides and homicides.  But there’s also been a notable increase in the rates of substance abuse. That increase is not particularly surprising considering that research has consistently shown that unemployment is a risk factor for alcohol and drug abuse. In addition, as overall substance abuse rates rise, so do the rates of related risky behaviors, such as binge drinking.

Unemployment itself creates enough stress to set the foundation for substance abuse, but it creates other conflicts that may also contribute to addiction. For example, losing a job strains relationships. Partners often clash over financial matters when one or both are out of work.  They may also find themselves suddenly forced to spend much more time together, breeding contempt for some. Unemployed workers may also be forced to move back in with parents, or continue living with a spouse from whom they want to separate. While relationships themselves aren’t responsible for alcohol or drug abuse, the tension they create can definitely contribute to substance abuse.

The loss of a job is also a risk factor for depression. Depression symptoms may include feeling hopeless or helpless, irritability, feeling fatigued, and having problems with sleep. It’s not uncommon for individuals struggling with depression to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, making the condition a risk factor for substance abuse.

Unemployment and Relapse

Losing a job also raises the risk for relapse in those who have already undergone alcohol and drug rehab treatment. Stressful situations, like losing a job or being unable to find gainful employment, have a significant impact on dopamine neurons in a part of the brain that’s connected to drug relapse. This biological reaction makes addicts who are sober more vulnerable to abusing alcohol or drugs once again. In fact, one large review of substance abuse studies found that unemployment increases the rate of relapse after previous alcohol or drug addiction treatment.

Treatment & Prevention

Addiction has a direct physical, emotional, and often financial impact on the addict, as well as his or her loved ones. It also affects the ability to find and maintain future jobs, making treatment or prevention essential. Following are several recommendations for anyone struggling with a substance or addiction problem (past or present), particularly if it’s related to unemployment or a recent job loss:

  • Get into treatment. If you’re abusing alcohol or drugs or have an addiction, it’s crucial to get help from addiction treatment professionals. A drug rehab treatment team will assess your condition and recommend appropriate treatment.  Treatment may take place in an inpatient, residential or outpatient setting.  It typically includes one-on-one and / or group therapy sessions.
  • Don’t hesitate to discuss your financial concerns, especially if you’re unemployed. You may be able to work out a payment plan or find a resource that provides free or low-cost drug and alcohol counseling. It can be hard to justify the cost of alcohol and drug rehab when you’re worried about money; but the cost of living with an addiction is much higher – and it can cost you more than money. An alcohol or drug addiction can cost you the ability to find another job.  It can also take a serious toll on your health, damage or destroy important relationships, ruin your reputation and even cost you your life.
  • Continue or resume a 12-step program. If job loss has triggered a relapse, don’t give up on your sobriety. If you’re already using a 12-step support group for alcohol or drug rehab recovery, continue to attend meetings, and, when necessary, contact your sponsor for guidance. You may need to attend meetings more often than you normally would. If you haven’t been involved in a self-help group, now might be a good time to consider joining. Group members and a sponsor will provide support as you work through this stressful and difficult period.  A sense of support can play a crucial role in helping you get your life back on track.
  • Talk with your addiction counselor. Addiction is a chronic mental health condition, and the stress of unemployment increases the risk of relapse.  Consult an addictions counselor or therapist to find out if you need to resume treatment. Therapy may be necessary to help you cope with the stress of unemployment in a healthy and productive way.
  • Put your skills to work. Prevent substance abuse or relapse by keeping yourself occupied. Even if you’re unemployed, you can find job-related purpose. For example, find a need in your community and volunteer to fill it. If you’re a skilled laborer, offer your time to rehab a dilapidated building or repair the local youth center. Perhaps you have computer skills that you can volunteer to teach retirement community seniors how to use social media to stay in touch with loved ones.
  • Be active. Staying at home while others go to work can make you feel isolated, increasing feelings of depression and the desire to use alcohol or drugs. Instead of hibernating at home all the time, make an effort to get out and be active. Commit to taking a run every morning or learning a new hobby, like painting or gardening.  Activities that involve being around other people will also help reduce your sense of isolation and allow you to not only make new friends but also network.  You never know when a chance conversation can open the door to a new job.
  • Reduce stress. The strain of unemployment and endless job hunting can contribute to both depression and substance abuse. Stress management and relaxation techniques will lower levels of stress-related hormones. Meditation is an ancient practice that quiets your mind while you relax your muscles and focus on deep breathing. It’s very simple to learn from a book or a free online video, and, with practice, you can use it to decrease stress.  Many who practice medication regularly find that they feel more grounded and serene – two traits that enable them to get through stressful situations much more readily.  Yoga is another proven stress reducer.  It combines controlled breathing with physical poses that both stretch and relax muscles. You can practice yoga at home or in a class. If cost is an issue, you can find an abundance of free online videos and tutorials.
  • Take care of relationships. Losing a job sometimes forces a person to make living arrangements he or she might not otherwise even consider. For instance, you may find yourself taking in a roommate so you can pay the mortgage, or you may be forced to move back home with your parents. These situations can easily become conflicted if you’re not careful.  If possible, consider investing in family counseling or attending sessions that will help to improve conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.

Unemployment is stressful and, at times, unavoidable.  If the stress is ignored, it can quickly lead to substance abuse or relapse. If you’ve found yourself seeking solace in a bottle of wine or numbing the emotional pain with drugs, don’t wait any longer to seek help.  Alcohol and drug rehab may be necessary to help you get your life back on track.  Pick up the phone today and reach out for the help that’s available!

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