What Happens To Your Body When You Are Unemployed

Losing a job can have physical and mental health consequences.

Losing a job is one of the most stressful events you can experience in your career, especially if the loss is sudden. Losing a job during the coronavirus pandemic can really compound that stress. When you get laid off or fired, you not only lose a steady source of income, but you can also lose purpose, a routine and a community of co-workers. It can even impact your physical health.

“Oftentimes, people think, ‘How can they be feeling so sad, so depressed, so grief-stricken about a job,’ but we’re losing a lot of pieces that we’re not recognizing... that do constitute pretty significant loss,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals through career transitions. “People feel a sense of heartbreak, especially if the loss was sudden.”

Your mind and body can be sending you signals that job loss is impacting you more than you consciously know.

You can’t sleep or you sleep too much.

Challenges with sleep are one sign that the job loss is impacting your health.

You might have trouble falling asleep, have trouble staying asleep, or find yourself getting up earlier than planned, said Kristin Bianchi, a Maryland-based licensed psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Change.

One or two nights of sleeplessness are OK, but if it’s a pattern, it’s concerning. “Those start to become worrisome, if that’s happening over a long period of time,” Bianchi said.

The stress you felt in your job may stay with you even after you lose it. Patricia Haynes, an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Health Promotion Sciences, conducted research on how workplace stressors may leave a lasting impact on long-term health outcomes after unemployment. In one study, she and her fellow researchers found that individuals experiencing hindrance-related stressors like job insecurity and organizational politics were more likely to report insomnia after they lost their job.

“The more barriers, like political barriers or barriers that have to do with promotions, the things that keep people from doing well in their job ― we found that those types of stressors are associated with increased likelihood of continued insomnia even after the job is gone,” Haynes told HuffPost.

Your mental health gets worse.

The longer you go without a job, the more likely you are to report having depression, according to a Gallup survey of 356,000 Americans. One in five Americans unemployed for about a year or more were more likely to report that they have been or are undergoing treatment for depression.

Bianchi said two hallmark features of depression for unemployed professionals are when they lose interest in activities they used to enjoy and when they start to experience a low mood more often than not over a two-week period. “It might look like sadness, feeling down,” Bianchi said. “It can also manifest as anger or irritability.”

Your personality changes as you become less agreeable.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that unemployment can cause basic personality changes.

Of the 6,769 German adults in the study, who spent four years completing personality tests, those who lost their jobs during the experiment experienced significant changes in their levels of agreeableness compared to the adults who remained employed. Women became less agreeable with each year of unemployment. Meanwhile, men reported being more agreeable during the first two years of unemployment, but got increasingly less agreeable after that.

The researchers believe these changes can be due to how your outlook can change once you become long-term unemployed. “In early unemployment stages, there may be incentives for individuals to behave agreeably in an effort to secure another job or placate those around them, but in later years when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken,” the authors of the study wrote.

Your body aches, and you get migraines and an upset stomach.

When your body is stressed, your muscles tense up to guard you from a perceived threat. It’s part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. Over time, being on high alert all the time can result in chronic stress-related problems like migraines. The American Psychological Association notes that pain in the low back and upper extremities has been linked to job-related stress.

Our brain is in constant communication with our gut, and job loss stress can also lead to gut discomfort. “With anxiety, it’s not uncommon to see [gastrointestinal] symptoms emerge. People may report frequent stomach aches, or other GI distress,” Bianchi said. “We tend to see headaches and muscle aches when we are anxious.”

Your appetite significantly changes.

Stress may cause an increase or decrease in an appetite, according to the American Psychological Association. Those appetite changes “may or may not be accompanied by weight loss or weight gain,” Bianchi said. “Changes that are marked from what people are used to.”

“When you feel like you can’t count on much — like ‘I don’t have a paycheck coming in, I don’t have a job’ — having a routine creates something that you can count on.”

- Psychologist Lisa Orbé-Austin

What You Can Do To Support Yourself During Unemployment

Make a routine. When you lack the built-in structure of a work day, schedule a new routine that can get you out of your pajamas and is something you look forward to, Orbé-Austin said. That can include physical exercise, lunch dates and breaks from your job search. Because of social distancing, meeting up with your friends may not be possible right now, but you can schedule online social dates like virtual game nights.

“When you feel like you can’t count on much ― like ‘I don’t have a paycheck coming in, I don’t have a job’ ― having a routine creates something that you can count on,” Orbé-Austin said.

Getting up at the same time every morning, making sure you have consistent meals and developing your own daily routine can be beneficial for people who have lost their jobs, Haynes said.

Try mastering an activity. When you lose your job and your job search stalls, you can develop learned helplessness where you feel like no matter what you do, nothing changes, Bianchi said. To counteract that loss of agency, try scheduling activities that bring you a sense of pleasure, mastery or self-efficacy, she said.

“In part, it helps [your] mood. But it also instills in us a sense of one’s capability and capacity to continue living even if we are out of work at the moment,” Bianchi said. “It helps us to be more resilient.”

Watch out for all-or-nothing thinking. Bianchi said that when people are down and demoralized, they can overlook the positive. “We’ll see people tending to dismiss the positives... and over-focus on negative experiences and disappointments that they’ve had,” she said.

One concrete way to push back against these distorted thoughts that can lead to feelings of helplessness is to keep a credit list where you track any actions you’ve taken that you are proud of, Bianchi said. “Those can be actions [you’ve] chosen, or you can also include in that positive feedback,” Bianchi said, like compliments or the fact that someone called to check in on you, which is a reflection of a positive relationship you’ve created.

By reminding yourself of all the good in your life and all the actions you are taking, these reminders can “strengthen our sense of self and maintain it in the absence of what tends to be a major source of identity,” Bianchi said.

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