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Experts say exercise, meditation, and generally taking care of yourself are ways to cope with the anxiety of job loss during COVID-19. Getty Images
  • U.S. job losses are accumulating at a staggering rate and an economic rebound is likely some time away.
  • If you’re stressed about employment, experts advise differentiating between productive and unproductive thoughts.
  • Practicing meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and yoga can help.
  • It’s important to monitor not just yourself but other people you care about. Reach out when appropriate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on everyday life.

For millions of Americans, one of the chief impacts is on their employment.

The New York Times reports that the current unemployment rate is “literally off the charts.”

More than 20 million jobs in the United States were lost in April, bringing the unemployment rate close to 15 percent. Nearly half of Americans in lower-income households say they’ve seen job or wage losses due to the pandemic.

How bad is it? The job losses in April represent the biggest decline since the government started collecting employment data in 1939.

“Everyone is affected by the pandemic in one way or another,” said Dr. Victor M. Fornari, vice-chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.

“Everyone knows someone who’s been furloughed, laid off, or lost their position. I think people are impacted both directly from the virus as well as indirectly through the economic fallout,” Fornari told Healthline.

A vaccine that would return society to some semblance of normalcy is probably at least a year away. Even once COVID-19 is neutralized as a threat, the likelihood of a recession — and scarce employment prospects — may remain high.

As we dig in for the economic long haul, experts say it’s more important than ever to be mindful of your mental health.

“Anxiety and fear are the names of the game right now when it comes to job security,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

“There’s real uncertainty. It’s very difficult to lose your job,” Saltz told Healthline. “And if you lose your job, how will you get another job in the current situation?”

These are the kinds of questions that millions of Americans are asking themselves right now. Employment brings not just financial stability but also a sense of purpose.

“With work, we feel a greater sense of self-esteem, advocacy, and a sense of purpose. There are monetary reasons and financial reasons for working, but it’s also a way to feel connected to others. So, job loss has a huge impact on several fronts,” Brittany LeMonda, a senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

LeMonda said it’s crucial for people who have lost their jobs to find a way to draw the line between expressing their anxiety and giving themselves a break.

“Allowing ourselves to feel whatever those feelings are — frustration, anxiety, sadness — is important,” she said. “But it’s also important to come to terms with accepting that this is the situation that we’re in right now.”

Saltz says it’s helpful to distinguish between productive and unproductive thoughts when it comes to employment anxiety.

“One path of worry, while it may cause anxiety, can also lead to problem-solving. That’s productive worry, if you will,” she said. “I would advise people to think creatively about how to manage their situation.”

Unfortunately, says Saltz, this “productive worry” can also veer into stress that’s unproductive. Even after someone has gone through their problem-solving process, it’s tough to stop the creeping nervousness that persists.

“This anxiety isn’t serving anyone well, but the thoughts can be super sticky,” she said. “The more one can say, ‘Well, of course I have worries, this is a difficult situation,’ the more likely it is to recede. That’s just the way the brain works. It’s not that the anxiety will be gone, but it won’t be smack in the middle of your dashboard.”

To give yourself a break from the anxiety, all three experts interviewed for this story recommended practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness.

Physical activity is also important during a time when many people are stuck at home.

Therapy might seem like an unattainable luxury during a time of financial uncertainty, but Saltz recommends researching all available options.

“The reality is that, right now, therapy is pretty much affordable for anyone in the sense that so many people are doing telemedicine therapy, even in a volunteer capacity,” she said. “This ranges from very low fees on apps that provide therapy to COVID hotlines that will put you in touch with volunteer therapists who are helping people who can’t afford treatment.”

While millions of jobs have been lost, there are still millions of Americans with steady employment.

Even for this population, it’s likely that the status quo has been disrupted somewhat — often working from home rather than reporting to the office.

“Many people are working at their jobs, but are really not at their best,” Fornari said. “I encourage people to be mindful of their own level of functioning by using the traffic light metaphor. Most of us function in the green zone when we feel like we’re at our best. We’re rested, energetic, and productive. But right now, most people are probably functioning in the yellow zone.”

Fornari emphasized the importance of monitoring friends and family who may be veering into the red zone.

“These are the people we need to reach out to. Often, they’re not aware that they’re not functioning because they may not have the ability to identify the worrisome way that they’re acting,” he said. “So, in the same way that in society we say, ‘If you see something, say something,’ in terms of public safety, we’re encouraging people to do that both at home with friends and family as well as in the workplace. If you see someone that you’re worried about, say something.”

To add to this, Saltz says that even if it isn’t possible to grab lunch with a friend, technology can help fill in some of the gaps.

“In terms of reaching out to people, you may not be able to sit down with someone, but it doesn’t prevent you from talking to people in your life, either on the phone or via video chat,” she said.

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