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The Psychology of Being Fired

Jada A. Graves

You know the wah-wah-woh-wah-wah sound that adults make when talking in Peanuts cartoons? That's about all you'll hear after your manager says you're being let go. It's almost like your ears stop working to clear way for a swath of other sensations to take hold. There are plenty emotional and physical side effects that crest the surface if you ever lose your job.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of "High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, " says people truss their occupations to their identity. Because of this, common emotions that surround losing a job -- either from being fired or laid off -- mirror the grief experienced when losing a loved one. "Most people report feeling a whirlwind of emotions, but the most typical are denial, shock, sadness, anxiety and anger," she says.

Feeling embarrassed is also normal, but it's usually tied with those who were terminated for performance reasons, says Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources, a New York City-based outsourced HR department. "We live in a moment where everyone shares and overshares on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter," she says. "One of the first things that could run through someone's mind is 'How do I face my friends and family in light of this news? How do I tell them what happened?'"

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Whether you're shocked, anxious or embarrassed, you shouldn't expect these emotions to flow then ebb forever. "Most people report that their emotions cycle, so at one moment they're feeling sad, and then the sadness turns to anger, then anxiety, then back to anger," Carter says.

There also isn't a timeline for feeling better, Klein says. You could vacillate for weeks and even months -- particularly if it takes some time to find new work. "For a lot of people, their feelings about what happened are impacted by what else is going on in their life," she explains. "The fact that you were fired a month ago could be the cherry on top of an already really bad mood."

Mood shifts aren't the only thing to mind. Carter says a terminated employee might experience the physical symptoms associated with stress, like chest pains, headaches and panic attacks.

Carter advises you consult with an emotional health professional if your disposition is extreme. Sadness and anger are fleeting and manageable emotions, but rage and severe depression aren't. "It's normal to feel sad, in some cases very sad, after losing a job," she says. "However, if the depression gets to the point where thoughts of suicide develop or the person is so depressed that they can't get out of bed or can't function effectively, then that is not normal."

[Read: How to Fire Someone Compassionately .]

HR professionals are trained to recognize red flag statements and behaviors when terminating someone, Klein says. Knowing what they consider appropriate could be a good measure to use for your own feelings if you're ever fired. For instance, Klein says moderate profanity expressing shock is expected ("It's common for people to say, 'You've gotta be bleeping kidding me,'" she says), but excessive cursing expressing anger is alarming ("If the conversation escalates into 'this blanking company can go to hell,' then that is someone who is entering the red zone," she adds).

Your warning bells should also ring if your first inclination is to make your manager feel guilty. Klein says HR staff also listen for passing remarks laying blame. "There was someone who referenced that they're a gun collector, and there was someone who mentioned that his wife was eight-months pregnant, and if she went into preterm labor it would be our fault,'" she says.

It's healthy to take several days, weeks or months to fully recuperate emotionally from the loss of a job, and yes, to even feel sorry for yourself. "I would say that if negative feelings ... persist for more than six months, that person should probably speak to a counselor to help them move forward, and stop living in the past."

You also need to fill the time after being let go with constructive activities, so you're in a better emotional, physical and professional state to land a new job. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Veg out, just a little bit. You have a good excuse to sit at home in sweats with trashy TV and some junk food, at least for a day or two. In fact, both Klein and Carter encourage a little moderate self-pity; Carter describes it as part of self-care. According to her, recently terminated employees who begin a job search with fresh wounds could come up dry. "If they do happen to find a job, there is the risk that their negative, unresolved feelings about the old job may affect their productivity, performance and attitude," she says.

[Read: How to Recover After Being Fired .]

2. Ask for feedback. Prepare for the job search ahead of you by soliciting an honest opinion of your skills and shortcomings from friends, mentors and former colleagues. If you have your old performance reviews, look them over to spot common themes. And if you were fired from your last job, then there's a chance you received either a formal or informal warning from your supervisor.

3. Get physical. Klein says leaving your house for a little exercise is an all-around win. "Putting yourself on a regular exercise routine will help give you the confidence necessary to get another job," she says. Plus, the exposure to sunlight is a natural mood booster, and exercising outdoors can be done on the cheap.

4. Volunteer. Volunteering is a way to stay active, get out of the house and build new connections, plus it can bridge an employment gap on your résumé. According to Carter, volunteering could be the gateway to a new job opportunity and could also facilitate a career transition. "Losing their job gives them the chance to possibly explore a line of work they may have always wanted to pursue, but never did," she says.

5. Set daily goals. Road map your comeback to the working world, and enlist someone to keep you accountable and offer encouragement. "Give yourself digestible goals for each day and each week," Klein says. "Decide that one day you're going to update your LinkedIn profile and the next you're going to make sure your résumé is readily available."

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