When the economy — or a company’s business — goes south, the quickest way a company can chop its costs is by laying off its employees. It’s never popular and often companies will try other cost-cutting measures long before they have to cut workers, but if you’re among those who get the pink slip, you don’t really care. You just lost your job.

For many, being laid off is something that will be unexpected and shocking. Unless you work in a seasonal industry where layoffs occur with annual regularity, a layoff is akin to having the wind knocked out of you. You become a powerless pawn in a company’s efforts to cut costs. And while it’s never about a single employee, it doesn’t make it feel any less personal.

A layoff is out of your control, but how you react to it is not.

1. Keep Your Emotions in Check

One of the first things you should do is give yourself some time with the impact of being laid off. If unexpected, you will likely feel more upset, shocked and disappointed than if you had some idea layoffs were coming. Even when an employee knows layoffs are in the works for the company, you may not expect that your own head could be on the chopping block.

The workplace is not a good place to express this disappointment and upset, however. Such reactions might be mistaken or misunderstood. It’s also best not to burn bridges, no matter how bitter or upset you may feel in the moment. You may need references from your manager or supervisor, and want to keep in touch with coworkers you’re close to. Ask for personal email addresses and act calmly, no matter how you may feel inside.

If you need to vent, do so to close friends (or your family, or your therapist) outside of work. Don’t feel bad if you feel confused and uncertain about your future. Take your time and don’t try to rush into feeling “okay” with the layoff.

2. Get the Information

Sometimes in our shock and upset at the news of a layoff, we forget to listen or to get all the information we need. Is there a severance package or a benefits package I get to leave with? What about my family’s health insurance? Will the company help me with finding new work or offer any kind of resume service? What about job references? Do I have to return the company laptop that I use at home?

If you can’t handle getting the information in the moment or feel overwhelmed, not to worry. Employers generally provide the information in a letter form as well, and your HR personnel can answer any followup questions you may have via email or phone. The key is to remember that the more details you have, the easier it’ll be to answer others (e.g., your significant other) and make the tough decisions that are yet to come.

If your employer offers you nothing, you may be in line at the unemployment office to look into unemployment benefits paid for by the government. Sadly, these are going to be a lot less than what you were making, but it’s better than nothing. And it may help make ends meet until you can find another job. While most hard-working people hate the idea of accepting “charity,” sometimes we simply have no other choice. And unemployment benefits aren’t really “charity” anyway — they’re a benefit each state provides by taxing employers, and are regulated in part by federal law. Your benefits will be determined by your hours worked and earnings over the five calendar quarters preceding your layoff. In other words — you earned the benefits you’re now receiving while you were working.

3. Regroup and Reframe

Don’t let your disappointment and upset turn into a new pessimistic outlook on your life or career, or into a full-blown depressive episode.

Therapists have a technique they call “reframing.” It basically means taking a negative situation, thought or feeling and looking at it from a different perspective for some positive aspects. Being laid off is a time to regroup in your life and especially in your career. This is a time to reassess your career path and make sure you’re still doing something you have an interest in doing. Even in a bad economy, you need to consider your own longer-term happiness.

Which is not to say there may not be much you can do about it right now. But it may help you decide between two job opportunities in the future, one that keeps you on your current path, or another that may open up a different set of opportunities for you. A layoff may be just the ticket to get you out of the dead-end job you would’ve stayed in forever had it not occurred.

4. Take Stock in Your Finances and Budget

This is not the time to pull the wool over your significant other’s eyes (or your own). Take a realistic look at your finances and budget, and see how long a severance package or unemployment benefits are going to last you. Whatever you do, do not put this off longer than a week. While we may not enjoy dealing with our finances, failure to do so could result in a far worse situation down the road (which always arrives sooner than you think).

Be creative in analyzing your budget for places to cut. Most of us assume we need things like digital television and unlimited mobile calling plans. But most of us don’t. When I met my wife six years ago, she didn’t even have cable (and lived quite happily without it). Do you need to go out to dinner twice a week? Do you need that new flat-screen TV? Now’s the time to put aside your wants temporarily and focus exclusively on your and your family’s needs.

Keep in mind, too, of your savings, rainy-day funds, and even your 401(k), which may offer you some temporary financial relief. Borrowing from your 401(k), for instance, is usually less expensive than adding to your credit card debt, as you are paying back the loan with interest to yourself (not a credit card company). However, such borrowing is usually recommended only as a last resort.

5. Take Care of Insurance

We often don’t think about insurance until we’re faced with a layoff and find out just how expensive it really is. You will likely be offered something called COBRA, which allows you to continue your current employer’s health benefits with one catch — you now have to pay what your employer was paying for your benefits. Be prepared for sticker shock. Most people are amazed that a family of four’s health insurance on COBRA might be as high as $1,000 or even $1,500 a month (for a single or couple, it can be anywhere from $500 to $800). When paying bills is already going to be a challenge, COBRA might be out of reach when the monthly cost of health insurance exceeds your unemployment benefits.

So shop around. You may find other health insurance coverage for your family that is less expensive and not cut your benefits in any significant way. You may have to pay a higher deductible for inpatient hospital stays to achieve a lower monthly premium, so weigh the costs with what you can afford. Nowadays, there are a lot more plans available to most people at a wide range of costs.

If you have to consider going without health insurance where it’s legal (in Massachusetts, for instance, you’re required by law to hold health insurance), be very careful in your life. Put aside risky behaviors and hobbies that might put your future health at risk.

If you have chronic health issues that may make insurers reluctant to take you on, check with your state’s office of the commissioner of insurance. (Names may vary from state to state.) Most states have “high-risk pools” for people who can’t get health insurance any other way.

6. Hit the Classifieds

Nearly all job classifieds are now online, so searching through them is far easier than it was 10 years ago. Although it might seem like nobody is hiring (and in your specific profession, that may very well be true), you should keep an eye out anyway. Jobs sometimes become available as people retire, or a company’s focus changes. Extend your search somewhat outside your profession as well, just to see what else might be available.

Check out your “dream profession” as well, as that may help you make a very different decision. Some people use a layoff as an opportunity to go back to school to learn a new profession, using government grants and subsidized loans to pay for tuition. Of course that’s not always possible if you are the primary breadwinner for your family, but it’s something to keep in mind throughout this process.

Use the unemployment resources available to you, whether through your ex-employer (such as resume writing services) or through your local government. Libraries, too, often offer a great set of employment and career resources.

7. Don’t Give Up Hope

In the months to come, as unemployment may stretch out much longer than you had wanted or anticipated, you’ll benefit from remaining as optimistic as possible. A pessimistic attitude can easily snowball into full-blown depression when job hunting, especially in a down economy when hundreds of companies are laying off hundreds of thousands of workers. It’s a tough market to be looking for a job, of that there is no doubt. However, people who stand out in such markets usually can find a way to bounce back.

If you feel especially down on your luck, join a free support group or skills-building group in your local community (or online), and learn from others who’re going through similar circumstances. Although it may be hard to remember, try to keep in mind that layoffs aren’t a judgment about your own abilities, experience or skills that you bring to a position.

Some days it may feel impossible to do, but try to stay positive. Although many people define their self-worth and value in this world by their job, it really isn’t everything and doesn’t have to be the defining feature of one’s life.

In Summary…

Look, unemployment isn’t easy. I know, I’ve been there too. It stinks and the feelings you have after losing your job are right up there with losing a close loved one in your life. But you can get through this without having your entire life fall apart.

  • Layoffs aren’t personal, although they often feel like they are.
  • Being upset with a layoff is normal, but don’t let your upset turn into obsession or depression.
  • Pessimism after a layoff is a dangerous vice; avoid stinkin’ thinkin’.
  • Don’t burn bridges; keep in touch with ex-coworkers you had good relationships with.
  • Work it out if you need references and set them up sooner rather than putting it off.
  • Focus on and plan for the career you want to have in the future, not the job you just lost.
  • Don’t put off being realistic with your finances and your own personal budget.
  • Explore all your options when it comes to unemployment and health insurance. Don’t dismiss any resources available to you out of pride or ignorance.
  • Be prepared to be in it for the long haul during tough economic times. This is a reflection of the poor economy, not your skills or abilities.
  • Stay positive as much as possible and keep an optimistic spirit. Set realistic job goals (sending out resumes, replying to classifieds, etc.), and stick to them.

Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, others will have an even more difficult time believing in you.