Opinion

Calgary psychologist gives advice on getting through the downturn

“Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves and that’s exactly what we need to do, for a while. It’s real, honest, and often warranted, too, because life is not fair.” Calgary psychologist Donna Sales on how we can best cope with the downturn. And how, “visiting self-pity for a while is okay, but we can’t stay there.”

Donna Sales looks at fear, pity, grief, and getting beyond it all

The downturn is stripping us down to the bare bones and exposing our vulnerability, says Donna Sales. (CBC)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The economy has a lot of people in our city hurting. And many are reaching out for help. We asked a Calgary psychologist to share the advice she's giving to people who are struggling with stress, grief and fear.

Change. It's inevitable and carries us into the unknown.

Sometimes it breezes through and we take it in stride. Other times it crashes in and knocks us down. Working hard, being a "good person" and doing things "right" does not make us immune to unwanted or unexpected events. Our control is limited.

With thousands of job losses in the oilpatch and more forecasted to come, Calgary's core has been gutted. The pain and loss reaches far beyond the bottom line into the hearts and homes of ordinary people. We have been hurt. We have been humbled.

Our hand has been forced and we must now walk the most difficult path in life — the path of uncertainty.

We need to accept this and ride the wave of change with an equal measure of prudence and hope. The energy industry, our city, is changing. This brings up many uncomfortable questions for Calgarians, including questions about identity.

If this province we live in is not a rich Alberta powered by a prosperous oil industry, what is it then? If I lose important and familiar things that are central to my life — my job, marriage, home, relationships — who am I and how do I find happiness and feel like I'm still a successful person?

There is no right or wrong way to adapt to the tides of change we are facing; people and circumstances are too complex and diverse for that.

But there are some ways of dealing with the change.

Face your fears

Visiting self-pity for a while is okay, but we can't stay there. Because if we do, it will rob us of our energy for life, says Donna Sales. (Shutterstock)

The downturn is stripping us down to the bare bones and exposing our vulnerability.

We are being called upon to face our fears and venture into unknown territory — both personally and professionally — we've never had to go before. Scary, yes, but it can be liberating, too. 

Facing the fear, naming it, and examining it, knocks the wind out of its sails.

Say you're fearful about losing your job in the oilpatch, and although you know more cutbacks are coming, it would still devastating if it happens. You can become increasingly concerned about how you would make ends meet. At the same time, the stress starts to impact your long-term relationship.

Nothing has happened yet, but the stress is real.

Because fear feasts on weary minds, bodies and spirits, you can eventually become immobilized by all this, begin to face sleepless nights and battles with self-doubt.

So here's what you can do.

Take a closer look at your fears. Examine each individually. 

We may live in a culture dominated by materialism and personal achievements, but our value and self worth is not dependent on how much money we have, how far up the corporate ladder we've climbed, or how busy we are, says Donna Sales. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Paying the bills. Saving for retirement. Finding another job. The impact on your relationships. How your lifestyle will change. And think about your options if your fears become reality. Also think about a 'worst case scenario' for each.

And then. Talk openly to the people in your life. And look to see what resources are available to you. Fear starts to loosen its grip and trust starts to build - trust that you can handle whatever the future brings. There's a lot of trouble around. No one is walking exactly your path, so remain true to who you are and what you need.

This 'being real' takes some courage. But honouring and accepting who we are is self-respecting and can be freeing, too. 

Stop and grieve

Calgarians are not affected equally by the layoffs.

Some of us are ready for a life transition. A change of jobs, retirement, going back to school, or leaving the city. For thousands of others, though, the losses cut deep. Some people have not only lost their jobs, but their homes, lifestyles, marriages, and other relationships too.

We are emotional beings and will at times feel tremendous pain and grief. When we are ready, honouring all our feelings is where we start in the grieving process. And while we grieve, it's critical that we are compassionate with ourselves and tend to our physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs.

This is also the time to call in reinforcements for support.

Although grieving is an individual process, it helps to not go through it alone. Calgary is packed with kind people. So reach out.

Choose your attitude

Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves and that's exactly what we need to do, for a while.

It's real, honest, and often warranted, too, because life is not fair.

Parents should be honest and open with their kids in these tough economic times, experts say. (Getty Images)

Visiting self-pity for a while is okay, but we can't stay there. Because if we do, it will rob us of our energy for life. It will trick us into thinking we are not capable of doing things. And it will chip away at our sense of personal power and responsibility.

Calgarians are being called upon right now to find calm in the storm.  How can we possibly be positive when there is so much to complain about?

We choose the lens through which we wish to see the world.

Attitude is a deeply personal choice and, aside from our thoughts and behaviours, one of the few things in life we have control over. Our attitude influences what we do, say, and how we say it. It also impacts how we feel about ourselves, others, and our circumstances. It can lift us up or bring us down.

The adaptable one

The person who responds to change by being flexible has an advantage over the person who does not.

CBC's Eve Savory's reported 33 years ago on unemployed Albertans who could find nowhere to turn. 2:39

Being open to new ideas and ways of doing things is a survival mechanism in today's economic climate.

Calgarians are changing jobs and industries, opening their own businesses, turning hobbies into money-making opportunities and going back to school or learning a new trade or skill. Many people have two or three part time jobs instead of one full time job. They are adapting to the economic tides of change.

No matter how dedicated or exceptional we are at our jobs, we are all expendable/replaceable. It's not personal, it's just business.

Our jobs do not define us, nor does our bank account, education or marital status. We may live in a culture dominated by materialism and personal achievements, but our value and self worth is not dependent on how much money we have, how far up the corporate ladder we've climbed, or how busy we are.

It's often times of crisis that get us asking questions like, 'What do I value most?' or 'What gives my life meaning?'. We all need to reflect on these questions.

Change changes us

Since the downturn, many Calgarians are simplifying their lives by changing homes, modes of transportation and lifestyles. When we simplify, it forces us to evaluate our lives, examine our core values, and decide what's most important to us.

It's an exercise in filtering out what we don't really need and this may even include people who bring us down or don't support us.

When the dust settles we may feel different than we did before it came knocking on our door. Being adaptable to change gives us the traction and leverage we need to journey forward in life.


CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Donna Sales

Calgary psychologist

Donna Sales is a Calgary registered psychologist and the founder of the website Hope Café: Brewing optimism 24 hours a day. She has previously appeared on CBC's Alberta at Noon.