"People go into this analysis paralysis and think of all the reasons they shouldn't be looking for another job," says 33-year-old career and life coach Josephine Rotolo. "Yes, there's a lot of stress, and obviously sadness, for people who have lost jobs. But at the same time, a lot of people are taking stock of their lives and reevaluating where they are and where they want to be. The only way to battle fear is to come up with some kind of action plan."

"If you feel that you can't move within your organization because it's in contraction, think about what you can take charge of," Gerberg says. "Volunteer for something. Take on a project. What I've seen over the years is that as soon as I can get people into action, in one place or another, they start feeling better and start giving off energy at work."

As anyone with an appetite for risk suspects, now may be the perfect time to start your own business. One of the most beloved maxims in commerce—"Buy low, sell high"—applies not only to investments in the stock market but also to those in bargain-basement real estate and tech start-ups. "Don't only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the cost of inaction," says Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek. "If you don't pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years? This period of collective panic is your big chance to dabble."

Raj Abhyanker, 34, a Silicon Valley lawyer, launched a website called Patent Express in May. His goal is to streamline the patent process for budding entrepreneurs, and he's banking on a bumper crop, especially in western innovation hubs like Seattle, Portland, and the Bay Area. "When people are unemployed, they have the best ideas, because they get scrappy and think outside the box," he says. "There's a lot more people hanging out in espresso bars chatting about start-ups, and the conversations always revolve around something new, something that they think is going to change the world. I was at Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Santa Clara three days ago, and I was just sitting there waiting for my drink and this guy next to me started telling me about his start-up."

If there's a lesson from the economic pullbacks of the past, it's that at least one of those laptop-and-cappuccino dreamers could wind up creating the next Google—while you, hoarding paper clips in the safety of your air-conditioned cubicle, are doomed to miss out. In 1994, companies like Yahoo!, Netscape, and Amazon.com were gearing up on the launchpad, poised to skyrocket when the Internet went mainstream. "I actually believe this is one of the best times to start a company, because of the discipline that it forces from an operational standpoint," says Brogan Keane, the 43-year-old founder of Fuego Nation, a social-networking site that he recently launched with six employees. "You tend to work with smaller amounts of money. You have people who feel like they're lucky to have any job."