While some coping strategies to improve your mental health can be costly, fortunately, there are plenty of ways to cater to your mental wellbeing that won't require you to whip out your wallet.
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Devoting energy toward your mental wellbeing is truly time well-spent. It's not just a matter of lifting your mood — your mental health is tightly linked to your physical health, too, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And your mental wellbeing affects everything from how you form relationships to how you handle life's stressors, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
That is, if you spend time improving your mental wellbeing, you'll take a powerful step toward achieving your full potential. We've rounded up free tools and research-backed techniques to help you rest, recover and recharge without spending money — and often, without even leaving your home.
1. Get Moving
No surprise here — exercise is just as good for your mind as it is for your body.
Exercise has been found to lower stress, possibly by decreasing systemic inflammation in the body, according to an April 2019 study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Those feel-good endorphins that release during a workout may help ease symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, as well as upping your self-confidence, per the Mayo Clinic.
And you don't have to be a marathon runner or HIIT enthusiast to reap the mental health benefits that accompany exercise. It can be as easy as a walk around the block, says Marsha D. Brown, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
"Even if you don't love exercise, there are plenty of relatively easy (and free!) ways to sneak it into your routine," Brown says. "Just going for a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood can help clear and reset your mind."
Simple Ways to Move More
2. Connect With Others
Everyday moments of social connection — like a walk with a neighbor, a thriving group text with your family or a weekly happy hour with work colleagues — can play an important role in your health.
By spending time with friends, you'll feel happier and reduce your stress, per the Mayo Clinic. Friends can be an antidote to loneliness. And, these social connections are also beneficial for your physical health, helping to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and other health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Even if you can't get together in person, connecting online or over the phone still offers mental health benefits, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
"Sharing thoughts and experiences with trusted others is validating and provides an easy and cost-free way of engaging in a self-care activity," Mendez says.
3. Listen to Music
You know that feeling when your favorite song comes on? Music can be a real mood-lifter.
"If you're feeling lethargic or stressed out, listening to music can definitely help you decrease anxiety and clear your mind," Brown says.
The best music to boost your mood is whatever genre makes you feel good. Self-selected pieces of music brought on the most joy and mood improvement for participants in an October 2017 study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.
Make a Playlist
To be ready to battle your next bad mood, Brown suggests making a feel-good playlist. “Think about the songs that lift your mood anytime you hear them,” Brown says.
You can also make a calming playlist to reduce stress or anxiety. Fill it with classical music or nature sounds.
4. Breathe Deep
The benefits of a deep breath are often overlooked. Slow, diaphragmatic breathing — where your stomach expands out as you inhale — may reduce the feelings and physiological consequences of stress, such as blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, per a September 2019 review in the journal JBI Evidence Synthesis.
"Deep breathing is a great way to reduce stress and be more present, which can help boost mental health," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
Free breathing apps or online guided breathing videos can help you get the biggest benefit of your deep breaths by helping you focus on technique, form and timing.
Try These Breathing Exercises
5. Get Into Nature
Spending time in nature can improve your wellbeing, too. Elements of nature — specifically being in the presence of vegetation or hearing birds — were positively associated with lower amounts of stress, anxiety and depression, according to a February 2017 study in the journal BioScience.
Incorporate Nature in Your Day
You don’t have to go backpacking into the forest to get nature’s mood-boosting benefits. Try eating lunch in the park, or sitting in your backyard if you have one.
6. Embrace Downtime
In our always-on, hyper-productive society, slowing down can seem nearly impossible, and to some, almost irresponsible, but downtime is vital to a healthy mental outlook.
"When we're under excessive stress, our nervous system doesn't have time to naturally bring us back down," explains Glenna Anderson, DSW, a clinical social worker in Torrance, California.
By slowing down and intentionally decompressing, "you manually help your body reset to its resting phase," Anderson says.
That's good for your health. When your body is under chronic stress with the "fight-or-flight" mechanism constantly on, elevated cortisol levels and heart rate can lead to health issues like high blood pressure and a suppressed immune system, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Carve Out Time to Relax
Schedule "white space" in your calendar, Anderson suggests. “This means you intentionally write time into your day where you are not required to do anything — not taking care of another person, working, conducting business,” she says. When you schedule downtime into your schedule, you give yourself permission to rest and renew.
7. Get the Giggles
While laughter isn't exactly medicine, it is an easy way to boost your mood.
Even a forced giggle may be able to improve your sense of wellbeing, according to a July 2019 study in Social Science and Medicine, which found that "simulated" laughter was even more effective at mood-boosting than spontaneous laughter.
Getting the giggles can mitigate the effects of stress by decreasing the amount of stress-making hormones in the blood, per a July 2016 article in the Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine.
The long-term benefits of laughter may include improved immunity, pain relief and a better ability to handle the stresses of life, according to the Mayo Clinic. Focus on opportunities to laugh, and you'll be able to "take the opportunity to momentarily free the mind of real-life stress," Mendez says.
Get Inspired to Laugh
Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to look hard to find your next laugh — try these options:
- Stream stand-up specials from your favorite comedian
- Find amusing celebrity memes or animal videos
- Search up a clip from your favorite funny movie
- Google “dad jokes”
8. Write It Down
Unloading your thoughts on paper can help you declutter your mind and gain perspective.
"Taking the thoughts from mind to paper helps someone actually process what has been stuck in the mind," Lombardo says. "Often this provides a new perspective on an old issue."
Journaling can allow you to engage in the mindful processing of your thoughts and experiences, Mendez says.
"The idea is to relax with your thoughts and experiences and allow yourself to process the positive as well as the negatives of the day."
How to Start Journaling
There's no "right" way to journal, but here are few ideas to get you started:
- Keep a list of your emotions at the end of each day
- Write pages cataloging your feelings about your interactions and experiences
- Jot down things you're grateful for
9. Be Thankful
The simple act of thinking about things that you are thankful for can have very real benefits for your mental health.
Practicing gratitude led to lower levels of self-reported stress and loneliness for participants in an October 2018 study in Psychology, Health and Medicine.
And even better than just thinking about your gratitudes is writing them down. Participants who wrote letters of thanks and gratitude reported significantly better mental health than those who just journaled about the weeks or talked with a therapist, according to a July 2015 study in the journal Psychotherapy Research.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Mental Health and Mental Disorders"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Mental Health"
- Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology: "Differential Reduction of IP-10 and C-Reactive Protein via Aerobic Exercise or Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction Training in a Large Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Mayo Clinic: "Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms"
- Mayo Clinic: "Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health"
- International Journal of Psychophysiology: "The joy of heartfelt music: An examination of emotional and physiological responses"
- JBI Evidence Synthesis: "Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review"
- BioScience: "Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature "
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response"
- Social Science & Medicine: "Laughter-inducing therapies: Systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine: "Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stress relief from laughter? It's no joke"
- Psychology, Health & Medicine: "Psychosocial health mediates the gratitude-physical health link"
- Psychotherapy Research: "Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial"