Happiness shouldn't have to come at a price — at least, not always. Therapy, medications and gym memberships are powerful coping tools, but fortunately there are a number of free mental well-being tactics out there that also do the trick when you're struggling.
There's nothing wrong with asking for help or turning to outside resources for support. That's often the best option — and the first step to recovery — for some people, says Beth Jones*, a psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area. But you can also find ways to help yourself without relying on others (or to use in between therapy sessions).
"It's not that it can't be empowering when you have somebody guiding you. Obviously, I'm a therapist so I believe in therapy," Jones says. "But I also think that everybody has the capacity to tune in and identify things that can be helpful — and not so helpful — to themselves."
Figuring out what works for you is the first step. She suggests starting by thinking about yourself and "just getting curious about who you are and what makes you tick."
Intuition and trusting yourself are also important, because not all of the strategies in this list will apply to you. Everyone is wired differently, and what triggers you might not trigger someone else. If you've chosen the route of self-healing, take each of these recommendations with a grain of salt. "It's about making mindful choices about what works for you," Jones says.
These are not panaceas but rather suggestions and ideas. Figuring out if they work for you is half the battle.
1. Find Your Online Tribe
The Internet can be a nasty place sometimes, but it can also provide a lot of comfort and solace for free. Connecting with people online who are going through similar struggles can be both a consoling and humbling experience.
Reddit can be a surprisingly supportive place to do this, especially if you post in mental-health-focused subreddits like True Off My Chest, Self or Forever Alone Together. There are also free apps you can download like MindShift, which teaches relaxation skills, and Positive Activity Jackpot, which encourages those immobilized by depression to partake in activities.
2. Strike Up a Conversation
Whether you're baring your soul or just discussing the weather, talking with others can make you feel more connected and involved. Even striking up a group chat with your friends is a great way to feel less alone.
If you need professional support, there are free hotlines you can call like the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline. Hate talking on the phone? You can also send a message to the Crisis Text Line, which provides support from highly trained counselors for no fee.
3. Change the Sounds Around You
Whether you're turning on a water fountain or streaming playlists from YouTube, the sounds around you can have a great impact on your mental health. The trick, Jones says, is figuring out what kind of sounds to play at a particular moment. "Do you need music that tends to mobilize you because you're feeling pretty immobilized by depression? Be mindful of what sounds you are inviting in."
In that case, you might opt for an upbeat playlist of your favorite songs. On the other hand, if you're feeling stressed on anxious and need to calm down, you might want to try ASMR YouTube videos, where you can listen to soft, whispered voices calmly talk you down.
4. Spend Time in Nature
Being outdoors can help you unwind, relieving stress and ultimately improving your mental well-being in the long-run. "It gives us perspective, and that, in turn, can be calming," Jones says.
In Japan, there's even a term for going out in nature with the explicit intention of unwinding and self-healing. It's called forest bathing. Think of it as part hiking, part moving meditation. The destination isn't important, just that you take time to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world.
Read more: What Is Forest Bathing and How Do You Do It?
5. Write It Out
Unloading your thoughts on paper can be an effective way to declutter your mind and gain perspective. If you're prone to judging your writing, Jones suggests starting with a bullet point list or just free associating on a page.
"Journaling can be a total release for some people, and for others, it can evoke a rumination process," she says. "So again, it's just about tuning into one's intuition on whether or not something is helpful for you."
6. Get Crafty
Practice mindfulness by engaging "in a rhythmic, tactile activity" that involves using your body to make or do things, Jones says. She suggests activities like coloring, drawing, knitting or even origami which have been proven to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
7. Laugh More
Even if you have to force it at first, laughing will help make you feel better. It releases endorphins, which make you feel good and give you short-term relief from tension and worry. If there's a certain movie or comedian that always makes you laugh, Jones suggests watching until you've jump-started the good feelings.
8. Have a Spa Day at Home
Forget about booking a facial or going to the nail salon; you can do all of that at home. "Sometimes people associate self-care with a lot of money or a lot of time, but it can be low cost," Jones says. "And it can be incredibly simple, like having a bottle of lotion that you like the smell of and just making a point of smelling it a few times a day." Pampering yourself can transform not just the way you look, but the way you feel about yourself, too.
9. Choose a Mantra
Repeating a phrase or series of words in your head throughout the day is one of the simplest ways to change your mindset. The key, Jones says, is picking a positive message for yourself that's not too lofty or impersonal.
"It doesn't need to be 'I am the King of the world.' It can be something much smaller than that, like 'I am doing the very best I can.' Or 'I am really trying.' Choose something you know to actually be true in your bones."
10. Organize Your Space
When your room is a mess, the chaos can affect your mood — and not in a positive way. Organizing your space and putting things away can be "spiritually and psychologically cleansing," Jones says.
And you don't have to stop there. "If you have some emotionally charged experience happen in your space, or if you're just in an emotionally charged place in your head, rearranging your furniture can be a way to totally change those negative associations."
11. Put Down Your Phone
You've probably already heard that being on your phone before bedtime can make it hard for you to fall asleep. "It's really not good for the brain or for our minds," Jones says. Practicing no screen time at least an hour before you go to bed is a good way to ensure you get the best sleep possible. And practicing periods of no phone usage during the day wouldn't hurt either.
Read more: 10 Tech Habits That Are Damaging Your Health
12. Soak Up the Silence
Not talking can help recharge the mind and repair the body. Practicing periods of silence has been shown to lower blood pressure and stimulate new cell growth in the part of the brain linked to learning, remembering and emotions. Jones cautions against prolonged silence for extroverts, though, who thrive on interaction with others.
But if you're somebody who finds the quiet calming, building periods of not talking into your self-care routine is a great idea. If it seems too hard to pull off in your everyday life, Jones suggests waking up early or staying up late to have some quiet time to yourself.
*Name has been changed per her request.