When You Can’t Afford Therapy - 10 Ways to Boost Mental Health without a Therapist
Updated: Mar 9
This is perhaps my longest post yet, but it’s one that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time! I really feel for folks who are stretched financially or who live in an area where there are no therapy resources. While I’m a biased advocate for therapy, therapy is just one way of boosting your mental health. If you are unable to access therapy just yet, here are some tips to improve emotional/mental wellness.
DISCLAIMER: This post is meant to review ways on improving overall mental health. It does not address or speak to mental health crises. While the tips in this post are meant to act as recommendations for improving overall mental wellness, these alone will not be enough for a mental health crisis. If you are in a mental health crisis, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
TIP #1: Prioritize self-care like your life depends on it…because it does!
There are three basic health areas that I like to check-in with clients about to get a good picture of their overall health approach:
I would say sleep is a top issue that comes up, and people often forget that good sleep is a fundamental need to support good health. Check out my blog post on sleep hygiene tips if you would like more information on getting a good night’s rest. Ensuring that you are fueling your body properly may also help you to maintain overall wellness. For example, if you notice some stress and anxiety, and have been drinking more caffeinated beverages than usual, try to replace it with herbal tea or water. The CDC also recommends about 30 minutes per day of physical activity to support overall wellness.
If you’re struggling to adequately meet any of these three needs, try scheduling or planning out these things. Set a bedtime and wake-up alarm (and stick to it!) so that you are getting an adequate night’s rest. Schedule your workouts, even if you can only commit to 10 to 20 minutes a day. There are plenty of short workout videos on Youtube that require no equipment. Plan out healthy meals and snacks so that you know that when it’s time to eat, you have nutritious food to rely on.
TIP #2: Set healthy boundaries with others
I really love how Ida Soghomomian defines boundaries in this post: “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.” Without boundaries, we may start to feel fatigued, resentful, and burned out.
I find assertiveness skills to be a great way to identify what’s important to someone, as well as what boundaries might need to be in place to help them to feel better. When teaching assertiveness, one of my favorite I-statements to use is this: “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. I need ___.”
Or more specifically: "I feel [emotion(s)] when [specific behavior or event is happening] because [describe the impact]. I need [specific request or boundary]."
“I feel resentful when doing the chores by myself because I feel like I’m being taken for granted. I need for us to discuss fair chore expectations.”
“I feel exhausted when I’m asked to work overtime because I’m not devoting as much time to myself or my family. I need to say ‘no’ to overtime, and I need to have that ‘no’ respected.”
“I feel hurt when you raise your voice or yell at me because I find it disrespectful. I need you to use a calmer and more respectful tone with me.”
TIP #3: Set healthy boundaries with yourself
Again, try to use the above I-statement to identify what you’re feeling, what events are prompting those emotions, what the impact is, and what your needs are. If you notice that you’re feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, or even burned out, it might be time to set healthy boundaries with yourself.
“I feel anxious when I overspend because I’m left feeling insecure about my finances. I need to stick to my budget and work on curbing impulse purchases.”
“I feel exhausted when I don’t get enough sleep because I can’t function as well at work. I need to go to bed on time tonight.”
TIP #4: Evaluate where your time, money, and energy are going
As an exercise in building awareness, try spending one full week (or even one full month) tracking your time and your spending/saving habits. Even for those who think they have time management and budgeting skills down, you’d be surprised how much time and money you’re spending on the things that do not bring much value to your life.
If you find yourself spending time on things that you want to cut back on, such as scrolling through your phone for hours, try to put a time limit on that activity and/or replace it with something else. For example, if you value health or quality family time, take a walk with your kids or partner. The same technique may be applied to our spending habits. If you’re spending a large amount of money on takeout, and you’d like to cut back for health and financial reasons, try to find a replacement. Either find a cheaper/healthier option, or cook the dish from scratch at home.
As you make these small changes, notice whether there is a change in your energy levels. At the very least, you’ll feel some wiggle room in your time and financial budgets.
TIP #5: Build up and access a solid support network
I think this area is particularly challenging for folks who (1) are in a location where they are quite isolated from friends and family and/or (2) are dealing with depression and struggling to connect. Mayo Clinic has an article that speaks to the emotional, mental, and even physical benefits of having a solid support system.
Some tips for accessing and maintaining your current support system include:
Staying in touch with friends and family via text, phone calls, email, or even social media posts
Accepting help when friends or family offer it
Expressing gratitude/appreciation for your friends and family
Reciprocating support by offering a listening ear or help when you can
Some ideas for building up or expanding your support system include:
Taking a course at a local college (in-person is better, but online works as well)
Joining a gym, fitness class, or exercise group
Joining a support group (in-person or online)
Starting or joining a book club (or other hobby-oriented group)
Introducing yourself to your neighbors
Meeting coworkers outside of work
Joining a professional organization
NOTE: If you recognize that a relationship isn’t working for you, refer to the tips on boundaries. It might be that limits need to be set, or it might even be that the relationship has to end.
TIP #6: Journal
Journaling can act as a great “container” for processing. (Kind of like therapy without the presence of the therapist.) Anytime something distressing, overwhelming, or troubling comes up, take some time to write about it in a journal. You can limit this time if needed, say, to a 5- to 20-minute writing session. When done, mindfully close the journal and put it in some place private like a night table drawer. You may even do a self-soothing activity after writing.
If narrative writing isn’t your thing, I highly recommend bullet journaling. It’s a process that I use myself whenever I need to list out anything on my mind. If you already have a bullet journal, challenge yourself to write out helpful collections such as a gratitude list or a list of self-care activities that you like.
TIP #7: Practice daily gratitude
Practicing daily gratitude can help to combat negative thinking and give ourselves an emotional boost. Practicing gratitude continues to be a scientifically proven means of enhancing overall health and building resilience in tough situations. Referencing a gratitude list may also provide a change in perspective when we’re feeling low energy or really down. In a previous post on gratitude, I share a few ideas such as journaling, thoughtful gestures, and mindfulness. Find what works for you, and take a few minutes a day to note what you are grateful for.
TIP #8: Access mental health resources through work
See if your employer offers mental health services through its Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAP resources might include wellness benefits such as covered short-term therapy sessions. Ask your colleagues, boss, or a staff member in Human Resources for more information. If the company offers wellness days in which they encourage you to take time off, please take them!
If work is the issue, and you are working in a toxic environment that is making your stress and mental health worse, I encourage you to seek out other employment. No job is worth the toll on one’s health. When searching for work, be choosy about the benefits (including mental health services) that the company offers.
TIP #9: Research what free/low-cost mental health resources are available in your community
While Google can help to narrow down local services, using it unfortunately forces one to go through unnecessary ads for mental health services that may not be within one’s budget. Try to narrow down the search to your local Department of Health Services to see recommended resources in the area. As an example, Sacramento has a Community Support Team that supports folks with accessing available services.
If you cannot access cheap/free therapy services, try calling a warmline for a supportive listening ear, or even a hotline if you’re needing more immediate support. If you’re a student, try to see if your school has free mental health counseling or information. If you’re a member of a church, sometimes the church is able to support with linkage (and occasionally may cover the cost of a limited number of sessions) to a therapist.
TIP #10: Invest in activities or projects that help you to feel better
Sometimes we have our blah days where we need to lay in bed and scroll through our phones. (Being lazy is literally my favorite activity!) However, if we’re feeling down, unaccomplished, or have a sense of wanting to do something to boost our mood, try asking yourself what you need.
Practice the phrase: "If there is one thing I accomplish today that I know will help me to feel better, it's ______."
This could be as small as decluttering for 10 minutes, taking a shower, or eating a healthy meal. You might do something bigger such as cleaning your home, sitting down to search for a more fulfilling job, or going on a hike. Notice that all of these activities are free(ish) and within your control. I encourage you to invest in YOU.