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Simple Ways to Improve Your Mental Health Without Therapy

When therapy is out of your reach, try these helpful tips to enhance your mental well-being.

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Therapy is expensive. Sliding scale payments, insurance and online therapy options can make it more affordable, but the fact is, therapy is still out of reach for a lot of people. Traditional therapy can cost anywhere from $100 to $200 per session without insurance.

Online therapy services like BetterHelp and Talkspace have made therapy more affordable, at around $60 to $90 per session. Still, of the one in five adults who live with mental illness, only 20% were in treatment in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Therapy is the gold standard for mental health treatment. But sometimes, therapy isn't available, whether because of location or finances. Thankfully, there are things you can do to improve your mental health without spending money.

Use mental health apps to track daily progress

Mental health apps offer resources to people who otherwise couldn't get them. While they're not a substitute for therapy and can't diagnose conditions, mental health apps like Moodfit and Sanvello are great tools to use on your mental wellness journey. The best mental health apps will help you relieve stress and anxiety and teach you how to manage symptoms in the future. 

There's a lot of variety in what these apps offer and the features that are built in. Many offer a great catalog of educational resources to help you learn about conditions and adapt coping strategies to manage them daily. 

Mental health apps can also be a reminder to check in on yourself. Most send push notifications throughout the day, which can be used as an indicator to stop and assess how you're feeling. 

Young woman lounging in bed, scrolling through her phone.
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Implement cognitive behavioral therapy strategies on your own

Cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly used to treat depression, anxiety and addiction. CBT strategies and tools are intended to be taken outside of therapy sessions and used in daily life. 

It's called self-directed therapy. Again, it isn't a replacement for traditional therapy with a professional, but it can supplement your mental health efforts when you don't have access to talk therapy. This self-help strategy is best reserved for those with moderate symptoms that don't affect daily tasks.

A systematic review of 33 studies found that self-help treatments can decrease anxiety and depression. Self-directed therapy results were "moderate," according to the review. So people didn't feel 100% better, but they reported feeling less anxious or depressed. If you're interested in self-directed therapy strategies to improve your mental well-being, we recommend checking out the Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies list of books. The books on the list have received a "seal of merit." 

Common self-directed therapy techniques:

  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings and reflecting on them can help you identify negative thoughts and behavior patterns. Once you're aware, you can take meaningful steps toward making changes. 
  • Guided courses: With self-directed therapy, you have to start somewhere. Guided courses can help you learn methods and tactics for daily management. You can consult the National Alliance on Mental Illness for its mental health education directory
  • Mental health apps: Many mental health apps use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to reduce anxiety and help manage symptoms
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Stay connected to others

It's important to connect with other people, especially those experiencing similar things. Studies show that connecting to others can provide a sense of meaning and purpose and decrease loneliness. Group therapy or support groups are typically led by a mental health professional or group leader and can be low-cost or free. Whether it be friends, family or strangers, sharing your feelings and experiences is essential.

You also can use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website to locate community resources near you.

Connections with people aren't the only ones that can help improve your mental health. Pets and animals can reduce stress and anxiety levels. Take some intentional time to hang out with your pet -- play with your dog, hug your cat. If you don't have a pet, you can volunteer at a local animal shelter or humane society. Fostering or pet-sitting animals is also an option. 

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Meditation has a history that stretches back thousands of years, but it's become an extremely popular stress-relieving practice in the last few. Mindfulness helps you become more attuned to what you're feeling and thinking, which helps you manage your thoughts and emotions more effectively, rather than becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness uses techniques like meditation and breathwork to improve your mental health.

Mindfulness can help you manage symptoms of anxiety and other mental health disorders by helping you understand and cope with what you're feeling. Studies show that meditation can help reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety and help you sleep. The focus is on mind and body integration, which can help you enhance your mental well-being. 

You can also use meditation apps to reduce stress and help maintain your mindfulness regimen. These free or low-cost apps are great for beginners. 

Read more: Headspace Review: Get Tools for Mindfulness, Meditation and More for Just $5 a Month

Other practical tips to improve your mental health without therapy:

  • Exercise: Several mental health benefits are associated with exercise, like relieving anxiety or improving your mood. Exercise also can boost your confidence and release endorphins. You don't have to jump straight into heavy lifting; any exercise can help. 
  • Go outside and soak up the sun: Sunlight boosts serotonin in the brain, which can improve your mood. When you don't get enough sun, your serotonin levels drop, leading to seasonal affective disorder.
  • Prioritize your sleep: Poor sleep is linked to a greater risk of anxiety or depression, poor mood and higher stress levels. Prioritize your sleep by sticking to your bedtime routine -- get ready for bed by doing something relaxing, aim for the same bedtime each night and turn off your screens. 
  • Take a step back from social media: Constant social media use can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. A digital detox may be warranted if you compare yourself to others online or notice a dip in your mental health. Start by limiting your time on social media. Then, try to fill that time with things you enjoy or people you like spending time with.
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When should I see a therapist?

Self-directed therapy and well-being tactics are extremely useful, but they're not the be-all and end-all in mental health. Face time with a licensed therapist is essential for those with severe conditions and symptoms. 

The first thing you should do is check your insurance. Employer-provided insurance and Medicaid may cover screenings, psychotherapy and counseling. Your insurance coverage will depend on your state and your health plan, but many plans include mental health coverage for in-network therapists. 

Read more: How to Find the Best Therapist Near You

Your finances shouldn't stop you from getting the help you need. It may take some research into therapists and programs, but there are low-cost options. 

  • Sliding scale payments: Some therapists offer sliding scale fees -- you pay what you can afford. The cost will be based on your income. Not all therapists offer this, but many do. 
  • Low-cost or free services: Some therapists offer low-cost or free counseling for individual and group sessions. If you live near a college or university, the graduate department may offer free or discounted therapy sessions. 
  • Community health centers: Community mental health centers assist those in surrounding areas. 
  • Local and online support groups: Local organizations and volunteers in many areas offer support groups for things like grief and addiction. Use Mental Health America's list of support groups to find one that best fits your needs. You can participate in a peer-led support group through the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

See also

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.