What are you supposed to do if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis and you don’t have a therapist? Or money for healthcare? Or supportive parents? Or transportation and time off to visit a doctor? Or like, the ability to shower and leave the house?
We see you.
Whether you have a serious diagnosed condition, or you’re just feeling stressed or blue, this list details free steps that you can take immediately that might help mitigate your circumstances. Nothing on here is revolutionary. Nothing here will “cure” you of whatever ails you. You cannot solve mental health problems with rationalizing and motivation. But because most of such struggles are chronic, it helps to have a sizable toolbox of behaviors to turn to.
Here’s what we’ve got.
- Drink a glass of water. Don’t gulp it down, drink it sip by sip.
- Eat something. It doesn’t have to be a whole meal. A banana or a granola bar is great. Maybe avoid super salty or sugary stuff. Unless you’re in a place where you need to drive to Five Guys in your pajamas with no shoes on because I have been there.
- Stretch and change your position. If you’ve been standing and moving, try sitting or lying down—and vice versa. Stretch like a bear awakening from hibernation. Even if you don’t feel like you have to, your limbs will appreciate it.
- Get some light. If your blinds are drawn, pull them up. If you’re in a dark room, move to a lighter room. If it’s possible to put sun on your skin, do so. Your poor brain is confused; help her out by having lights on in the day and off at night.
- Get some fresh air. If you can go for a walk, awesome. If not, just stand outside for a moment. Breathe deeply and listen to the sounds you don’t usually notice: birds singing, wind moving, cars going by.
- If that’s too much: Open the windows if the weather is nice. If the weather’s not nice, just open them for a minute or two. Light a scented candle.
- Move your body. Walks are a solid response to basically all feelings and situations. If you have the energy and focus to do more (go to the gym, go for a run), do that. Exercise almost always helps improve and stabilize moods.
- If that’s too much: Put a time limit on it. Tell yourself “I only have to do this for five minutes, and if I want to stop after that, I can.” The hardest part is to get going. Once you’re there, you may decide you can continue after all. In any case, you have permission to stop.
- Don’t do anything dangerous. If you’re experiencing severe anxiety or depression, please don’t get into a car or operate heavy machinery.
- Give yourself new physical stimuli on which to focus. Urges to self-harm can be safely battled with an abrupt temperature change. Running an ice cube on your hands is free. So is standing in your parking lot until you’re so cold reality must be real! Strong flavors can also work. Try carrying mints and eating one slowly. (This can also help stimulate your appetite if it’s nonexistent.)
- Play a simple mind game. One reader suggested Name Five. Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This is an extremely effective way to ground yourself.
- Dedicate your attention to something else. See if you can stabilize yourself by concentrating on meaningful work or play. Work on writing, building, or creating something. I have an entire drawer of coloring books for when I need to keep my hands busy but my mind quiet.
- If that’s too much: If all you can do is lay there, find a way to make the laying there positive, productive, and/or distracting. Put on a movie. Listen to a podcast. Play an audiobook. Find the sweet spot of earnest and engrossing, but not too overwhelming or heavy—anything that embraces Emotions n’ Real Shit without dwelling on it in an unhelpful way. Ted Talks are a great way to think about thoughts.
- Be kind to someone else. Do you know someone who might be feeling overwhelmed and isolated? Someone who just started a new job or moved? A grad student or new parent? Text them and ask them how it’s going. Most people are really touched to know someone is thinking of them.
- If that’s too much: Pick a not-famous person you follow online and pay them a true and deserved compliment. “I just want to tell you how much I love your [posts/photography/style/whatever]. I think you’re so talented and I always look forward to more of your content.” Don’t worry that you’re bothering them. As a not-famous person who does occasionally get this kind of message from readers, boy let me tell you: it makes me smile from ear to ear and puts a spring in my step for the rest of the day. Just knowing you’ve given someone else encouragement can suffuse your being with much-needed warm good-feels.
- Say the way you feel out loud to yourself. “I feel like shit” is a fine place to start.
- If something happened that led to your current feelings, articulate it and remember it. This is a pretty good way to identify what can trigger your symptoms, if you haven’t already. This information is incredibly powerful.
- Tell someone you can trust. If you have a supportive partner or friend with a sympathetic ear, tell them what you just told yourself.
- If that’s too much: Get thee to Tumblr. It is full of people who are enormously willing to listen to other people’s experiences and offer them validation. The right subreddit also works.
- Ask for what you need. When I text Piggy about a problem, she often asks, “Do you need Sympathetic Piggy or Drill Sergeant Piggy?” I can’t tell you what an asset it is to get to choose! When others want to help you, tell them what you need. “I just want you to know, that’s all… I just wanted to say it out loud… Can you give me a kick in the pants?… It’s pretty serious and I think I need help.” That makes you much more likely to get the kind of support you need.
- Make a playlist that transitions from your current mood to the mood you want to be in. Don’t jump right into good-mood music! It will sound completely foreign and inaccessible. My go-to anti-depression playlist starts out here, goes here, and eventually pushes all the way here.
- Remind yourself that your brain is an imperfect organ. We wrote a whole article about this! Remind yourself that your big brain is often wrong. The source of your symptoms might not be anything more than a chemical imbalance.
- Follow your own logic. It’s amazing how good our brains are at running worst-case scenarios with no regard for logic or probability. So let them run. “I’m worried that if this thing happens, it means these other things will happen, and I’ll die alone, unmourned by anyone.” Now rewrite it, accounting for both realism and your own resilience. “If this thing happens, these other things might happen, but they might not; and if they do, I’ll deal with them.”
- Scrutinize the recent past for potential triggers. Sometimes I feel fucking miserable for no reason—when I suddenly remember that I’m due for my period. Or I realize that a theme in the book I was reading spoke to some past trauma. Or I remember that it’s the dead of winter and I’m very prone to seasonal mood changes. Knowing that your feelings have a source can bring a sense of relief, because it makes them more rational and predictable. Making a written account (either on paper or in your phone) can be very helpful if you can’t find a pattern.
- Weaponize humor. Honestly, nothing helps me more than this. Cracking some dark-ass jokes about mental health struggles can completely change the dynamic. It simultaneously releases pressure, minimizes the problem (in a helpful way), and helps me feel more powerful and in-control of my experiences.
- Find the language to describe what you’re feeling. Assuming that you are not the kind of person who reads WebMD to self-diagnose a yeast infection and comes away convinced you have cancer, researching your symptoms can be very empowering. You may not correctly diagnose yourself, but just finding the language to describe your experiences can give you a foothold on Shit Mountain.
- Ask yourself if what you’re doing is making you feel better. This tends to work when I’m feeling low for a very, very good reason. If I have something to feel bad about, I’m going to feel bad no matter what. Lying on the couch doesn’t actually make me feel better, and reminding myself of that helps. This doesn’t have to look like action, though. If lying in the fetal position is making you feel better, that’s okay. Keep doing that.
- Beat yourself up. Okay, I hesitate to include this because you’re probably already beating yourself up. But it sometimes helps me to just let my inner critic loose. She’s amazing. She’s a cunning, hyper-ambitious boss bitch armed with thirty-one years of embarrassing personal information and sometimes she’s really had it with me. “Enough, you lazy piece of shit! You’re a graphic designer, not a heroine in a Victorian tragic romance. Get your ass up off your fainting couch and take the trash cans to the curb like every other adult on the street.” Again, this might make some people feel worse, so use discretion!
- Be nice to yourself. The opposite tactic. Pick a body part that you don’t like, and force yourself to say something nice about it. “My belly is big but it works hard digesting all my food.” (One of our beta readers submitted “my chest is hairy but the hair is soft” and I died laughing.) Sometimes I stand naked in front of a full-length mirror, slap random swaths of my body, and say, “Damn, you’re hot as hell.” It is surprisingly effective!?
- Socialize. Maybe you have an invitation to a friend’s birthday party, and maybe you’re not feeling up to it—go anyway. If it’s not enjoyable, you can put in an appearance, then make an excuse and leave early. There’s a chance that being surrounded by your chosen family for a few hours will make everything feel easier. Isolation is great fuel for depression and anxiety.
- If that’s too much: As much as humanly possible, limit your exposure to people who aren’t supportive. You don’t need their bullshit on top of everything else. You’re bound to get lots of unsolicited advice, and much of it will be bad, so remember this: “If I don’t want your life, I don’t take your advice.” (And y’all want my life, trust and believe. My house is a foster home for wayward queer and/or disabled people cum petting zoo, and it has impeccable paint colors.)
- Make a to-do list for the day. Mental health issues can make it hard to stay focused. And written goals are much more likely to be achieved.
- If that’s too much: I didn’t say they had to be hard. I put easy things I’ve already done onto my to-do list all the time. Just being able to cross something off gives me a sense of momentum.
Go through the motions
- Wake up. Too much sleep can actually increase feelings of fatigue. So set an alarm and do your best to get out of bed after eight hours.
- If that’s too much: If you can’t be very active, at least go to a room that isn’t your bedroom, or a surface that isn’t your bed.
- Go to sleep. Too little sleep is just as bad. Try to arrange your schedule so that you’re getting a full eight hours every day. I found this free sleep app to be extremely useful in helping me understand my body’s natural sleep rhythm. Setting an alarm to remind you to go to bed is a good idea for night owls.
- If that’s too much: If you’re having a hard time falling asleep, try lying in the dark with no screens for twenty minutes while a free white noise app plays rainstorms or whatever. If you’re still awake twenty minutes later, get up and do something until you’re ready to try again.
- Get dressed. Clothing can really shape your mentality. If you find it hard to relax, get into some comfy, loose-fitting pajamas; if you can’t get going, put on some real grown-up, outside clothes.
- Take a shower. Hygiene is often the first thing to go for mentally troubled people. It’s a crying shame because showers and baths feel very nice and make it much easier to feel ready to function in the world.
- If that’s too much: Pick one body part, and just focus on that. Wash your hands with a bunch of good-smelling soap, and scrape the gunk out from under your nails. If you like the way that makes you feel, move on to other parts of your body. If you have long hair, brush it and put it in a braid. It’ll keep it from getting all tangled and gnarly if you can’t brush it again for a while. Invest in mouthwash, wipes, and dry shampoo if they’re easier than brushing, showering, and washing.
- Refresh your space. Messy, dirty surroundings can pile on additional stress. So do what you can. Do the dishes, do the laundry, wipe down surfaces, vacuum, clean your sheets.
- If that’s too much: Make your bed. Fluff your pillows, smooth your blankets, brush any crumbs or hair away, and enjoy the way it feels to sit on a nice, fresh bed.
- Throw some shit away. Man, I don’t know what it is, but everyone I personally know who’s gone through significant childhood trauma just loves throwing shit away. Maybe it’s because a lot of us also had a parent who hoarded? The catharsis is real. Just thinking about throwing stuff away gives me a thrill of spacial control. And there’s something about discarding unneeded items that makes it easier to recognize and discard unneeded emotions.
- If that’s too much: Start with something with an easily determined value, like today’s mail. Rip the junk mail up and throw it away without even opening it. Or start with just one small area, like a single drawer.
- Meet regular commitments. Chores that exist on a fixed schedule are very helpful to me: taking out the trash on trash day, visiting a farmer’s market that’s only open on Saturdays, feeding animals first thing every morning.
- If that’s too much: Keep your commitments as flexible as you can if the time pressure feels like it’s harming instead of helping. And have a script ready for succinctly bowing out of any commitments you can’t keep. “Unfortunately I’m experiencing a health emergency and won’t be able to attend” is plenty for most situations.
- Tell someone. If no one knows you sometimes feel these overwhelming feelings, work your way up to telling them. Shame and isolation are the curses of an ableist patriarchy. Break them by speaking your truth.
- If that’s too hard: Vaguebook. If you don’t have the spoons to do a full scale announcement, say what you can. Friends—especially friends who know you well—will know to check in on you. Saying something vague is better than saying nothing at all.
- Talk to your doctor. Schedule an annual physical. You get a free one every year on every insurance plan (thanks Obama), and it includes a depression screening. That’s a nice, easy way to get the conversation going. Also, who doesn’t like getting their knees hit with that little triangular rubber mallet to test their cat-like reflexes?
- Consider therapy. We talked last time about how therapy isn’t an easy instant cure—but it is the single most valuable tool we have for mental healthcare. Try it!
- If that’s too much: Get a free printable workbook off the internet and do what you can on your own. If you are earnest and willing to put in some hard work, it’ll be better than nothing.
- Rule out an external cause. Physical ailments and regular medications can have psychological side effects. For example…
- Check your hormones. More than half of all women in America use some kind of birth control, and the most popular forms of birth control are hormonal. They can fuck with your serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine neurotransmitters, causing or exacerbating mental health issues. The same is true for people who are transitioning. Get ready to feel! some! feelings!
- Experiment with drugs. By which I really mean, try not taking them. That includes anything that has a drug-like effect. Alcohol is a depressant. Coffee is a stimulant. Nicotine is, weirdly, both. See if cutting these things out helps at all.
- See if you feel any better if you change your diet.
KALE CURES CANCER BUT THE CIA WON’T TELL YOU CHEMTRAILS CHEMTRAILS CHEMTRAILS.Lol jk. I’m not telling you to follow any dumbass fad diets, nor to get obsessive about unsubstantiated woo-woo like “eating clean.” But our understanding of gut flora has radically transformed in recent years. The little microbiota that live in your intestines have a much greater influence on other bodily functions than was previously assumed, including mental health. Try feeding them something different, and see if that makes you feel differently. Maybe make that different thing something green? We’re your Internet mothers, we worry about you.
- Adopt a pet. In study after study, pets have been scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, social isolation, and even suicide. I am an animal rescue volunteer, and I can’t tell you how many people have told me they’re alive because of their pet. “But it’s irresponsible to tell people to adopt pets just because they have mental health issues!” Hahaha, Mr. Strawman, it’s almost like you don’t know that 7.6 million animals enter a shelter every year, and 1.5 million of them never come out! Barring deliberate cruelty, any house is better than the best shelter. Dogs and cats are far more adaptable and have much simpler needs than humans.
- If that’s too much: Watch animal videos on YouTube. YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION, NAY, MY DIRECT ORDER!
- Build positive habits when you have the chance. If you have good days and bad days, make hay while the sun shines. Use your good days to try to build the habits that will make coping with bad days easier. For example, my depression is pretty seasonal. In the spring and summer, when I’m feeling energetic, I clean, I cook, I write, I hang out with friends, I fix shit around the house, I get some exercise… in other words, I build the habits I can’t when I’m down. The momentum of those achievements carries me through the fall. And then when winter comes, I’ve set myself up with a really good foundation. You can’t do this effectively if you don’t understand yourself on a deep level.
- If that’s too much: A great, low-effort one to start with is to start each morning by naming something you are grateful for. It will help ground you and direct your thoughts in a positive direction.
- Find mental health role models. If might help you to find gurus. There are lots of bloggers, authors, speakers, and YouTubers who have valuable perspectives on self-love. Find a mix that you like and follow them. Blend their viewpoints into something that works for you. And don’t follow just any one person. For one, it’s healthy to synthesize your own unique viewpoint. For another, you never know which ones run sex cults in the Mexican desert.
- Remember that you’re not alone. Nobody’s inventing new feelings here. Lots and lots of people have felt the way you’ve felt, feel the way you feel. Most people are generally good. They wish you well and want to help you, even if they don’t know you!
- Here is a very helpful list of hotlines sorted by areas of expertise. If you are suicidal, struggling with an addiction, suffering from domestic violence, a victim of sexual assault, or are experiencing any kind of crisis, they can be a great resource.
- Here is another helpful list of warmlines. Warmlines are one step down from hotlines. I know there have been times when I just wanted to talk to someone, but felt like my issues weren’t “bad enough” to merit the attentions of a crisis hotline operator. Warmlines exist for exactly that purpose, and are run by peer volunteers.
- Reddit has many active communities of peer mental health support, including r/mentalhealth, r/depressed, r/anxiety, r/bipolar, r/schizophrenia, r/neuroatypical, and r/disability. Studies show that online peer support groups really do help.
- Tumblr. Just all of Tumblr.
- And of course, the comments right here on this page! Please leave one for us if you have more resources, tactics, and tips to share.
Once again I offer my hearty thanks to our pre-readers for all their valuable input!