They say the best things in life are free. They also say you get what you pay for. I’m not sure which to believe, but what I do know is that some of the most valuable tidbits of counselling advice I give clients are free and surprisingly simple.
Sure, professional counselling services can help you build communication and relationship skills, guide you through a process of self-awareness and therapeutic healing, or encourage you to achieve your goals. I’m an advocate of therapy, obviously. However, there is a huge percentage of the population who either can’t afford private counselling, or feel too proud or embarrassed to access the services.
Good news: there are a few secrets to mental health and emotional well-being that are free and accessible to everyone. They will all seem overly simple when you first read them, but that’s the point. Sometimes the solutions to life’s problems are simple.
1) Eat well. Mental and emotional health are linked to physical health. The most fundamental way to maintain the proper functioning of every system, organ, and cell in the body is proper nutrition. Bodies that have an abundance of nutrients are more resilient to stress and recover more quickly from traumatic events. Bodies that are deficient in nutrients become overwhelmed, breakdown at the weakest point, and can develop disease and mental health symptoms.
New clients come in all the time with depression or severe panic attacks and one of the first things we talk about is nutrition. Ninety percent of them are not eating enough, or aren’t eating nutrient dense food. If you are going through a stressful time in your life eating healthfully might be the last thing you feel like doing, but it is a vital part of emotional recovery and mental health.
2) Be active. Physical activity and spending time in nature both heal the mind as much as the body. Exercise is the easiest way to hit both of these birds with one stone. Before the non-athletic types roll their eyes, please note that this activity doesn’t have to be a rigorous competitive sport. Simply going for a stroll and sitting on a bench next to a pond will produce an immune boosting effect.
Soak up some oxygen and Vitamin D. Everything that is good for the cells of your body will improve your mental and emotional health as well. Movement is also the fastest way to shut off the fight or flight anxiety response that is triggered by stress. For most stress related symptoms, a brisk twenty-minute walk will do as much for you as a session in my office.
3) Express Yourself. Yes, talking it out with a neutral, non-judgemental, trained person is one of the benefits of counselling. If you can’t afford counselling and you don’t want to burden your friends with all your stress, write it down. Journaling doesn’t cost anything and it’s cathartic. If you’re worried about privacy, type it into a computer document and delete it once you’re done. The purpose is to get it out of your system. If you don’t like writing try some other expressive outlet such as music, art, or woodworking.
4) Breathe. The simplest free strategy is also the most valuable one. The body and the mind are designed to seek a state of balance and will heal themselves if we let them do their thing. The problem is that most of us continually add new stress and don’t slow down long enough to let the immune system and homeostasis checks catch up.
Breathing provides a moment of reflection to gain perspective and determine what’s important. Deep breathing floods the blood with oxygen, which is vital to the survival of every cell in the body. Breathing also signals the nervous system to turn off the stress response and all the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety.
I can hear some of you laughing sardonically and scoffing. “Yeah, Danielle, organic apples and wild blueberries aren’t going to do me any good when I’m prying my school phobic child’s fingers from the door frame every morning.” Or, “Good one, lady, walking around in a grassy field and taking deep breaths isn’t going to save my crumbling marriage.”
You’re right, these simple and free steps are not going to solve all of the issues and problems that bring people to counselling. They will, however, provide the necessary foundation for healing. Being healthy makes a person strong and resilient. Living pure and simple provides the opportunity for clarity. If you use these simple suggestions as a starting point, you will feel stronger and all the other issues will be easier to tackle.