Twenty No-Cost, or Low-Cost, Things You Can Do To Help Cope with Depression, Stress, Anxiety or Nerves

Sue Bergeson, former DBSA president

If you are living with depression, stress or anxiety, it is important that you see a professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Medication is an important part of a good treatment plan for most people.  he right medication will not change your personality or make you addicted. However, if you cannot get in to see a doctor right away because of a long waiting time, many of these strategies can help you cope. Many of us also use these strategies in addition to our medication to help us move to recovery. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is very, very important that you call 911 and seek immediate help.

1. Sleep: Getting too much sleep or not getting enough sleep can affect your mood. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time in the morning even if you don’t feel like it.  Use ear plugs to help muffle noises and other distractions to help you sleep. Other tips to help you sleep include

  • Avoiding caffeine, eating or working hard (like exercise) for a few hours before bedtime
  • Practice a simple meditation, like a prayer or guided mediation (more information about how to meditate follows), to calm your mind

2. Do One Thing: Depression and stress can leave us feeling paralyzed, powerless and helpless. Make a list of things you can do no matter how hard things seem to be. Then do at least one thing each day and check them off your list. Can you take a walk? Can you write a letter or make one phone call? Can you make sure you eat? Make a plan and do one thing to gain back some degree of control in your life.

3. Find One Thing to Appreciate: No matter how bad things are or seem to be, if you work at it, you can find one thing each day to be thankful for or one thing that makes you smile. Make it a habit to look for that one thing each day and write it down, say it out loud to someone or mention it in prayer. Did you see a child smile? Was someone kind to you in a small way? Did you wear something in your favorite color? Working on seeing things differently with gratitude or joy. even in the face of the stress. can help ease your sadness.

4. Exercise: Walking or other gentle exercise have been shown, time and time again, to increase the amount of natural chemicals in your body that help you feel better. It also provides an outlet for nervous energy. You can practice your discipline of “finding one thing to appreciate” as you walk. You can create your plan to “do one thing” as you walk. You can walk a dog or even a cat. You can walk with a child or a friend to spend time with them each day.

5. Journaling: Writing down your thoughts, hopes, dreams and worries can be very helpful. You can write them down as a way to do a “reality check.” Is it really as bad as I think it is? You can write them down and then practice letting go of the feelings they are on the page, you don’t have to hold on to them. You can look back in a journal to see that you HAVE had some good days and this can give you energy to move forward. You can write down positive things to hold onto or sayings that help you cope. Putting these things on paper can help clear the mind and heart.

6. Peer Support: Talking with someone else who has “been there” can help you feel less alone. You can also learn from what others have found helpful why reinvent the wheel? Studies have shown that people who participate in support groups are less likely to end up with severe depression, are less likely to end up in the hospital and are more likely to move into wellness. There are free support groups all over the country. You can call DBSA at (800) 826-3632, or use the Support Group locator to find a free group near you.

7. Places to Call for Help with Free or Low-Cost Medication: For most of us, medication is an important part of our treatment plans. Many pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs to provide prescription medicines free of charge to physicians whose patients might not otherwise have access to necessary medicines. Each company determines the eligibility criteria for its program. Eligibility criteria and application processes vary. Contact information for these programs can be found here.

8. Mood Tracking: Many times when we are depressed, we aren’t aware when we are getting worse and so don’t implement more of these wellness strategies. Using a free mood tracking calendar available through DBSA at (800) 826-7243 or a simple calendar of any kind can allow you to jot down your symptoms each day and track if you are getting slightly worse and alert you to take action or slightly better so you can celebrate. You can also download one from our website at Mood tracking also allows you to track any side effects you may be experiencing so you can talk to your doctor about how your medication is, or isn’t, working.

9. Meditation: Meditation can be broadly defined as any activity that keeps the attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment. When the mind is calm and focused in the present, it is neither reacting to memories from the past, nor being preoccupied with plans for the future--two major sources of chronic stress known to impact health. A simple meditation practice is as follows:

  • Choose a quiet spot and eliminate distractions.
  • Pick a focus word or short phrase.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Relax your muscles from head to feet.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, repeating your focus word or phrase silently as you exhale.
  • Assume a passive attitude. Don't worry about how well you're doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say, "Oh, well," and gently return to the repetition.

10. Prayer: For many people living with depression, stress, or anxiety, prayer is a very helpful wellness tool. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” There is no right or wrong way to pray.  The important thing is simply to pray.  Here are some tips:

  • You will get the most benefit from making prayer a consistent activity in your life.
  • Try praying every day at the same time.
  • Pray for others as well as for yourself.
  • Try not to think consciously; rather, as in meditation, let the feelings flow inside you.

11. The Power of Time: Time can also heal. Do all the things you can do to manage your wellness:  see your doctor to talk about changes to medications, visit a talk therapist, do your journaling, mood tracking, meditation, etc. The next day might be a bit better...and in a few days, a week--maybe two--you can move though this bad time. Sometimes, in the midst of the darkness, it feels like time is the enemy. Our brains lie to us and tell us that “it will always be this way” or “this time I can’t get through the pain” or even “I am just fooling myself, this is my normal state, the other, better times are just an illusion." But time can heal.  If you work your wellness with all the tools listed here and hold on, time can heal instead of being the enemy.

12. Pet Therapy: No one loves as unconditionally as a dog or another animal.  And sometimes during the depression or stress, we need one thing that loves us no matter what. Spending time with a dog, taking it for walks, training it or even just holding and petting it can help you become more active. Many people have also found that animals are more sensitive to their owner’s moods and can help alert them to changes. If you cannot have a pet because of your living situation, you can try and volunteer at an animal shelter--these dogs would love to be taken for walks and given pets.  You can also visit pets that live with friends as a way to experience this unconditional love.

13. Practice “Pessimistic Optimism:” Admiral Jim Stockdale tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment in a prisoner of wear camp in Vietnam. He survived to become a very important leader in the United States. He credits being pessimistically optimistic as something that helped him endure these terrible hardships. He absolutely believed things would eventually get better (the optimistic part), but he did not expect them to get better soon, or quickly, or on any timeframe (that’s the pessimistic part). He says that people who said they would get free by a specific date or time were the ones who would break down fastest. You can’t control time, but you can control your attitude and perspectives--and you can do everything in your power to make things a little bit better right now.

14. Kindness: Practicing kindness is an important part of a wellness plan. Many of us living with depression or anxiety find that being irritable or grumpy is one of the symptoms we experience. This makes us unhappy and hurts those around us. Practicing being kind is a simple step we can take to focus our thoughts outwardly not just on what we are feeling. It helps us unhook from one of the symptoms of the illness. Kindness given out usually comes back to you in one form or another. Receiving this kindness is helpful when struggling with depression.

15. Foods and Moods: There is some research that shows certain foods contain chemicals that are helpful for people living with depression and anxiety. Eating balanced meals and drinking plenty of water are also important strategies for wellness. The foods that may contain helpful chemicals to fight depression include

  • Dark chocolate
  • Fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Blueberries
  • Avocados
  • Dried apricots
  • Bananas
  • Kidney beans
  • Molasses
  • Spinach 

16. Music: According to the American Music Therapy Association, music allows persons living with depression, stress or anxiety to explore personal feelings; make positive changes in mood and emotional states; have a sense of control over life through successful experiences; practice problem solving; and resolve conflicts leading to stronger family and peer relationships. No matter what words you use to describe it, music helps us be\feel better. Listening to a radio can help even out our moods when we are sad or anxious. 
17. Spend Time with a Friend: When we are depressed or anxious, we tend to isolate ourselves.  Force yourself to spend time with a friend or loved one. You don’t half to talk about how you are feeling if you do not want to. Just forcing yourself to get out and be with someone else can help break the isolation that makes us increasingly depressed.

18. Break Negative Self-Talk: All of us talk to ourselves. Sometimes the messages we give ourselves make us more depressed and more anxious. Some examples of common negative messages that people repeat over and over to themselves include "I am a jerk," "I am a loser," "I never do anything right," "No one would ever like me," or “I am a klutz." Most people believe these messages, no matter how untrue or unreal they are. These messages tend to imagine the worst in everyone, especially you, and they are hard to turn off or unlearn.

When you talk to yourself and say something negative like, “I am the ugliest person in the world,” do a reality check. Ask yourself, “How do I know this is true? Have I lined up everyone in the world and made sure I am uglier than everyone else?” Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • What makes this thought true? Are there other possible explanations or ways of looking at it?
  • Would a person say this to another person? If not, why am I saying it to myself?
  • What do I get out of thinking this thought? If it makes me feel badly about myself, why not stop thinking it?
  • What is the negative thought?
  • Can you prove it to be true? How?
  • If so, will it always be true? How do you know?
  • Would someone who cares about me agree with that?
  • Does it help my emotional growth to think this way?
  • What benefit do I receive from thinking this way?
  • What does this thought keep me from doing?

Another strategy you can use to break a negative thought is to replace the negative thought with a positive one every time you realize you are thinking the negative thought. So, if you think “I am the ugliest person in the world,” shift to a positive thought like, "I am a beautiful friend" or "I am blessed with so much."

19. The “S” Word When Your Brain is Lying to You: As people living with depression, we know what the “s” word is. It’s our little secret, the way out we keep hidden from those who love us and those who treat us. Suicide. Here are some tools that can help you deal with the “S” word:

  • Say, “My brain is lying to me, tomorrow will be better.” Repeat ad nauseam. Sometimes we just need a thought to stop the “S” word from gaining momentum. 
  • Change tactics. Am I exhausted? Sometimes the “S” word creeps in when our natural resilience is down like when we need sleep or a balanced meal. “Am I so lethargic I can’t move?” Sometimes the “S” word creeps in when our mood has been spiraling down. Change course and take a walk to bring some energy back to the table.
  • Make a call. Tell someone. The national suicide hotline, (800) 273-TALK or (800) 273-8255, is a network of centers across the country staffed with kind people who will listen. Call your family or your doctor. Don’t suffer in silence.
  • Have a crisis plan to help yourself. Figure out--in a time when you are not suicidal--what you promise you will do when it sneaks up on you. DBSA’s free suicide card and crisis planning document are good tools to help in this process. 
  • Remember: You are not alone. Most of us living with a mental illness have gone through our own struggle with the “S” word.

20. Find the Gift: There is always a gift in any pain we experience. Do the work to find the gift. That doesn’t mean we pretended something horrible is actually good. For example, was it a gift that a friend’s baby died so young? No, absolutely not. Was there a gift in the fact that they got to live with this baby for a time? You bet. Do the work and find the gift in the depression, in the stress, in the anxiety. This is one key to increasing our resilience as we go through bad times.