How to look after your mental health without spending a fortune | Mental health

Many people have seen their mental health suffer as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

However, accessing help may be difficult, with often long waiting times, and paying for support is out of reach for many people.

In the UK more than 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time. Meanwhile, research by the Health and Safety Executive found that, of the people suffering from a work-related illness in Britain, more than 800,000 were reporting signs of work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

A group of ramblers in Wales. A walk in the countryside has many benefits. Photograph: Realimage/Alamy

Dr Zoe Watson, a GP who runs Wellgood Wellbeing, a social enterprise health platform, believes good mental wellbeing comes down to three basic elements: looking after and connecting to your body, connecting to other humans, and connecting to the world around you, such as nature.

Take some gentle exercise

Exercise can help clear your thoughts and make you feel more tired at the end of the day, so you should sleep better.

Rosaria Barreto is the founder of Vitality Hub, which works with older people with a variety of health conditions. She says: “Stimulating your eyes and brain while surrounding yourself with nature’s beauty immediately boosts your mood. Breathing in fresh air can also boost your mood, reduce anxiety and worry. The social element to walking has a significant impact on loneliness and can encourage and promote stronger feelings of self-purpose and self-value.”

Check your council’s website or search for “wellness walks” or “wellbeing walks” for groups to join near you.

Take exercise a little further

If you are a little more adventurous, Watson suggests wild swimming.

Wild swimming in the North Sea at Portobello beach, Edinburgh, for International Women’s Day.
Wild swimming in the North Sea at Portobello beach, Edinburgh, for International Women’s Day. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“It’s bonkers, life-affirming, joyous and freeing. It shocks you into being aware of your body, and you meet other people who are similarly bonkers along the way. The best bit: it’s no longer only a playground for steely abbed triathletes or hardcore cold-water swimmers. Many are middle-aged, wobbly thighed, potty-mouthed women like me!”

Check out groups such as the Bluetits Chill Swimmers.

Go out of your comfort zone

Nicki Bass, a resilience and leadership coach, runs Resilience at Work. She says: “Resilience is the ability to come back from and grow as a result of challenge and adversity. It’s about managing difficult experiences, learning from them and ultimately being able to thrive.”

This might be through activities such as surfing but it can also be via everyday adventures – things as simple as standing barefoot in a stream or taking a new dog-walking route. “The cumulative effect can be as powerful in building resilience and confidence as the bigger ‘life-changing ones’”.

Check out free NHS guides

There are numerous free resources on the NHS website.

These range from information on calming breathing exercises for dealing with stress, anxiety and panic, to guides offering help with getting to sleep and sleeping better.

Learn new skills

Learning new skills could be a hobby, or something you can do as a side hustle. For example, you could take a free trial of Skillshare and choose from thousands of hands-on online courses. This will help boost your self-confidence and sense of purpose while allowing you to connect with other people.

A volunteer works on a 1/100th scale replica of a building which has been created for the new ‘model of a model’ within Wimborne Model Town in Dorset
A volunteer works on a 1/100th scale replica of a building that has been created for the new ‘model of a model’ within Wimborne Model Town in Dorset. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA


Watson says: “Sometimes the best thing to do when we’re struggling is actually to look outwards instead of inwards. It can reset our brains, help us realise all the things we have to be grateful for.”

Volunteering has numerous benefits for health and wellbeing. Creating and sustaining social bonds is essential in tackling loneliness and depression.

Explore options that you would enjoy and can contribute to with skills or time. If you have children, see if their school would like volunteers for reading, or join the PTA (parent-teacher association).

Visit your local volunteer centre or log on to a site such as Do IT, which is a database of UK volunteering opportunities. You can search more than a million volunteering opportunities by interest, activity or location, then apply online.

Sing and dance like no one is listening or watching

Paying attention to the moment and being more aware of your body and thoughts is often referred to as mindfulness. Singing and dancing allow you to turn off your stream of consciousness and live in the moment. Sing and dance along to the radio, when cooking or cleaning. Sing in the car or shower, or join a group.

Keep talking

The psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo says: “There is a huge evidence base for the psychological benefits of talking, including reduced stress, elevated mood, reduced anxiety and more effective problem solving.”

She and Shirley Blanch founded the Conversation Starter Project, running free sessions where participants benefit psychologically from talking and walking with others.

Similar ways to connect with others can be found via local council wellbeing hubs.

Write a journal

This can take many forms, from simply writing thoughts down in a diary to a more structured approach such as picking apart a particular challenge you are facing. You can do it on your phone, PC or in a notebook.

Woman writes in a journal
Have you considered writing down your thoughts? Photograph: Viktor Pravdica/Alamy

Ranting also has a place: Watson suggests “let it out” journalling to explore difficult emotions rather than pushing them down, and being grateful for ordinary things, even the negative ones. Those feelings need to be acknowledged and accepted, too.

Take some ‘me time

Finding “me time” can be easier said than done. Clare Flaxen is a psychotherapist and advises making a conscious choice to laugh every day and stay playful and curious.

“Spend time with people who support and inspire you. Identify the things in your life that make you feel happy and content – eg a nice cuppa and a biscuit with a friend – and actively choose to bring them into your days.”

Do something you enjoy at any time, even while doing the chores. Sarah Birchall says: “Eating dark chocolate daily brings me happiness, and listening to comedy podcasts, too.”

Wellbeing is an individual phenomenon, so what works for one person won’t for someone else. Try to find what you enjoy and helps you to feel well.