Easy Ways to Cheer Up (That Don't Involve Seeing a Therapist)

woman playing a guitar
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Look, being happy can be difficult even in the best of times -- throw in a little social upheaval and uncertainty, and it gets even harder. Since I'm a psychotherapist, I'm a big fan of using therapy to help fight stress and anxiety. Crazy, I know. I've seen several therapists in my lifetime, and as long as I keep dating in New York City, I'm sure I'll see more.

So I'm aware that a professional confidant isn't cheap, and in almost all cases, paying rent is a higher priority than therapy. So, until you can afford both, try going through these practices on your own -- they're relatively straightforward, but take some effort on your part if you want them to work. Keep in mind that if you or someone you know is in danger due to a mental condition, you should always seek professional care.

sitting outside on a bench alone
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Set realistic expectations and quit being an asshole to yourself

No matter what you think, how you treat yourself is actually within your control. Wild, right? You can choose to be critical... or you can be encouraging. And wouldn't you know it, the people who are understanding and encouraging are much happier.

If you've been an asshole to yourself for long time, don't worry. Change takes time, but it's totally possible and eventually automatic. Here are a couple quick ways to get started:

  • Be brutally honest about whether your expectations are realistic. Would you expect the same thing from a friend who feels the same way you do now?
  • Avoid using distractions to take your mind off your thoughts, and give yourself permission to think and feel whatever you're thinking and feeling. Even if it's uncomfortable.
  • Tell yourself what you might say to a friend in the same position -- if you're a good friend, you wouldn't be an asshole
  • Remember that inadequacy/anxiety/frustration/rejection/etc. are common, and there are millions of others going through a similar experience


Take up a (free!) hobby that encourages self-reflection

Without knowing your emotions, habits, triggers, automatic reactions, and so on, you're destined to have nasty fights with your partner and to raid the fridge whenever you feel... anything at all, really.

So how do you get to know yourself outside of therapy? If you're a Google employee, your company handbook requires you to know this, but for everyone else, mindfulness is an easy, straightforward way to begin.

Don't worry, it's not as touchy-feely as it sounds. All it means is paying more attention to the present moment, i.e., stop checking your damn phone. The easiest avenues to this skill are contemplative practices: sitting meditation, or moving meditations like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and walking meditations are a few ways. You can also try journaling, and thanks to modern technology, you don't have to do it in a skull-and-crossbone-decorated notebook labeled "NOT FOR PARENTS." I like to open a Gmail draft email, address it to no one, and write. Sometimes I go back to it, but most of the time I don't. It's a password-protected, automatically saved way of getting to know yourself better.

When you feel terrible, take a minute to think of areas in which you don't have it so bad

When you're feeling good, being grateful is easy. But when you're feeling shitty, there's an art to it. You don't want to do it in a shaming way, where you're telling yourself, "People are starving all over the world, you have no right to complain about ANYTHING."

You want to start by empathizing with whatever you're feeling (again, mindfulness will help you identify this), then take a step back, look at the big picture, and see what you can be grateful for. No need to post it on Instagram with the #blessed hashtag, either -- keeping it to yourself works just as well.

reading a book

Find a healthy coping activity before you decide to give up an unhealthy one

Many people come to therapy wanting to let go of an unhealthy coping mechanism -- smoking, drinking, emotional eating, having unprotected sex with anyone and everyone -- but they have no healthy coping mechanisms to fall back on.

Coping, like many things, falls on a spectrum; what's healthy in one context might not be healthy in another. For example, Netflix in itself is neither healthy nor unhealthy. Netflix for a week straight without leaving your couch groove is probably unhealthy. A couple drinks can sometimes help you relax and connect with your partner or friends. A bottle of wine and a Xanax, maybe not so much.

Basically, if your "coping" leaves you feeling out of control, ashamed, or creates a new set of problems, you could stand to bulk up your list of go-tos. These could be listening to podcasts or music and going for a walk, calling a friend, writing, exercising, reading, cooking, cleaning, anything, really, as long as it's not to excess and doesn't make you feel worse than when you started.

Another reason it's important to find a healthy coping mechanism is because it can be a way for you to face harsh realities. A big part of therapy is processing, bringing attention to the difficult thoughts and feelings that are a part of life. Because life often sucks! Think about that heartbreak you've been suppressing, the anger you've always felt toward your dad, that grief over your friend's death. Whether you like it or not, facing reality is both important and necessary for happiness. Creative expressions like art, journaling, dance, singing, or playing an instrument are some ways you can "get it out."

Don't isolate yourself

Humans are social beings. We connect for safety and survival, procreation and fun. We yearn for belonging and fear shame, rejection, and guilt; unsurprisingly, disconnection leads to depression.

It can be a vicious cycle, though, because when you're feeling shitty, isolating and detaching may seem like the best option. BUT. When you have the self-awareness you've already developed through all of the above (right?!), you realize this tendency isn't in your best interest, and are more likely to pick up your phone despite your instinct. If you're in a dark place, don't pressure yourself to go to every party, but remember a little connection goes a long way.

woman preparing healthy meal

Treat your body right

The mental-health world is FINALLY acknowledging that what you put in your body impacts how you feel mentally. Make sure you're following a brain-healthy diet that's low in processed foods and high in happiness-boosting nutrients, i.e., fruits and veggies. Move around a bit. Try to get decent sleep. And don't forget to take a probiotic!

Take advantage of graduate programs and other free resources

All of this is obviously easier said than done, and sometimes a little jumpstart can get the ball rolling. Do a little research in your area. Most masters training programs offer free or significantly subsidized therapy. Look into online forums and chatrooms, free or inexpensive support groups, and crisis lines.

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Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a psychotherapist and wellness coach who gets really miffed over "positive thinking." Read more from her at OneShrinksPerspective.com or reach her at megan.bruneau@gmail.com, and follow her on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.