How I Take Care of Myself Every Day (Mental Illness Self-Care for Cheap)

Here are the ways I take care of myself and work to reduce my stress every day, as someone who is in recovery with several mental illness diagnoses. Unlike many self-care ideas, most of these are completely free and the rest are cheap.

Note: This post is heavily “YMMV” (Your Mileage May Vary). Please continue to do the self-care that works for you— these are just some ideas if you’re struggling and don’t know where to start.

Wake up with time to spare.

I wake up at least two hours before I am scheduled to be anywhere. I drink coffee leisurely for at least an hour while texting friends and scrolling social media, and then do the rest of my morning tasks, like eating (see below), taking my pills (also see below), and getting dressed. I try to perform most of these tasks in the quiet of my bedroom, which has a couch to hang out on so I am not tempted to go back to sleep. The ritualized nature of my morning routine helps me immensely because:

  • The tasty coffee gives me something to look forward to when I get out of bed.
  • I do not feel rushed, frazzled, or stressed in the process of getting where I need to be.
  • I have a basic need for routine and to know in general what my day will look like when I start it, so having a morning ritual brings me a sense of comfort.

$: Coffee costs money. Alarms that help you get up on time might have a subscription fee. (I used to use one that wouldn’t stop playing the alarm unless you took a certain picture with your phone camera. Mine was set to the top of my coffee machine, so I had to get out of bed and make it to the kitchen before the alarm would shut off, but then I was all set to make my morning cup of coffee!)

Take your pills on time.

When you don’t take your pills on time, you don’t get the benefits your medications are supposed to give you— and you also invite some pretty shitty withdrawal symptoms. The severity depends on which medication you are on and how long you go without taking them, but it’s definitely noticeable. Last weekend I procrastinated getting out of bed and ended up taking my medications three hours late. I didn’t expect in that moment to spend the next eight hours back in bed with withdrawal symptoms. And to think— I used to procrastinate on taking my pills and do this to myself all the time!

$: Meds may cost money, but taking them on time does not. Set an alarm if you need to!

Go to work.

This sounds like a weird one. Going to work is self care? Yes! When the alternative is freelancing, which was terrible for my mental health, having a regular job at a regular workplace with mostly regular hours has done wonders for my stress.

Note: Not everyone is capable of working a traditional job, or at all. I am merely writing about what works for me. Absolutely no shame if your situation is different!

For me, this involves:

Getting dressed.

Leaving the house.

Taking a walk.

I walk 15 minutes to work and back on most days. (Sometimes I get a ride if the weather is awful.) If you get bored walking but you know you need the exercise, try downloading Pokemon Go. $: Free.


I am lucky to have a really good work environment, and my coworkers are my friends.

NOT constantly self-motivating.

When I freelanced from home, everything was up to me. I had to find my own clients on a regular basis as well as motivate myself to start and finish tasks. This resulted in me never getting anything done, losing promising clients, and having no money to take care of myself with.

Working in a more traditional workplace removes much of that stress. I show up, do my job, and then go home. I don’t think about it much when I’m not there. There’s also an element of body doubling with my coworkers that helps me a lot.

Making enough money that I don’t have to spend every second in a state of dread over my finances.

I now have enough money to pay rent and bills and also order Grubhub every once in a while, which is really all I need to survive (besides health insurance).

Write a little blurb about how you’re feeling.

This is how I do symptom tracking, because rating my mental health on a numerical scale doesn’t work for me.

I find that this helps me feel more in control of my life because not only am I noticing patterns that may emerge in my moods, I am tracking my long-term recovery progress.

If you’d like to know exactly what I track, check out this blog post.

$: This tip is not completely free, as I pay about $4 a month for the app I use.

Eat both protein and carbs.

Maybe you don’t struggle with eating enough calories like I do. Often, I will eat three carrots or a handful of raspberries and wonder why I’m hungry (and quickly wilting) half an hour later. Protein and carbs help you feel full longer and give you the calories your brain needs to work. Not every SINGLE meal or snack has to have both, but it’s proven to be a good thing for me to strive towards.

$: Obviously, food costs money, but peanut butter sandwiches are pretty cheap.

Get a good night’s sleep.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on sleep hygiene— I am aided at night by an antidepressant that makes me sleep super well. If you’re not getting the rest you need, I recommend having a sleep study done if that is available to you.

$: Depends on how you relax best before bed. Experiment!

How to Work on Your Mental Health

If you are struggling with mental health problems, the obvious answers are therapy and medication. But what if you need more than that? How can you work on your mental health independently?

Here are some habits and ways of thinking that I’ve found to be very helpful in my recovery. Give them a try and see what works for you!

Get in the habit of problem-solving.

Problem-solving is in itself a huge topic, but it’s one of the most important aspects of working on your mental health. How do we problem solve mental health specifically?

  1. Identify a problem. Start small! You’re not going to fix your entire life in one day.
  2. Define the problem in as much detail as possible. Journal about it (see below) or make a note in your phone, whatever works. For example: “I drink too much on the weekends because I feel lonely.”
  3. See if maybe you can find the root cause of the problem, because knowing that might help you find solutions. Delve into the past. “I started drinking in college because I felt it would help me connect with people.”
  4. Define your goals as they relate to the problem. Maybe you already have a list of goals, but you need to be specific to the situation you’ve decided to problem-solve. Working on your mental health is a larger goal, but maybe you want to “drink no more than two beers on weekend days.”
  5. Brainstorm solutions. Come up with whatever fixes you can and write them down. You never have to show anyone this, so if some of them are ridiculous, that’s okay!
  6. Experiment. Test your solutions until you find one that sticks. “If I hang out with friends somewhere other than a bar, I won’t drink as much.” Maybe you went camping…. and drank just as much. Okay, back to the drawing board! Try a different solution and see if that one works. Repeat as many times as you need to.

If you need help problem-solving, don’t be afraid to recruit a friend! Ask someone you trust if they would be willing to help problem-solve your mental health, and then ask for their continued consent each time you have something to problem-solve. Hopefully the two of you together can find fixes that stick!

Journal about your mental health.

For some people, freewriting works wonders. It doesn’t do anything for me. Instead, I journal about my symptoms (emotional and physical) and what I was thinking about each day.

Find the type of journaling that works for you and do it. Not only is it good for you in the moment, but if you make it a habit, you will have lots of data to look back on in future problem-solving endeavors!

Regularly eat reasonably healthy food.

Note: I think a lot about how we treat our bodies is fucked up, so you will NEVER see me recommend a strict diet or intentional weight loss.

Getting quality fuel for your body can make a huge difference to your mental health. However, it’s not nearly as complicated as many would make it out to be. Eat things that nourish your soul as well as your body. For more information, check out Intuitive Eating resources like this one.

I tend to not eat enough— both in frequency and amount— and I don’t fare well when I am not fed. I get dizzy and depressed. Therefore, I do have some food rules. I try to feed myself about every four hours, and strive for a variety of food groups each day. (I use the old-fashioned 90s food pyramid as a guide.) I also make sure to eat some kind of carbs with every meal, because they help you feel full longer, as well as extra protein, because I’m a shitty vegetarian and often vegetarians don’t get enough of that. Of course, I also eat fruits and vegetables whenever I feel like it. That’s it— those are my dietary guidelines!

Spend some time experimenting and see what foods nourish you the best!

Eliminate stress wherever you can.

In college, I prided myself on showing up on time to my classes 15 minutes after waking up, having skipped breakfast and any sort of self-care. That’s no way to live! Ten years later, I wake up two hours before I have to be at work. I drink coffee leisurely (my favorite part of the day) and allocate enough time afterwards to make myself a reasonably quality breakfast. This is just one way I have changed my life to eliminate extra, unnecessary stress.

Reducing stress wherever we find it will take some of the weight off our mental load. Even if the source of stress really isn’t that big a deal, lowering your overall stress levels will do wonders for your mental health.

Obviously, not every source of stress could or should be eliminated. You have to weigh the pros and cons as well as your priorities. Maybe you’ve identified that grocery shopping is a big source of stress for you, so you shell out a few extra bucks to get ingredients delivered by Instacart. That’s probably a worthwhile accommodation. On the other hand, maybe your job is also a source of stress because of the pressure of deadlines, but you also love it! I don’t recommend quitting your job, at least not before you have a better one lined up!

Learn to self-validate.

Mental health is a community effort, and often those with the “worst” mental health have been failed the most by their communities. That said, not relying on others to validate your feelings can be a great improvement.

This is one I’m still working on. I often struggle with feeling like I need other people to validate my emotions. Therefore, as soon as I have any feeling, I will text my loved ones and gauge how I should feel based on their reactions. It proves that I don’t trust myself to know how I feel and what needs to be done. Instead, I’d much rather be able to validate myself, so I am not reliant on other people to process my emotions.

For more information about self-validation, check out this link.

Make time for the things you love and build mastery at them.

Make a list of the things you love the most, and then do them. For example, maybe you’re like me and you really love to write. What kind of writing do you like to do? What subjects do you like to write about? Consider listing both a broad heading (”Writing”) as well as specifics (”writing nature poetry”). Is there anything else you need to make a part of your schedule for this to happen? (Like being out in nature?)

Building mastery is a related DBT skill that involves setting reasonable, reachable goals to build up your confidence as well as your skills. Maybe you could make a goal to write one index card a day, or just take a walk. Make sure that you congratulate yourself for each thing you accomplish!

Rest effectively.

Resting effectively can be tough. It doesn’t count as true rest if you’re laying down but you’re worrying about all the things on your mind. It might help you to have a designated Relaxation Zone— like your bed or a couch in your basement— where you turn off all your worries. Alternatively, or in addition, you could try a guided meditation to help your brain relax.

This is another one I’m working on, because I tend to hold myself to very high standards and feel like I shouldn’t be resting, even when I really need it.

Avoid mind-altering substances.

Everyone has their own opinion and their own comfort level in regards to substance use, and I’m not saying that you have to agree with me in order to truly be dedicated to healing. However, I have found that I am much happier when I am not doing substances. Substances tend to be unpredictable— you might have a good time on one day but a bad time another.

(Hint: you may want to consider replacing any substances you do with the non-inebriating forms of them. I am a big proponent of non-alcoholic beer and CBD cigarettes, and regularly use both of them when I feel like letting loose.)

Obviously, this doesn’t include prescribed medications— those are important, and you should continue to take them. If you don’t want to take them anymore, you should make a plan with your medical professional to taper safely off of them, because withdrawal can be really terrible.

For more information, check out these links:

9 Ways to Actively Take Care of Your Mental Health

Create a Plan to Take Care of Your Mental Health