So, you need therapy but you can’t afford therapy. It’s a relatable problem. Given the staggering cost of healthcare and the stigma that some still perceive around mental health, there are a number of factors that prevent people from seeking therapy when they really need it. Even for those who have coverage, mental health services are rarely covered by health insurance. Affordable therapy is even harder to find.
Fortunately, by speaking to your doctor, creating a support network of people around you, and remembering that you are not alone, there are a number of actions you can still take to help yourself. Affordable therapy is within reach, especially if you know how to practice appropriate self-care.
Below are a few research-backed recommendations for what to do if you can’t afford therapy.
1. See if there are any free mental health hotlines, support groups, or community programs where you live.
We live in a time when mental health is less of a stigma than it’s ever been. So many people struggle with mental health concerns that urban areas often make mental health a cornerstone of public health outreach initiatives. If you live in New York City, for example, NYC Well offers free talk, text, and chatting support for depression, anxiety, stress, and crisis services for alcohol and drug misuse. The service is completely free and confidential, and allows users to speak to a counselor in over 200 different languages– 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Look for similar programs in your town or nearest city. Or, try an App like TalkSpace or online tele-health therapy service like BetterHelp. Both offer affordable therapy in the form of online Tele-Therapy, Social Media Therapy, and Unlimited Messaging Therapy with specializations available for veterans, members of the LGBTQIA community, couples, and business. TalkSpace’s professionally-licensed therapists are available 24 hours a day, as long as you have access to the Internet. BetterHelp, meanwhile, allows you to video chat with licensed therapists on demand.
2. Ask a friend, parent, or family member to meet with you to talk about your issues weekly.
Don’t be afraid to let your guard down with friends and/or family. If you feel that you can’t afford therapy, setting aside time to talk about what is bothering you will automatically make you feel more in control. Studies show that even just having a plan to talk about your feelings in and of itself helpful for managing anxiety.
At minimum, identifying the people who bring you comfort and confiding in them to help yourself will deepen your relationship. You don’t have to go to therapy to experience talk therapy. This kind of openness with the people in your life already can also help you feel more connected and “safe.” But, if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about emotional issues or trauma, that’s okay, too.
3. Make a list of your triggers and see if there are helpful ways to avoid them, without lapsing into dangerous “avoidance behavior”.
It’s helpful to keep an anxiety journal for one week to get the most out of this exercise. Every time you experience anxiety in this one week period, write down the trigger and some of the thoughts that are causing you anxiety. For example, if seeing news alert notifications on your phone stresses you out, disable them to avoid that Pavlovian response. Then, only seek out the news at a designated time each day when you can prepare for it.
See if there are similar quick fixes for other triggers. Be very cautious with this practice, however, as it’s easy to start avoiding things that will eventually get in the way of you leading a healthy, well-adjusted, functioning, productive life.
As Psychology Today reports, “avoidance behavior” is when you change your actions to accommodate your anxiety or depression, even if that is detrimental to you in the long run. (For example, avoiding breaking up with someone because the thought gives you anxiety is avoidance behavior.)
4. Get lots of sleep, eat right, and exercise.
As we discuss in our article about Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as the “Winter Blues”), exercise has a huge impact on your mood and wellbeing. Even after a single workout, people report feeling happier, more focused, clearer-headed, and less tired. Aim for 30 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. This will help keep physical anxiety and depressive symptoms at bay. (It won’t eliminate your symptoms, but it will put you in a more positive head space. Taking care of your health is critical when you need therapy but can’t afford it.)
Studies also show that sleep helps decrease repetitive thought loops and rumination (which is when a spiral of negative thoughts keep repeating, repeating, and repeating in your mind). As for diet: food is mood. Be sure to eat a spectrum of colorful veggies and plenty of omega-3 rich nuts, seeds, and healthy fats throughout the week. When you treat your body well, the mind follows.
5. Avoid coffee, excess sugar, and alcohol.
Extremely anxious people should avoid coffee, excess sugar, and alcohol. Depressed people should avoid excess sugar and alcohol. If you want to bring your anxiety and/or depression down to a manageable level, try it. When you’re experiencing a real low, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Most working people who read this article freak out about the coffee component. “But I NEED coffee to function!” you might think, “How will I ever wake up without it?” To that we suggest that you start by drinking half-caf coffee (half decaf coffee, half caffeinated coffee) or switch to decaf if you just like the ritual and taste of coffee.
Matcha green tea also has just as much caffeine as a cup of regular coffee, but it won’t give you the jitters because it is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that has a calming effect on the nervous system. Specifically, it “relaxes the mind without inducing drowsiness,” which results in a focused, alert state of calm. Try making or ordering a matcha latte instead of coffee, and see how you like it.
As for sugar and alcohol: you probably already know that those are bad for your brain.
6. Identify your sources of comfort and practice them liberally.
Create an arsenal of “feel good” activities that you can put into practice whenever you are feeling anxious or down. Does listening to music make you feel at ease? What about going for a walk in nature? Is there a person who always calms you down, or a movie that always lifts your mood?
Self-soothing will take the edge off so that you can get to a place where you feel less strung out. “Affordable therapy” is a subjective term, but we all have free tools that we already know how to use. If you feel that you can’t afford therapy, try to tap into your own capacity for self-comfort as often as you can.
7. Consider an herbal supplement in consultation with your primary care doctor.
Herbal supplements are not for everyone. That being said, many people find success taking GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) which is a naturally occurring amino acid that has a calming effect on the brain. Research also supports using adaptogenic herbs like milky oats, tulsi, catnip, ashwaganda, cordyceps, L-Theanine, astralagus, CBD oil, and/or chamomile. These can be taken in pill, powder, tincture, or tea form. You can easily find them at Whole Foods, on Amazon, or at most other natural grocery stores. (Except for CBD oil, which you should only purchase from lab-tested specialty purveyors like Charlotte’s Web CBD Hemp Oil).
Teas are a great place to start as they are gentle but effective. If you’re wary of supplementation, try drinking a calming cup of chamomile tea the next time you’re feeling anxious. Catnip tea is also very helpful for people who feel their anxiety in their stomach. Making tea is soothing to the nervous system and brain, because it gives us a task to direct our thoughts.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, consult our guide to the safest, most effective herbal remedies for insomnia or try making these DIY lemon balm gummy vitamins for better sleep. You can also consult our article on How To Stop Racing Thoughts at Night.
8. Consider medication (last case scenario) under the consultation of your PCP.
Your primary care physician is NOT a therapist. However, they are capable of identifying the symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Your doctor will also know enough of your medical history to identify any red flags that disqualify using medication. (For example, a history of addiction.)
Primary care doctors are aware of the risks and benefits of medication for stress. But it is something you should research and advocate for yourself; you are your best ally. Often, for example, people who are nervous flyers ask their doctors about getting medication for a flight. If you have a similar trigger that you can already identify, be sure to bring it up during your next physical.
9. Use any of these FREE tips in Our G&L Guide to Anxiety Relief.
Check out our Comprehensive Guide to Anxiety Relief. I created this resource after years of therapy, research, and experience traveling in high-stress situations. I sought out experts when I needed actionable coping mechanisms for panic, anxiety, and chronic stress, and these are the tips I gathered. For example: Did you know that icing your wrists can help ward off a panic attack?
This Comprehensive Anxiety Guide is meant to be scrolled and used as a reference that you can revisit in times of need. Bookmark it in your browser to keep it handy.
And remember: I’m not a doctor. I’m a journalist who writes about culture, wellness, and quality of life. I’ve also personally tested each of these strategies and cross referenced them with peer-reviewed medical literature. (I’m constantly working to improve this open resource, so feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected] with any tips, insight, or feedback on what does/doesn’t work for you. Your contribution will help me improve this guide for everyone who uses it.)
10. Ask For a Sliding Scale Payment Model.
As pragmatic people who like to save money, many of us often think, “Therapy is expensive; I’d rather save money for my vacation, a nice dinner, or getting a head start on next month’s rent!” But there is a difference between not wanting to pay for something and truly not having the means to pay for it. Consider this independently of your assessment that you can’t afford therapy.
Therapy is one of the single greatest investments in one’s health and wellbeing that we can make. It works for a lot of people. Therapy helps people lead better lives, and you can’t put a price on this kind of happiness.
That being said, however, it’s important that therapy doesn’t blow your budget. If you can’t afford your therapist’s rate, known that most therapists offer a sliding scale payment option. Sliding scale payment accommodates people who can’t afford to pay something like $275 for a 50-minute therapy session each week. Ask your therapist if they are open to a sliding scale payment model. If they agree, you will both decide on a reduced fee. For example, you might pay $100 a session until you have the means to pay more. Oftentimes, your therapist will say yes to this arrangement, and you’ll be happy you asked. 🙂
Worried about money more broadly? These free meditation apps can help. Also consult this checklist of 17 Money Saving Hacks for When You Can’t Stop Worrying About Money.
Related: Read our article about Beach Therapy in Los Angeles, “How Running Therapy is Changing Minds”.