In my house we’ve had a tough couple of months with deaths, health scares, and general work-related stress. We’ve been tired, sad, and angry. There’s been a definite need in this house to feel better. We’ve needed some cheering up and calming down. In our spendier days we would have gone out to eat, gone to the movies, or gotten a little retail therapy at the mall and bought some crap we didn’t need. If things were really bad, we might have really overspent and gone on vacation to try to escape. We used to think that a new jacket, a redone bedroom, or a vacation to the islands could make the bad stuff go away and cure our problems. How wrong we were.
Now that we’re on a better financial path, we’ve gotten very good at making ourselves feel better for little or no money. We’ve learned an important lesson: Spending money doesn’t make the bad stuff go away. No matter how much you spend, you can’t escape whatever is bothering you. Spending doesn’t make you feel better for long. In fact, once the guilt from over-spending kicks in you might end up feeling worse. There are other, better, things you can do that make you feel better and don’t cost much, if anything. An extra plus: The good feelings you get from some of these things last longer than the temporary high you get from swiping a credit card.
This isn’t meant to be medical advice. If you are seriously depressed you may need therapy or medication. But if you just need a little cheering up or to escape from your problems for a while, some of these ideas may be just what you need. If you find that one doesn’t work, try another. Or do several of them simultaneously. Because these are so inexpensive, you can try all of them and not set your savings goals back.
Ice cream and movies: There is solace to be found in sitting down in front of the TV with a big dish of ice cream and some good movies. Good movies take you away from the world that’s bothering you and give you two hours of entertainment in another world. I find this works best with action movies where a lot of things are getting blown up and the bad guys are getting beaten up (there’s nothing like a little mayhem to make you feel better), but you may do better with romance, comedy, or horror. Alternatively, you might prefer to get lost in a whole season of a TV show that you love. I keep a stash of mayhem movies purchased from yard sales and bargain shelves on hand for just such occasions. Rent from Netflix, borrow something from a friend, or watch something that you already own to make this idea very inexpensive.
Exercise: You don’t have to be a gym rat to make this work. Exercise gives you an outlet for your stress or grief instead of pinning it all inside. Going for a stroll or a simple bike ride will get you moving and boost your mood. Even going out and playing with your kids or pets will be enough activity to reduce your stress.
Religion: If applicable, turn to your faith for help by reading religious works, attending services, or engaging in fellowship with others of your faith.
Pets: Pets are great at cheering us up. Pet your cat, take your dog for a walk or play with him, or just watch your pet’s antics for amusement.
Coloring books: It’s hard to be stressed or sad when you have a stack of coloring books and a Crayola 64 box of crayons. (Yes, I’m talking to you adults.) It might seem silly, but it is a great stress reliever. You can also do other kid things to make yourself feel better. Blow bubbles, run through the sprinklers in the summer, get out the Play-Doh, play with Legos or other building blocks, go sledding in the winter, or play board games. I think part of the reason kids don’t get as stressed as adults is that they have all these great fun and creative outlets for their feelings that we put aside as adults. So take some time to be a kid again and play for a while.
Go through photo albums of better times: Pull out photos of times when you were happy and remember what made you so happy. Laugh over the silly memories and enjoy reminiscing over better times.
Eat well: The healthier you eat and drink the more fuel you give your body and mind to get you through the bad times. There’s nothing wrong with a quick chocolate or ice cream binge to improve your mood and provide some comfort, but overall you need to eat healthy foods to stay alert and strong.
Meditate or breathe deeply: Sit in a quiet place or put on some soothing music and try to quiet your racing thoughts. The more relaxed your mind, the better able you are to deal with problems. If you don’t want to meditate, just practice breathing deeply for a while. When we’re stressed out, our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow, reducing the amount of oxygen we take in. Breathing deeply gets more oxygen to your brain and relaxes you.
Shoot it out in a video game: I’m not generally a proponent of violent video games, but there is something to be said for dusting the bad guys and aliens when you’re stressed or feeling bad.
Listen to music: Sometimes I like to listen to sad, meaningful music and wallow in my misery for awhile. Sometimes I want happy music to get me past my misery. Other times I like some angry heavy metal music to go with my anger, or some classical to calm me down. Sometimes I want all of these in rapid succession. Whatever you need there’s music for it and you probably already own a wide selection.
Gratitude: Make a list of what’s good in your life (it’s probably longer than the bad) and be grateful for all the good things you have. A little perspective goes a long way.
Give to others: Helping others, whether it’s by volunteering your time or donating a little money is a great way to move your focus beyond your own problems. Knowing that you’re helping someone else is a great mood lifter.
Get back to nature: Go outside and look at the sky or the leaves. Walk along the beach or sit by a pond. Watch the birds in the park. Walk barefoot on the grass or hike in the woods. There is something about nature that is soothing and healing. Even a good storm, watched from the safety of your home, can inspire wonder. Nature reminds us that things change, things are born and die and time marches on, yet somehow everything works out okay in the end.
Pamper yourself cheaply: DIY manicures/pedicures, hot showers or baths with special soaps or scrubs, or other pampering rituals can be done inexpensively at home and can leave you feeling refreshed.
Talk to a friend: If you have a friend you can trust and who is a good listener, you can talk about your problems. If your level of friendship isn’t that deep, you can talk about other things or reminisce and catch up on each other’s lives. Either way, a little companionship can boost your mood.
Create something: Bake, paint, draw, build something, knit, sew, or pursue other creative outlets. Creating things not only takes your mind away from your troubles for awhile, it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you’re through. That can be very valuable when it feels like the who world is falling apart.
Read something that takes you away: Read a book that takes you to another world. It can be fantasy, romance, thriller or horror, as long as it engrosses you and sweeps you away from your problems for a little while. If fiction isn’t your thing, non-fiction can work, too, as long as the subject is far removed from your problems (i.e., no disease guides for those facing health crises). Read a good travel guide or cookbook, or a biography of a person you’ve always wanted to know more about.
Sex: No, I’m not advocating mindless sex with the first person to cross your path, but sex can be a great way to reduce stress (it’s that physical activity thing). It’s also a good way to remind yourself that your partner loves and cares for you when it seems like everyone else hates you. If you don’t want full on sex, gentle massage or touching can also be good ways to reduce stress and give you a feeling of connection.
Clean or declutter something: Not only does the physical act of cleaning get you active, it’s pretty mindless which can give your brain a chance to relax and wander freely. When you’re finished, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you have a nice clean room to look at which also makes you feel better.
Write it down, then destroy it: Vent all your feelings onto a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, or if it’s even legible. Just get it all down. Then shred it or burn it. You’ll have gotten some things out of your system without hurting anyone’s feelings and no one is the wiser. It’s a great release.
Try any form of free/low cost entertainment that interests you: Many of these activities can give you a little time away from your problems and give your brain a break from obsessing over what’s bothering you.
In addition to the above activities, I have one final piece of advice: Do what you need to do and don’t worry about what other people think. If you need to be alone, do it. If you need to be out amongst people, do that. If you need to be busy, find stuff to do. If you just want to sit on the sofa and stare at the wall, that’s fine too. If you want to cry, go ahead. If you need to laugh, find something funny. If you need to go outside and scream at the sky, feel free. We all have our own unique ways of coping when things get bad. Don’t worry about whether other people think you’re crazy or acting strange. You do what you have to do to get through the tough times. There will be plenty of time to act “normal” later. Just don’t go on a spending binge hoping that it will take the pain away. It won’t and you’ll be worse off than before.