On the path to mental health and wellness. A list of 10 practices to try when therapy isn’t for you

As a therapist, I’m an advocate for talk therapy. Whether it’s family therapy, insight-oriented individual therapy, mindfulness-based group therapy, or any other of the many different treatment approaches, I recognize the usefulness and effectiveness of therapy as an agent for self-care, growth, and change. I’ve gone to therapy and made strides in my personal development and ability to be reflective about myself and my connections to the world. Furthermore, as a clinician I’ve been privileged to witness people work through traumas, change maladaptive behaviors into adaptive ones, and become (subjectively) happier and better people.

However, I realize that this is not everyone’s experience. I know some can experience therapy/therapists as difficult, intrusive, and even harmful. With roots in ancient Greece, and later in 20th Century Vienna with Freud, psychotherapy is historically a European practice. Presently the field has expanded its reach and though not fully, is more accessible and relevant to the masses. Most now see psychology and psychotherapy as tools to develop better understandings of ourselves, receive and provide help, and find strength and healing. Though these are the basic intentions of the field, it is also important to acknowledge that historically (and currently) it has also served to stigmatize, marginalize, and pathologize many groups of people. Whether intentional or not, the practice has historically harmed and limited the realization of true mental health for some. For example, women were once exclusively labeled as “hysterical,” queers were diagnosed with identity disorders, the poor and working class were excluded for lack of funds, and non-white people were misunderstood or not considered. These are just a few examples and are obviously large, general statements. But considering the historical context, it makes sense that we still feel and see the wounds that have been transmitted through generations as a result of misguided maltreatment in psychotherapy. For some, these wounds have lead to caution, skepticism, and even fear of the mental health profession. And as a result, therapy does not always feel like a safe or best practice for some.

Fortunately, the field has made great strides in becoming more inclusive, positive, and open. Today there are hundreds of treatment approaches integrating anything from existentialism, body awareness, social justice, spiritual practice, feminism, and the list goes on. As the field expands and diversifies, and clinicians from various cultural backgrounds and with unique interests and talents are practicing, the necessary understanding and connection between client and therapist is made easier, through reflections of sameness and shared experiences. As I said earlier, I’m an advocate for therapy and think it is a great tool. But I also know, that even with the advances in the field, it can still be triggering and hard to find a therapist who gets it, and gets you. So here is a list of alternatives (in no particular order) as you journey towards health and wellness, if therapy isn’t for you.

1. Spiritual/religious practice
There are many benefits to engaging in a spiritual or religious practice. It connects you to the world and greater power, it can add or clarify meaning in your life, and can relieve stress. Spirituality can be found in religious observance, nature, meditative practice, or whatever enhances the meaning and connections you feel in your life.

2. Exercise
We’re often encouraged to work out to lose weight or to help prevent and treat physical health issues. Along with weight loss and health benefits, which can be important desired outcomes, exercise can also impact psychological health, including lift your mood and self-esteem. Focusing on physical outcomes of exercise can overshadow its influence on mental health, but research shows a strong link between exercise and mood. Do something you enjoy and pay attention to your mental state as you do it and after. The neurotransmitters running through your body will make you feel good and just doing something you enjoy will add to that feeling. So if you’re dancing, hiking through nature, playing pick-up basketball, do what you like to do to get the endorphins flowing.

3. Community/connections
Positive relationships and connections with others is largely documented as a strong protective factor against the risk of mental illness. Connections and relationships can be with family members, friends, collective spaces of like-minded or similar intentioned people, community spaces/organizations, teams, etc. Any relationship that feels safe, supportive, and understanding can be helpful. Relationships are vital to the human experience and existence, so call your mom, take a walk with a friend, or join a group/space that fits with you to promote wellness.

4. Food/nutrition
I’m sure we’ve all heard the cliché saying, “you are what you eat.” What we put into our bodies can affect our present moods and our physical and mental health over time. In America there are an abundance of processed foods, with high levels of saturated fats, sugars, and preservatives. Research shows that the consumption of large amounts of these types of foods can directly and indirectly contribute to the development of many different psychological stressors (ADHD/hyperactivity, depression, dementia, low self-esteem). In short our bodies and minds are healthier when receiving the nutrients from foods that are more natural for humans. http://www.sciencebrainwaves.com/blogs/biology/food-for-the-brain-how-diet-affects-mental-health/

5. Personal reflective space
Space is important. Finding a quiet space and time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings can be an essential step in moving towards healing and wellness. It may help if reflecting is one of your first steps, as being able to look at yourself and identify and acknowledge your needs and desires, will give you direction on your path. Taking time to identify and acknowledge your values, beliefs, ideals, expectations, dreams, ways of relating, among other things can bring a sense of grounding and self knowledge that can make it easier to move comfortably through the world. Whether you find your quiet space during a meditation retreat, writing in a journal, or while listening to music on your morning commute, this space is crucial. Spend time learning yourself without influence or validation from anyone or anything else.

6. Traditional healing practices
Western medicine often excludes traditional healing practices, which sometimes offers healing through less intrusive and more organic, natural processes. Some ancient practices include aromatherapy, acupuncture, the consumption of plants and herbs, and shamans and other magical and spiritual healers. Some of these practices are still used and can be effective in treating physical and mental health issues.

7. Helping others/Altruism
“Altruism in all its forms—kindness, generosity, compassion, volunteering, and donating money—has the potential to reward the giver as much or more than the recipient.” Acts of kindness foster compassion, boosts our image of ourselves, and can provide something meaningful for others. Be careful and thoughtful about how you choose to give to others, as to not perform altruistic acts that primarily benefit you, which is a trap we can easily fall into. The happiness and esteem we feel when helping others is good, however it is important to be intentional and reflective about the meaning and the impact your acts might have. http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/altruism/altruism-happiness

8. Learning
When we learn new skills and information it shows that we care and value ourselves and can improve cognitive capacities. Taking up a new hobby or investing time in learning new information gives us a sense of mastery, usefulness and also releases the same endorphins that make us feel good when exercising. Try reading more, taking a course on something you’ve been interested in, or visiting a museum or area you want to know more about.

9. Arts
Artistic expression can be a way of making connections with ourselves and with others. The act of creating, the finished creation, and the witnessing of the creation can all have transformative and healing effects. Through art, we can teach and inspire through the use of our bodies, thoughts, voices, and other tools. Art is a medium of self-expression and expressing ourselves is an agent of healing.

10. Asking for help
Asking for help is one way we assert our needs, though it seems to be quite difficult for some of us. Since asking for help can communicate vulnerability and dependence on another, we sometimes postpone or fail to have a need fulfilled for the sake of appearing self-sufficient and contained. In reality, we all need help sometimes and asking for it also communicates strength, assertiveness, and self-care. Allowing another person access to your vulnerability or insecurity is a step in the direction of healing and care.

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13 comments

  1. Hello Dr. Aja Trotter,
    I appreciate several things about your article. As a therapist in the field, I sometimes find it disheartening in that the talk therapy community can feel insular, and not as connected to other modes of healing beyond talk therapy. Your article reminds us that these different practices can help to create opportunity for community and connection to all types of people and ways of healing if we are open to them. We can appreciate a myriad of resources to help ourselves and our clients to take part in claiming their own way to heal, in a way that feels right for them- what is more powerful than that!
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts. Thank you for offering this to the community.

    1. Hi Leah, thank you for your comment. It is good to hear from other therapist in the field who share in this observation and experience. And you’re right–what is more powerful than helping ourselves and our clients find ways to heal that feel authentic and right for them!

  2. I try to fix myself daily. Not such an easy task. The meditation and “Personal reflective space” is a need now and not a want for me to be able to attain any level of the other point’s. When I don’t get that in the morning it seems as if my daily actualization is thrown off horribly.

  3. Dr. Trotter, I am so proud of your amazing accomplishments in the field of Psychology. All of your 10 points are great alternatives. I would think that if we use these 10 points first we would avert having to go to others for help. Keep giving great information for the people.

  4. Great article, Dr. Trotter. Over the past few months, I have been practicing many of these alternatives and found them to be extremely beneficial to my health and wellness.

    I also found “accepting what you can’t control” to be a necessary alternative. By allowing moments or situations to play out, I’m learning not to stress over everything. I believe this new mentality has helped to lower my blood pressure.

    Ironically, feeling like I need to control every situation and moment is what hinders me from asking for help. Because I feel as though I have everything under control. In turn it adds unnecessary stress to my life and raises my blood pressure. What’s the remedy for this mentality/behavior, Dr. Trotter?

    1. Thank you for your comment and I’m glad to hear that you’ve already been using these practices and find them helpful to your personal well being. It sounds as though you are sometimes able to “accept what you can’t control,” but other times this can be more difficult for you. It may help to reflect on the types of situations that are more difficult to release control of, for you. Maybe there is a pattern, specific trigger or type of situation that makes you feel more need to be in control. Once you’re able to identify the context of the desire/need for control, think about where that need comes from and why it exists for those particular situations. Thinking and reflecting on this issue might be the best place to start. In the meantime, continue to practice other forms of healing in order to keep your blood pressure down and maintain your health and wellness.

  5. Dr. Aja 🙂 I appreciate you highlighting how these 10 alternatives are therapeutic because communities have been already doing a lot of these things for their own personal healing. 🙂 Love. Cannot wait to read more 🙂

    1. Thank you Jasmine! Yes, people have been using the world’s and their own personal resources to heal and be healthy for a very long time. Thanks for reading and I appreciate your comment 🙂

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