April is National Stress Awareness Month, and you might find that your feeds are full of posts on meditation, mindfulness, and other tools that we’ve all heard can help manage stress. But there’s often something important missing from the stress conversation: boundaries.
Conversations about boundaries can feel vague and abstract. However, getting clear on your boundaries is a foundational step in managing stress, practicing self-care, building resilience, and beating back burnout.
Here, we’ll go over how to set up healthy boundaries to limit stress and boost overall wellness.
What Are HEALTHY STRESS Boundaries?
At its most simple definition a boundary is a border, the dividing line between where one thing ends, and another begins. However, there are many types of boundaries that are less clear than a fence. We have our own physical boundaries, like skin or personal spaces, but also our home or yard.
We have social boundaries, like the intimate connections with our romantic partner that would be uncomfortable with a casual acquaintance. There are also boundaries of time, emotional intimacy, ideas and thoughts, and our attention. Learning to understand, appreciate, and navigate boundaries is a part of not only your wellness journey, but also building healthy relationships and navigating the role of work in your life and visa-versa.
Boundaries and Stress
Conversations around stress typically revolve around stress as overwhelming, negative, and detrimental; however, there are different kinds of stress, and some are beneficial. In her book, The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonical, contributing author to NASM’s Certified Wellness Coaching Course, talks about the role stress can take in activating an individual to their own potential.
She reviews the scientific evidence showing that those with a healthy amount of and a mindful relationship to stress have improvements in their performance, mental health, and achievements. In this reframing stress, it’s not always to be avoided, but to be mindfully chosen and managed.
A broader definition of stress that includes its positive aspects might be defined as “the perception that our resources may be or are stretched or overwhelmed.” In a world where many people feel overwhelmed by demands at work and home, fearing an uncertain future, and feeling that taking care of themselves is one more thing they need to do, learning to manage boundaries is one helpful strategy.
Managing boundaries can help stress by creating clarity on what your resources are available for, and what they are not. One good example is time boundaries. Knowing you want to spend your evenings being present with your family, you can protect that time and set clear boundaries on when you’re available for work and other responsibilities.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries starts with getting clear about what is important in your life. If you’re someone who values family, the time example above likely resonates. However, if you’re in a moment in your life where work and career are the highest priority, working late may be in your best interest.
Or perhaps your highest priority is working on your wellness journey. In that case, the boundaries priority might be about protecting time to go to the gym, meditate, journal, or learn.
One helpful framing device can be considering that for every activity, responsibility, project, or commitment you say “yes” to you’ll likely have to say “no” to something else. This may seem obvious as a concept, but it can also become a practice in stress reduction. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, or you want to avoid overwhelm and burn out, consider the impact new commitments will have on your time and energy. When asked to commit to something, ask yourself “if I say yes to this, what else am I saying no to?”
To give an example of what this might look like, the person who highly values time with family may be asked to hop on a work call at 5:30 p.m. By pausing to ask themselves “what do I have to say no to?” they realize that the work call means sacrificing seeing their daughter play basketball tonight or having dinner with their partner. With that contrast, it’s easier to see that, unless it’s an emergency, the call can wait for tomorrow.
Want tips on how to limit stress to boost your performance in the gym? Click here to read our blog.
Challenges to Having Healthy Boundaries
When you start setting boundaries, it’s not uncommon to feel guilt, shame, or other negative emotions. You may feel that you’ll be perceived as entitled, lazy, or not committed to what someone else sees as important. Those perceptions are possible. However, making decisions based on your perception of another person’s values and expectations means your own deeply held desires go unfulfilled. It’s also possible that if you clearly communicated your boundaries the other people involved would respect and honor them.
Clear communication regarding boundaries is an important step in managing stress. Doing so ahead of time can often pre-empt difficult feelings or uncomfortable situations.
Yet it’s not only communication or time that can be challenging to boundaries. There will be times when others will be frustrated by the boundaries you have set and your concerns about negative perceptions will be true. At these times it can be helpful to remember that someone else’s perception of what is right for you may not be accurate.
While it can be uncomfortable to reinforce your boundaries, doing so protects the resources that allow you to connect to and focus on what aligns with your values and goals.
It’s an uncomfortable part of modern life that many of us have more commitments, interests, and demands on our time and energy than we can manage. With the limited time each day, week, month, and year we’re challenged to manage what we say “yes” or “no” to.
Learning to manage the boundaries of time, energy, personal space, emotions, and communication is one vital step in managing those demands. While meditation, mindfulness, retreats, and breathing exercises are all great ways to regulate the physical effects of stress, managing boundaries allows you to remove or restrict the overall demands of your life.
Want to learn more about how to help others manage stress and find balance? Click here to get more information on our Certified Wellness Coach course.