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How To Set Boundaries To Relieve Stress

How To Set Boundaries To Relieve Stress

Aug 02, 2023

Stress is an inevitable part of life. But when we set strong, healthy boundaries, we can take better control of our stress levels and improve our lives.

Do you ever feel like it’s difficult to say “no” to others? That too often you agree to pile new commitments onto your plate, even when you know you shouldn’t? Maybe you say “yes” so often because you’re worried about disappointing others, or being seen as rude or unkind for refusing them. Or maybe you say “yes” because you believe things are easier when you’re in control.

No matter the reason, it’s a pattern many of us are all too familiar with - and it’s a pattern that only serves to increase the stress in our daily lives. That’s why understanding how to create healthy boundaries is so important. When we can identify when and how to say “no”, we can both learn to manage our stress levels better and avoid other stressful situations entirely.

The relationship between stress and boundaries

Stress is an inevitable part of life. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it overrun us, nor does it mean we have to constantly experience it in high, unavoidable levels. Setting healthy boundaries is a great way to reduce stress and keep it from overwhelming us in our day-to-day lives. 

To understand the relationship between stress and boundaries, let’s consider what we experience when we’re under stress.

How does stress make us feel?

  • Overwhelmed, burdened, burned out, or otherwise weighed down by our to-do lists or expectations.
  • Like we don’t have control over our lives.
  • Anxious about fulfilling tasks or duties (or guilty about not fulfilling them).
  • Like we can’t keep aspects of our lives separated as we should (work bleeding over into our personal time, etc.).
  • That we only have time and energy for others, and not for ourselves.

Now, let’s consider the effect setting healthy boundaries has on our lives.

What do healthy boundaries accomplish?

  • Keep you in tune to your own physical, mental, and emotional needs.
  • Help you avoid burnout.
  • Reduce feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
  • Help you compartmentalize and separate different aspects of your life.
  • Make you feel more in control of your life.
  • Reduce self-sacrificing behaviors and encourage you to make your own needs a priority.

As you can see, the right boundaries directly address the biggest negative feelings associated with stress. So, when you identify and enforce a healthy boundary, you’re actively working to reduce the impact stress has on your life.

Now that we’ve established the key relationship between stress and boundaries, let’s dive into how you can begin identifying areas of your life that could be improved by setting good boundaries.

How do I know when I need to set a boundary?

You can (and should!) set boundaries across a number of different aspects of your life, from your personal relationships to your workplace. Oftentimes, setting boundaries can feel difficult because we’re not sure where to draw the line in the sand, or we’re not sure when it’s appropriate to do so. To determine where your life needs some additional boundaries, make sure to start by checking in with yourself.

Signs you may need to set a new (or better) boundary

  • You feel overwhelmed, stressed, angry, or resentful when someone asks something of you.
  • You feel you do more for others than they do for you, and that they don’t appreciate you for it enough.
  • You find yourself saying “yes” to tasks or engagements, even when you’d rather say “no.”
  • You often inconvenience or overload yourself because you’re afraid of upsetting or disappointing others. 

If you find yourself feeling or acting this way, it means you haven’t set or enforced an important boundary appropriately. 

3 questions to help identify your need for a boundary

We can also determine when a boundary is needed in our lives by reflecting on our previous experiences and new situations. If you’re having doubts as to whether a situation requires you to set a boundary, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

1. If no one would be upset or disappointed, would I prefer to say yes or no?

One of the biggest reasons we can find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and stressed is that we try too hard to live up to the expectations of others. (And sometimes those expectations aren’t even real - they’re just what we imagine them to be!) So when you’re trying to determine if you need to set a boundary, focus on your own feelings first. If you weren’t worried about how someone else would respond to your action/inaction, what would you do?

2. Is this a behavior I’m comfortable repeating?

Another key aspect of setting boundaries is understanding how they set a precedent for both your own behavior and how others respond to you. If you do something once, most people will assume you’re okay to do it again. So, if you agree to something when you’d rather say “no,” you’re setting yourself up to be in the same scenario in the future. If you’re not willing to repeat a behavior or be in a similar situation later, you should establish a boundary.

3. Would I feel good about making the same request of someone else?

Another source of stress in life comes from holding ourselves to higher standards and expecting more from ourselves than we expect from others. So, an important part of recognizing when you need to set a boundary is reflecting on whether you would consider this a reasonable course of action for another person. If it’s not something you would feel comfortable and confident asking someone else for, you probably shouldn’t ask it of yourself either. We often say “treat others the way you would want to be treated,” but sometimes we need reminding that we should treat ourselves with the same kindness we extend to others.

4 common types of stress and boundaries to reduce them

Everyone experiences stress differently, but it’s helpful to see how specific sources of stress can be reduced by a corresponding healthy boundary. So, here’s a quick look at four common types of stress and a few boundaries that can impact them.

Physical stress

Physical stress weighs down your body, leading you to feel tense or tired. You may experience physical stress from overdoing it at the gym, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, or anything else that wears your body down. Some common boundaries for addressing physical stress include:

  • Going to sleep by a certain hour every night.
  • Eating regular healthy meals at set times of the day.
  • Adding days of rest to your workout schedule, or alternating between cardio and strength exercises.

Mental and emotional stress

Mental and emotional stress weighs heavily on our minds, leaving us feeling anxious, irritable, and mentally drained. You may feel this kind of stress when you try to “give from an empty cup” when supporting others, when experiencing “compassion fatigue” from reading too much bad news about the world, or when you or a loved one is going through a difficult time. Some common boundaries for addressing mental and emotional stress include:

  • Asking for emotional support from loved ones when you need it.
  • Understanding you don’t have to be available to everyone all of the time.
  • Avoiding “doomscrolling” on social media.
  • Eliminating negative self-talk and internal stress.

Social and relationship stress

Our personal relationships are important to our wellbeing, but they can also be a source of stress. Social stress occurs when you spend too much or too little time socializing, when you experience communication breakdowns, or when you feel pressured to act a certain way around an individual or group. Some common boundaries for addressing relationship stress include:

  • Balancing your social calendar to allow for time alone, time with one specific person, and time with groups of people.
  • Openly communicating your needs with your friend, family member, or romantic partner.
  • Fostering relationships with people who accept and support you as you are.

Workplace stress

Finally, our jobs often come with their own unique stresses. Workplace stress can combine multiple different types of stress. At work, you may feel stressed because your workload is too heavy, you don’t feel heard or supported by management, or you don’t have the right resources to do your best work. Some common boundaries for addressing workplace stress include:

  • Avoiding work tasks outside of work hours, and taking regular breaks from work throughout the day.
  • Requesting deadline extensions or support from other team members to balance your workload.
  • Setting realistic and achievable goals, and reminding yourself that quality work doesn’t have to be perfect.

More tips for setting healthy boundaries to reduce stress

As you go forward and identify the places in your life that could benefit from better boundaries, here are a few more final tips. These guidelines will help you create boundaries that are clear, healthy, and impactful on reducing the stress in your life.

  • Give yourself permission to put yourself first. When you make your own safety, comfort, and happiness a priority, you will eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress and negativity from your life. Your primary goal when setting a healthy boundary should always be to make your own wellbeing a forethought, not an afterthought. 
  • Listen to your gut. Self-awareness plays a huge role in setting boundaries. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s a sign you need to set (or shift) a boundary in your life. Openly acknowledge and accept your emotions, and respond to them instead of minimizing your feelings. Staying in tune with your physical, mental, and emotional needs will set you up to create meaningful and effective boundaries.
  • Be clear and consistent. Communicate your boundaries clearly and consistently to others, so there is no confusion or second-guessing surrounding them. Clarity ensures your needs are spoken for, and consistency ensures others can learn and respect those needs. 
  • Start small. Boundaries are important, but big changes are hard. You can start small and still see a significant impact. For example, if you’re trying to set a boundary to improve your work/life balance, you can start with “no checking work emails after 9pm” instead of “no work outside of business hours.”  
  • Evaluate and adjust. Our lives change, so our boundaries sometimes need to change too. If a certain boundary isn’t providing the stress-relief you’re looking for, take the time to think about why and how you can adjust it to better your experience. 
  • Fake it ‘til you make it. If expressing and enforcing your boundaries makes you feel uncomfortable or anxious, try imagining how someone else with strong, healthy boundaries would react in your situation. Do what you imagine they’d do, until you have the confidence to enforce those boundaries all the time.
  • Surround yourself with the right people. When you set a boundary, the people in your life should respect it. If someone repeatedly pushes back against or completely disregards your boundaries, that’s a red flag. Remember, you deserve to feel safe, happy, and less stressed with your boundaries in place.

Say “no” to stress and “yes” to better boundaries

When we’re juggling heavy workloads, managing families and friendships, and trying to meet everyone’s expectations, it can feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. But we don’t have to always put ourselves last to support others. When you can learn to reflect on your own needs and make them a priority, you can live a much happier, less stressful life. 

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