Last week, we broke down how boundaries work in your brain. If you missed it, you can read it, here.
One of the most important ways to maintain healthy boundaries is by learning how to minimize the emotional reactions of the amygdala and switching to the logical executive function of the prefrontal cortex. That takes practice, especially when you’re learning new boundaries. But there are some easy tricks you can use to help build healthy boundaries. Here are five ways to practice upholding healthy boundaries in all areas of your life.
Defend Your Space
In the brain, the amygdala is responsible for processing emotional responses, especially fear and stress. When your boundaries are breached, the amygdala can go into overdrive, triggering the fight-or-flight response. Every time this happens, the response gets stronger and stronger. But you can offset that response by learning how to defend your space.
We talked before about visualizing boundaries as a fence. Unlike in real life however, when your friends, family members, and work colleagues cross a boundary, they may not realize it at first. And if you’re not good at enforcing the boundary, this can lead to resentment, miscommunication, and ultimately, damaged relationships.
Instead, learn how to communicate your boundaries by setting clear physical boundaries. This can be as simple as letting people know that you won’t be answering your phone during certain times. At work, you can block out key times on your calendar or put a sign on your cubicle wall or office door to let your colleagues know when you’re unavailable.
When you start establishing physical boundaries, it helps your brain get used to setting a limit and maintaining it. This type of boundary is easier to implement and is good practice to help you learn how to begin enforcing internal, more invisible boundaries.
One of the benefits of maintaining healthy boundaries is an increased overall well-being. But when you’re in a heightened emotional state, it can be difficult to find the calm necessary to allow the prefrontal cortex to take over. That’s where practicing self-care comes in.
When you practice self-care, you strengthen your prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that on-going stress actually weakens the prefrontal cortex’s ability to access high-level thinking while strengthening the emotional reactions in other parts of the brain. In other words, the higher and more frequent your stress, the harder it is to reason logically rather than react emotionally.
You can prioritize self-care by creating daily routines. When you set aside time for self-care rituals every single day, you make self-care a habit. You can start small by implementing a morning routine. If you’re looking for ideas, be sure to give this episode a listen, here. A steady nighttime routine can also help lower your stress by helping you relax before getting a good night’s sleep. Jim talks about his evening routine, here.
Guard this time as you would any other appointment. By sticking to a daily routine, you’re giving your brain the message that your mental health matters. It helps you learn to make yourself a priority, which then makes it easier to stand up for yourself in other situations throughout the day. And the best part? Many of the elements in a self-care routine, things like meditation, exercise, or reading, are also fantastic ways to lower your overall stress, too. It’s a win-win for maintaining a healthy brain.
Practice Saying No
Saying no is one of the most potent ways to establish boundaries. When you’re overcommitted, the brain’s cognitive load increases. On average, you make around 35,000 decisions a day. Most of these decisions are so small, they barely register in your awareness, but they do add up. And every time you say yes to something, that triggers more decisions.
The problem starts when you say yes to things you either know you don’t want to do, or don’t have time to do, or don’t know how to do. Now, you’ve added even more decisions to your daily decision-making, and that leads to cognitive overload. You might start making decisions that are impulsive or irrational, or simply shut down and find that even the simplest decision is impossible to make.
One of the best ways to take care of your brain is to practice saying no. If you struggle with boundaries, this might sound stressful, but you might find the task a little less daunting by practicing the three-breath rule. Essentially, before you say yes or no to anything, take three deep breaths.
Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your chest and belly with air. Hold that breath for three seconds and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat this for three breaths. By taking the time to focus on your breath, you trigger your parasympathetic system to take over. If you’re presented with a decision, you may feel a spike of stress, which puts you in fight-or-flight and puts your amygdala in control. Deep breathing calms that response, letting your logical prefrontal cortex take charge, ensuring you’re able to make a clearer decision.
As you evaluate these decisions, place a priority on saying no. You may want to keep a journal, noting every time you’re asked to make a decision and how you replied. Take time each day to process why you said yes or no, and think of strategies to help you say no more often to protect your time, your space, and your mental health.
Monitor Your Digital Boundaries
In today’s tech-driven world, maintaining boundaries around your screen time is crucial. Technology is the one area that many of have inadvertently allowed boundaries to slip. And it makes sense. Answering a text, a message, or replying to a post feels easy. It just takes a second. Unfortunately, the way algorithms are built, one notification is all it takes to get lost in an endless feed.
Research has indicated a link between excessive screen time can lead to cognitive decline. It’s also been associated with reduced gray matter and an increased risk for earlier onset of cognitive disease like dementia.
When you practice digital boundaries, you’re also strengthening your ability to enforce boundaries in real life. Make time to implement a digital detox periodically. Start by scheduling an hour without any digital devices and build from there. The longer you can go without checking emails or using social media, the stronger your focus and concentration gets. It also helps you learn how to protect your time and put yourself first.
Surround Yourself with Supportive People
Your social connections have a significant impact on your brain health. But if the people you love are the people who push you to bend your boundaries, it can be incredibly difficult to maintain them. The closer you are to someone, the easier it can be to cater to their needs and put yourself last.
Boundaries help ensure that your relationships give as much as they take. If you constantly give to someone else, but have a hard time asking for support in return, you end up emotionally drained with elevated stress, and that can have disastrous consequences on your body and brain.
It can be difficult to clearly communicate your emotional needs to the people you love most, particularly if you’ve had soft boundaries with them before. Take small, simple steps and start with one person. Find someone who will help you maintain healthy boundaries and support you as you move forward with introducing boundaries to others in your life. You’ll need someone who you can talk to and work through difficult situations with, and who will also be supportive when you need personal space. This will give you a healthy framework for how to build deeper, more intimate relationships while also helping you reduce your overall stress.
Healthy boundaries are incredibly important for your brain health. They help lower stress, calm your emotional response, and build healthy, supportive relationships. While they might seem difficult to enforce, there are some simple tricks you can employ to practice implementing boundaries in your daily life. You’ll be healthier and happier. And your brain will thank you.
If you want to learn more about how to find healthy ways to love someone, watch this video: