Yes, We Do Need Boundaries, even in Quarantine


by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


With the limitations of physical contact increasing steadily as we go into week 4 of shelter in place here in California, it may seem foolish to even suggest that we need boundaries anymore. If anything, we need closeness, we need contact, we need love!


How could we possibly need *more* boundaries, more space, more time away from each other?


When we are under duress, our brains default to survival mode. Science tells us that when we are in this state, our cortisol, aka our stress hormone, levels are elevated, and excess of this or repeated stress can bring about nearly every kind of health risk. Under quarantine, we are in a global community of elevated stress. We are prone to distrust, irritation, and personalizing. We may attach false meaning more quickly to events or words or actions--not because they are true, but because of how we feel.


If you are noticing some increased conflict with the people in your household (if you are sheltered in place) or at work (if you are essential and working in the field) or even with strangers at the grocery store, you and those around you are likely experiencing the results of increased cortisol.


Cortisol is very useful when you are fleeing or hiding from, say, a tiger in the wild. It shuts down your appetite or increases it, depending on how close the tiger is; it changes your immune system; it gives you speed to run for your life; it turns down higher functioning brain processes used for analysis.. Basically, cortisol is the "shelter in place" order in your body---it decides who has to stay home and who is continuing to work. However, if it lasts for a long time, like our society today, the economy breaks. Running on cortisol is like using your emergency kit; it's not meant to last you a long time.


What does this all have to do with boundaries then?


We all need emotional safety.

In order to restore that emotional safety "tank" of energy, we have to take stock of what recharges our batteries. It's easy to see what physical space & safety look like, but often emotional safety is hard to visualize.


Three points with some questions to help you narrow your focus on what your emotional safety needs might be:


1) The balance between time you spend socializing with others and the time you need for yourself

  • Do I have friends I can talk to, family, and/or support communities I am regularly in contact with?

  • Am I taking time to prioritize my basic needs, such as exercise, nutrition, sleep, fresh air?

  • Am I measuring my worth based on "productivity" or "achievement" or "helpfulness" while also knowing I am an individual who has intrinsic worth?

  • Is either one (socializing or alone time) feeling overwhelming in any way? Am I shaming myself for doing 'too much' or 'too little'?


2) The awareness you have of body sensations and what they are telling you

  • Am I experiencing regular aching or sensitivity in any physical place in my body?

  • When I experience physical sensations, what are my accompanying emotions?


3) Your relationship with your own emotions

  • Am I aware of my emotions as I feel them every day?

  • Can I reframe my emotions (especially the more difficult ones) as messengers trying to convey an important clue?

  • Am I getting a diverse set of opinions from my emotions, or is one louder than the rest? Can I take time to listen to what the others have to say?


Each of these points requires a boundary. We want to recognize sadness and anger, while also limiting or giving safe space for a tantrum. We let ourselves feel, while also making sure we eat and sleep. We can maintain balance.


Boundaries allow us to connect sustainably.

When you have an unlimited supply of anything, we are prone to think that this is the best case scenario -- I will never be without. But imagine trying to absorb all the oxygen in the world at once, or eating an entire cake in one bite; we lose the benefit or the pleasure of it.


Boundaries help us grow and allow us freedom. We can all benefit from taking the time to reinforce good boundaries in our lives, even in quarantine.

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