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Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery

Developing a sense of personal safety and establishing boundaries is a very important when dealing with my symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I can tremendously reduce my anxiety and hypervigilance through creating a safe space for myself. I do this by establishing boundaries as part of my PTSD recovery.

PTSD Recovery and Establishing Boundaries

I remember a great scene from the movie Dirty Dancing, where Patrick Swayze is teaching Setting clear boundaries can greatly reduce the anxiety of PTSD symptoms. Jennifer Grey how to dance. She keeps stepping on his toes. He backs up, and moves his arm in a broad circle around himself. He says, “That’s my space.” Then he makes a similar circle around her, and says, “That’s your space.”

He follows it up by telling her, “You stay in your space, and I stay in my space.” That was the best example I ever saw to help me understand how to establish boundaries for myself.

Growing up in an alcoholic family where domestic violence occurred, I didn’t have clear ideas about setting boundaries. I knew what it felt like when someone crossed my boundaries — I felt crowded, or trapped, but couldn’t quite understand how that had happened.

After seeing the movie, I realized that my feeling of being crowded occurred when someone came inside my circle of safety, either by standing too close, or by being overbearing and leaning in too close to me verbally.

Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery the Dysfunctional Way

I discovered over the years that I did establish boundaries, the only way I knew how. I had one person say “You know, I’ve seen your boundaries, Dan – you have black belt boundaries.”

Once I was in a large gathering, and had gotten crowded into a corner. One person – in a very friendly way — took my hand to shake it, and with his other hand grasped my arm. I didn’t say anything, and began to dissociate, but he quickly backed off. He later told me “Dan, you went rattlesnake.”

Apparently I got a look on my face much like a cornered animal who was dangerous. I used passive-aggressive behavior to keep that circle of space for myself, which wasn’t a very healthy way to establish boundaries.

Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery in a Healthy Way

I’ve had to learn more appropriate ways to set boundaries by trial and error; and I’ve found that just being clear about what I need goes a long way.

I move back. If someone is too close to me, and I begin to feel unsafe, the easiest way to set a boundary is to simply step back. A lot of people will catch the hint, and stay at that same distance. That may fix the issue; because, I’ve re-established my safe space.

I say something. If someone continues to crowd me, I have found that speaking out for myself can help address the situation. I might say “I’m feeling a bit crowded here, could you please step back?” Or if they are verbally in my space, I may say “You know, I feel a little uncomfortable with how you are speaking. Could you lower your voice a little?”

I just leave. If a person just doesn’t honor the boundaries I’m trying to set, I may have to leave the situation. Having the awareness that I can leave at any time has helped me relax a lot in social settings.

How to set boundaries with family. It’s very critical for me to set clear boundaries with my family, because safe space was so fragile when I was growing up. A family with weak boundaries can just step all over each other. Maintaining my clear sense of my safe space has made time with family much more enjoyable.

Being able to draw a circle around myself and let someone know “this is my space,” has really helped decrease my anxiety, and has been a valuable part of my PTSD recovery.

Photo from Geoff LMV @ Flickr. Creative Commons.

Dan is a PTSD survivor, and author of Healing The Writer: A Personal Account of Overcoming PTSD and Freedom’s Just Another Word. You can connect with Dan on TwitterFacebook, and Google+, and at his website DanLHays.com.

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8 Responses to Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery

  1. Great article. Boundaries are such an important part of healing. Dysfunctional families don’t want boundaries. When I was a child I used walls to hide behind and to feel safe. The wall let no one in but it also kept me a prisoner inside. Boundaries are flexible. Walls are not.

    • Dan Hays says:

      Thanks, Patricia! I do agree – in a dysfunctional family, they don’t want boundaries. I hid behind books to feel safe. What a fantastic way of saying it – boundaries are flexible, walls are not. I’ll remember that!

      Cheers,
      Dan

  2. Phyllis says:

    This is a very important topic as most trauma survivors lived without any boundaries. My father, aptsd war survivor with severe delusions, could, at any moment, barge into my room and start slamming my windows shut, fearing contamination. Even my room was not safe.

    • Dan Hays says:

      Hi Phyllis,
      I agree – boundaries are a very important topic. It must have been really scary for your father to come charging into your room like that. I do relate to having no safe space.

      Dan

  3. Sandra says:

    I am ‘brand new’ here, and am hoping no none minds me rambling on for a moment…I am having a recurring problem, and am wondering if anyone might have any ideas as to how I can solve this.
    Background: I am in therapy. I like it. I intend to keep going. My therapist has helped me identify ‘PTSD-like symptoms’, though she did not officially diagnose me with PTSD. I have anxiety, but it doesn’t seem to fit the diagnostic criteria. I have this problem with freaking out internally if I feel as though a male, or men approach me too quickly, are verbally aggressive (persistent might be a better term), or if I feel ‘surrounded’ by too many men. If they stand ‘too close’ (which is subjective), I feel like its an ambush. I cannot STAND any of them standing so that I feel blocked in by people and/or furniture.
    I work in a male dominated office setting. One-on-one is easier, but still uncomfortable. Outside is easier than inside.
    I am frustrated that I continue to feel this way. It seems to be getting worse as I continue in therapy and work on mindfulness and staying in the present. The problem is, I can get so anxious to the point of feeling panicky that my heart races and I can’t calm myself down. And I never seem to know when it will happen. I do not have the same reaction around women-even the couple I don’t like! It seems to happen so quickly that I don’t have time to remind myself to breathe, or count backwards, or concentrate on something tactile, etc.
    ANY suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    • Dan Hays says:

      Hi Sandra,
      You didn’t ramble, as far as I see, and you express yourself very succinctly. You say “I have anxiety, but it doesn’t seem to fit the diagnostic criteria.” I’m just wondering how you determined that, because what you describe sure sounds like the anxiety I feel, which is caused by my PTSD.

      One of the symptoms of PTSD is hypervigilance, which is a heightened sense of alert or as I describe it “when my threat detectors are going off” – which is what I experience when I feel too crowded – and it sounds very similar to your experience in feeling closed in by too many men.

      One of the things that I’ve experienced is that as I get closer to my issues, my symptoms become more inflamed at times. Like they say “it has to get worse before it gets better.” It’s like I get sensitized in therapy by addressing the issues that caused my anxiety. Well, when that happens, I get triggered by similar feeling experiences. I had issues with my Dad, and one time at a group gathering a large man, who looked angry, pounded his fist on a table. It reminded me of something my Dad had done, and I got super anxious. I’m just wondering if that might be happening to you.

      I think the best suggestion I could make is – continue with the therapy. It sounds like this therapist has really picked up on some of your issues.

      The other thing I might offer is a support forum, where you’ll find many people who understand what you’re experiencing. It was started by Michele Rosenthal, who began this blog. Here’s a link: https://healthunlocked.com/healmyptsd

      We’re glad you’re here, and feel free to comment or ask questions at any time!

      Regards,
      Dan

      • Sandra says:

        Hi Dan,

        Thanks for your response!
        What I mean by not fitting the criteria is that I don’t seem to have an ‘anxiety disorder’, although she and I agree that what I experience is obviously anxiety.
        We have discussed hypervigilance, and what may cause it. I do wish I could point to a moment when someone pounded a fist on a table and somehow know that that was what caused my anxiety, like your example. Unfortunately, I get little flashes and ‘ah-ha’ moments LONG afterwards, and sometimes not at all. And they hardly ever make sense.
        I read something recently on complex PTSD, and I felt like large portions of the book were written for me. I discussed this with my therapist, and it helped sort of spring board us into other discussions. I think she is careful to use the word diagnosis with me because when I first started seeing her I was very worked up about being labeled in any way. Now, it wouldn’t bother me at all. At any rate, that chunk of info was just designed to give an idea of where I’m at.
        I REALLY appreciate your comment about things getting worse before they get better. That is VERY helpful to know. So, maybe I need to resign myself to a little more patience. I have noticed that my dreams go through cycles. When I’m on the edge of figuring something out-or even just remembering something-the dreams can get very weird and feel very frightening, even if the ‘plot’ was a mundane one. Then, as I have figured things out, I have very boring dreams that feel wonderful. At any rate, thank you for your feedback! I will definitely continue with the therapy, and thank you so much for the link!

        • Dan Hays says:

          Hi Sandra,
          You’re very welcome! I see what you mean about not being quite sure you have an anxiety disorder, but have anxiety. Interestingly, PTSD is categorized as an anxiety disorder, so things are pointing in that direction for you.

          I understand about not being able to point to an event that caused the anxiety. You might find my most recent article something that resonates, about Inner Child Exercises. Also watch the video, because I describe how frustrating it was not to be able to point to a particular moment where my anxiety started.

          Yes, complex PTSD is an interesting new iteration, and definitely fits for me. As I understand it, it’s from a pattern of abuse, as opposed to a single incident.

          You’re very welcome about the things getting worse insight. I had a therapist say “Dan, things are going to be shitty for a while,” and it was then OK that I felt lousy and my symptoms were all up in my face. Yes patience is indicated, but easy to say, tougher to practice!

          Great that you’re continuing with the therapeutic work, and I think you’ll find that forum very helpful. It’s a really safe space.

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