In an effort to be the best employee, mom, or friend we can be, many of us lead a lifestyle full of activities and commitments. But all too often the pressure of juggling too much puts real strain on our mental health. With no breathing room in our lives, we become anxious, stressed, and even depressed, lost in a never-ending maze of to-dos, or over-committed to relationships that do more harm than good. What if we could create some much-needed space for our emotional well-being? It may be possible with two little letters: N-O. Choosing to (politely) refuse can help put us in control of two critical stress factors: our time and our relationships.

woman mental health

Let’s talk time. Americans work more hours now than at any time since statistics have been kept (and report feeling more anxious than ever). It’s not just our own schedules we pack; the multitude of activities extends to the whole family: Seven out of 10 parents report their kids are involved in extracurricular sports, often several at one time. Added to appointments, volunteer efforts, and social obligations, it can all tally up to multiple commitments of time on a daily basis. But doing a little bit of everything might not lead to happiness. A 2009 study showed that women who experienced “role overload” (defined as “the extent to which a person feels overwhelmed by her total responsibilities”) were more likely to suffer from poor mental health. If you’re among the many who feel your schedule is running you ragged, perhaps it’s time for a hard look at where to say no.

But how? In her book Breathing Room ($17), motivational speaker Sandra Stanley suggests a simple visual activity to narrow down commitments and find necessary mental space. Draw three concentric circles. In the central “core” circle, write your non-negotiables — the roles in your life that only you can play, such as “mother,” “sister,” “owner of my business,” or “wife.” In the second circle, put down the roles that are unique to you, but where you could be replaced. Perhaps this includes your position at work or casual friendships. Finally, in the outermost circle, write the roles where you could easily be exchanged for someone else, like Little League coach or work committee member. Now comes the toughest part: deciding where to “trim the fat” in order to bring better balance to your schedule.

Saying no to certain extras allows for more time on whatever we truly value. And living our values correlates highly with mental health. Says William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No ($17), “Only by saying no to competing demands for your time and energy can you create space for the yeses in your life, the people and activities that really matter the most to you.”

In addition to refusing to over-schedule, saying no in relationships may bring even more emotional relief. As anyone with a difficult person in her life can attest, unhealthy commitments to others can cause enormous mental health strain. In fact, according to a recent poll, Americans’ stress levels around relationships are on the rise, with nearly 50 percent of people surveyed saying that issues with family, friends, or coworkers make them “extremely” or “somewhat” anxious. While you may not be able to rectify all your relationship problems with a single word, choosing when to pull away or back out can establish boundaries that significantly reduce stress.

In relationships, we say yes when we’d really rather say no for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we take on more than we can handle in order to please others, or agree to squeeze in social events to keep from missing out. Sometimes our “yes” is an unspoken agreement to maintain status quo in a relationship, even if we’d like to see things change. But is it really worth the resulting burden of stress? Asking, “What’s the worst that could happen if I say no to this person?” may bring surprising revelations. Staying home from a family dinner may hurt some feelings, for example, but for an exhausted introvert, it may serve as necessary self-protection. Likewise, telling your BFF you can’t keep gossiping about a mutual friend is a “no” that keeps you from getting sucked into unnecessary drama. “Saying no means, first of all, saying Yes! to yourself and protecting what is important to you,” says Ury.

While it’s only natural to fear being rude or offensive, Ury emphasizes that saying no can actually lead to more authenticity in relationships. Getting honest enough to express true feelings takes a relationship deeper than the people-pleasing surface. And setting boundaries offers the important bonus of teaching others how they can and cannot treat you — a line in the sand that will only build your good vibes.

When your mental health is at stake, less is often more. If a commitment of time isn’t truly critical, or if a relationship needs a little boundary-setting, self-care may mean creating a bit of breathing room. For your own well-being, just say no.

How do you set boundaries for your mental health? Tweet us at @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)

Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.