How can silence benefit our mental health?

By Claire Munnings,
updated on Jun 30, 2020

How can silence benefit our mental health?

With pinging mobiles and thumping music taking over every element of our day, silence is a rarity in the modern world. But, could switching off from these sounds help us improve our physical and emotional health?

Can you hear that? It’s the sound of constant noise. We’re bombarded 24/7 by sounds of some sort – whether it’s car engines on the roads beside us, people talking in the queue in front of us, or a radio blaring out in our kitchen. And we’re also choosing to fill our lives with sound, too. In fact, as an increasing number of us turn to audiobooks to ease our daily journeys, music to motivate us while we do the chores, and white noise to help us sleep, it seems many of us have simply forgotten how to enjoy silence.

The World Health Organisation called noise pollution a ‘modern plague’ as long ago as 2011, and things have only got louder since then. So where has this obsession with sound come from?

Joanna Nylund is a Finnish-based journalist, and the author of a new book called Silence: Harnessing the restorative power of silence in a noisy world. For her, quietness is becoming an increasingly depleted and endangered natural resource, while noise is becoming a habitual go-to for many.

“Paradoxically, noise has become a way of tuning out the world,” she explains. “It can certainly have a calming effect sometimes – if you’re choosing a podcast over the chatter of fellow commuters, for instance – but this isn’t always the case.”

That’s because noise isn’t just used as a welcome distraction from intrusive sounds, but also as a diversion from our own feelings – whether we realise it or not. “Sitting in silence with just your thoughts to keep you company is a scary prospect for many, often because we know there are things in our lives we haven’t dealt with,” Joanna says. “Rather than stop to face them, we instinctively choose to just keep distracting ourselves.” The fact that all these different sounds are available at our fingertips doesn’t help matters either.

Drowned out

The problem is the impact this can have on our mental wellbeing.

Dr Arroll, a psychologist who works for Healthspan and at a private practice on Harley Street, says that purposefully ignoring emotions such as shame, guilt, fear and sadness by using other forms of distraction can have a dramatic effect on our minds and bodies.

“Constantly ignoring our feelings can have a negative impact on our health in the form of anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, and emotional burnout,” she explains. “It is challenging to sit with some emotions, but in my view it is imperative that we do so. It is only when we process uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and experiences, that we can arrive at a sense of acceptance and move forward.”

There’s more, too – research has found that the unnatural sounds filling the air around us can physically affect us in all sorts of ways. In fact, in 2011 the World Health Organisation calculated that at least one million healthy life-years are lost every year in western Europe countries as a result of traffic-related noise.

Noise isn’t just used as a welcome distraction from intrusive sounds, but also as a diversion from our own feelings – whether we realise it or not

“Noise stimulates the nervous system, which responds by raising our levels of stress hormone,” Joanna explains. “Constant noise means constantly raised stress hormone levels, making us vulnerable to a host of illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and strokes. Other physical impact ranges from gradual hearing loss and poor sleep, to high blood pressure, to name just a few.”

Noise exposure has also been connected to behavioural issues and cognitive impairment in children, and anxiety, poor attention span, and short-term memory problems in adults.

Peace and quiet

And so to silence.

We can see from the studies quoted previously that quietness is clearly good for our physical being, and that it also contributes majorly to our peace of mind, and allows us to process thoughts and feelings that would otherwise go ignored. But, that’s not all. A growing number of studies in the past decade have examined the effects of silence on our brain, with some very interesting results.

“A 2013 study on mice (with whom we share 97% of our working DNA) found that silence actually grows brain cells,” Joanna explains. “Silence also helps us access the default mode network, our brains’ preferred state of operation. It’s what we normally call ‘letting our minds wander’, and generally involves letting our brains rest from having to perform a specific task. This mode is essential to creativity and problem-solving.”

Could it be time to think twice about having that TV show on ‘in the background’ then?

Switch off

It seems obvious how we can go about introducing more silence into our lives. Surely we just turn off all distractions, and sit down in quietness for a few moments each day, right? Well, yes, that would work – but the problem is many of us aren’t used to doing this, and it can feel quite alien to some.

For this reason, it can be useful to ease ourselves into the idea of silence. “If you get nervous at the prospect of relaxing in silence, or just prefer not to sit still, I would recommend a walk in nature, or a trip to a museum in the off-hours,” advises Joanna. “A quiet hobby, preferably something you do with your hands, creates a wonderful kind of inner quiet, too.”

Dr Arroll agrees that getting outside is a great way to connect with yourself and the native sounds around us. “Research has shown that connecting with nature and focusing on the natural world lowers the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure, calms our mood, and increases a sense of wellbeing. Try to walk in the mornings, and don’t take a device with you. Notice the sights, smells, and physical sensations while you’re meandering to silence your mind,” she suggests.

And of course, step away from your phone when possible. “Trying to limit your screen time goes a long way towards increasing stillness – to the brain, noise can be visual just as well as audible,” says Joanna. “I practise keeping a ‘digital day of rest’ for 24 hours every week. It’s amazing how much head (and soul) space that can free up, with room for stillness to come flooding in.”

So, go on – take a moment to sit back and enjoy a few moments of stress-reducing, creativity-inspiring silence. Your brain will thank you for it.

By Claire Munnings

Claire Munnings is a health and wellbeing journalist, interested in helping people find happiness in their everyday lives. She enjoys writing about how we can live more mindfully.

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