When was the last time you were surrounded by complete and utter silence?
The kind where you can hear the tap dripping. But here’s the catch – no typing on your laptop, reaching for your phone, or putting on music.
Just you and the silence.
From the minute our eyes blink open we are conditioned to be on the go – check social media, check your emails, listen to a podcast on our way out, and then work, work, work. We go for prolonged periods of time without a beat of silence.
So, when we are met with a quiet space, our gut reaction tends to be one of startled mice scurrying away from a sudden noise – that silence can be deafening. We unconsciously reach for our phone, put our headphones on, or seek the next task to engage our mind and body with.
‘We’re taught by society that we should be doing more,’ says career and life coach, Emily Button-Lynham. ‘When we stop, there is that sense we’re not doing enough and we’re not living up to our potential. So carving out a quiet time to slow down sometimes can be quite uncomfortable.’
We live in such an all-round noisy world that we forget that the absence of silence actually can be detrimental to our health.
Leaning into quiet moments has been scientifically proven to help better physical health. A 2006 study found that just two minutes of silence can significantly reduce heart rate and blood pressure, while a 2013 experiment on mice proved that two hours of silence could be responsible for the development of new cells in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for our memory, emotions, and learning ability.
But, health benefits aside, silence can be the ultimate tool to understanding ourselves better – if only the wariness of staying still in a quiet room faded away.
‘In a productivity-driven world we tend to feel a sense of guilt if every moment is not spent ‘doing’ something,’ says psychologist and author, Dr Meg Arroll. ‘Yet “being” is an important part of the human experience and it is within these quiet moments that creativity can be sparked and our deep-seated needs come to light.
‘Our minds need periods of quiet time to process events, feelings and experiences and to recover and build strength.
‘By shifting our mindset to view silent moments as time for resilience building, it’s possible to see these periods as useful, if not vital, for psychological wellbeing.’
If we redefined our view of silent moments, from ‘empty’ time condemned by our ‘lack of productivity’ to a chance to carve out the space for introspection, we might be surprised by the things we will discover about ourselves.
But, how can a few mere minutes of silence help with getting a better grip into who we are?
We get a better understanding of our feelings
Growing up during the regime of hustle culture has trained us to do instead of think or feel.
We busy ourselves when we feel low or anxious and we use work as a way to overcome emotionally distressful events. We treat being busy as the salve to heal all wounds.
In fact, we are often so detached from the way we feel that we no longer can recognise the feelings we might be experiencing or retain the tools to process and confront them.
‘We often use the clatter and busyness of life to distract ourselves from emotional pain,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘But this is not an adaptive long-term strategy as our needs will bubble up, usually in the form of harmful behaviours such as emotional eating, unhealthy relationships or overwork, sometimes leading to anxiety, depression and burnout.’
By using that silent time to acknowledge emotions we perhaps would have overlooked during a busy day we could avoid internalising our emotions physically and mentally, and instead find emotional stability. Not the fragile one we convince ourselves we have as we ‘keep busy’, the real, long-term kind.
‘But always do this with a large dose of self-compassion,’ warns Dr Arroll. ‘It can take time and patience to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
‘We often wonder why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviours and interactions – the answers are within us but they need safe space to emerge.’
Breathwork facilitator and founder of Mind You Club, Sophie Belle Watts, advises her clients that ‘to feel is to heal’.
‘Because when you’re acknowledging and allowing your body and your, your mind really to feel emotion that it allows them to move through us and be processed, and released,’ she says.
‘If you take advantage of such moments to just be aware of what has facilitated a change in how you’re feeling, then it doesn’t get stored within you.’
We can filter through our ‘monkey brain’
Despite, the brilliant capabilities and creativity our brain exhibits, it also has a tendency to zero in on a thought and aggrandize it – in other words, over-exaggerate its importance.
Sophie refers to that as ‘monkey brain’ because of our mind’s tendency to ‘just flit around and drag you in different directions’.
‘It just jumps around, kind of out of your control in a lot of ways,’ she says.
‘By taking some time to sit down and filter through our thoughts, we can recognize a thought just as a thought, rather than turning that into an emotion and allowing it to gather feelings and momentum.
‘Our mind can be so busy, especially when we’re presented with so much stimulation that we get really caught up and really attached to those thoughts. And we can let those thoughts change completely how we feel.’
Breaking down the thoughts gnawing at us could save us a lot of discomfort and possibly later on misdirected anger, because, in Sophie’s words, a thought can trigger so many emotions’.
We focus on where we are in the present
Sitting in silence can be a form of practicing mindfulness, connecting people to what is happening now and calming thoughts of anxiety about past events and future plans.
When we silence these internal anxieties, we can focus more on where we are in life, what has been fulfilling and what has stirred more anxiety and distress rather than contentment.
You might have been working tirelessly to get a promotion in your company because that has been the end goal for the past five years, without considering the fact that you haven’t been happy working there.
‘I think people spend so much time either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future,’ says Sophie. ‘And what they’re experiencing is still in the present moment.
‘It’s a lot more practical because we’re dealing with what’s going on right now rather than living in the past or the future, because our life is a whole string of present moments.’
We connect to our true sense of self
The world is a noisy place. We are constantly surrounded by noise – external opinions, suggestions, advice, sounds, echoes and vibrations.
Our brains are stretched thin by the myriad of tasks and expectations in demand of attention, and as we give in to the pre-established pace society has set for us, we lose a sense of who we are, what’s important to us, and who we might want to be.
So, who do we want to be when no one else is looking or itching to offer up an opinion?
According to Emily, these quiet moments can ‘help us connect to our true sense of self rather than the sense of self we portray to the world or that society expects to work on us’.
She tells us: ‘It allows us to really connect into what we want to be doing in life.
‘The better you understand exactly what you want, the more likely it will lead to happiness, because you’ll be on a path that moves in flow.
‘That path connects us to who we are and what we want to do, which is unique to us. It’s not what other people expect.’
We understand what our body needs
Understanding ourselves is intricately linked with understanding our body.
‘We’re not robots, we’re not machines,’ says Emily. ‘Asking “what does my body need” and connecting with it in those periods is really important, because that’s how you’re going to get that alignment that’s related to really positive mental health.’
Taking a few minutes to simply switch off and focus on our body, could prove a better ailment than the paracetamol and cold and flu drugs we have learned to gobble down at the slightest feeling of physical discomfort.
\We keep going when actually our body just needs us to slow down, and that can take a while to really lean into and understand,’ Emily adds. ‘But if we start from a place of listening to what our body needs today, and connecting with that intuition, that’s how we achieve harmony.’
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