Life

Stressed and anxious? It's time to embrace the sound of silence

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Kate Faithfull-Williams
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True silence is rare, and that scarcity makes it a luxury item in 2017. 

When was the last time you experienced true silence? No pinging phone. No stop-start traffic, maddening sniffing or the random banging from an uncomfortably close construction site. No, “Hey, have you got five minutes?” or distracting snatches of conversation. Our world is loud – and the feeling of being cocooned by velvety silence is as out of reach as a desert island. True silence is rare. And that scarcity makes it a luxury item.

This season sees a plethora of new noise-cancelling launches, from new book The Art Of Silence by Amber Hatch to quiet adventure holidays like swimming off uninhabited islands in Mexico. Silent retreats have become a sought-after status symbol, advocated by the likes of supermodel Gisele Bundchen and actress Emma Watson. “I really wanted to figure out how to be at home with myself,” says Watson, who spent a week in a Canadian Rocky Mountain retreat. Bundchen favours three days of yoga in the Costa Rican rainforest, and swears by 20-minute daily microbreaks, “whenever I feel a lot of intensity coming from all over the place”. Silence is the new escape route from hustle and bustle. You can even celebrate New Year’s Eve in silence, spending three tranquil days practising yoga and meditation in the East Sussex countryside, a world away from the deafening doof-doof of your neighbour’s party.

“We’re living with so much more noise now than we were three years ago, not to mention 20 years ago,” says Erling Kagge, author of 2017 book Silence In The Age of Noise, which has made such a, well, noise, on the publishing scene that it has already been translated into 34 languages. “Noise represents distractions, expectations and pressure. No wonder it is stressful. Silence is a deeply human need, up there with the need to eat and sleep.” Right now, he says, we’re at a tipping point: silence has become more scarce, yet our lives are so busy that the need for silence has become more explicit than ever before.

The day-to-day roar that surrounds us plays havoc with our physical health and mental wellbeing. The boom in air traffic means thousands of us regularly pause while a 110-decibel jet flies overhead: exposure to 90-decibel sound levels for a long time can cause permanent hearing loss, according to BBC figures. Even the sea has got louder: ocean traffic has increased so much that endangered orcas are struggling to communicate with their pods over the din. It’s a situation you can probably sympathise with if you’ve found it impossible to hear friends talk over dinner in a restaurant. Last year, a study by the charity Action on Hearing Loss found that 81% of us have experienced difficulty holding a conversation while eating out. The Pipedown campaign wants to put an end to unwanted music in restaurants and pubs and has many celebrity supporters, including Joanna Lumley and Mark Rylance.

While irritation may be our reflex response to little noises like the hum of air conditioning or the beep of someone else’s inbox, that exasperation can lead to behavioural problems, according to research from the University of Nebraska, which affect everything from our performance at work to our relationships. Interruptions in the office are calculated to add 90 minutes to our working day. In a study published by Oxford University Press, loud noise over 85 decibels (around the same volume as a kitchen mixer on full) was found to impair creativity and problem-solving skills. Exposure to loud volume has even been proven to makes us less intelligent, according to research published in the Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology. It found people living in noisy, lower, cheaper floors of apartment buildings have lower IQs than those living on quieter, higher, more expensive floors where traffic noise has less impact. Even after accounting for educational level and property value, the result persists.

Noise packs a physical punch too, and intermittent noises like drilling and car alarms are particularly harmful. “Evidence suggests that when noise is unnaturally and excessively loud it disorientates and can lead to the ‘fight or flight’ stress response,” explains John Stewart, author of Why Noise Matters. “That stress can lead to physical illnesses.” When you’re stressed out, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises and your digestive system slows, explains health psychologist Professor Gail Kinman from the University of Bedfordshire. That explains why repeated exposure to noise pollution can put us on a dangerous path towards high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, as a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and European Commission cautions. Researchers warn of the “overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population”.

Why is the world so noisy?

Technology has enabled us to do so much that it seems as if the whole world is afflicted by busyness. While there are life-enhancing advantages of being connected 24/7, bustling about is to the detriment of downtime. And don’t get started on the expectation that we voice an opinion on every debate from Brexit to Brooklyn Beckham’s photography – it’s exhausting. “About that which we cannot speak, let us remain silent,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1922, but today we cannot win. The more activity going on around us, the more noise we’re making in response – either to be heard or to block out the sound of others. We’ve cranked up the volume on our headphones so much it’s no surprise that a 2017 WHO report shows 1.1 billion young adults are at risk of hearing problems due to exposure from recreational noise.

Absurd though it may seem, silence now comes with a wildly expensive price tag. It’s normal to pay a four-figure sum for a restorative retreat, even one in the simplest setting. But silence is an investment in your own personal success, which is why we’re now prepared to pay big money for it. “People with more money have more silence around them,” says Kagge. “Their houses are tranquil sanctuaries barricaded by soundproof windows. They have PAs to gatekeep their corner offices at work so they’re not bothered by conversations they don’t want to be a part of. They have access to airline lounges to sidestep the hubbub of other passengers. Even the expensive engines of their high-performance cars are noise-cancelling – and they rarely take public transport.” Though presumably when they do take the bus, they do so wearing Bose Quiet Comfort Headphones, £329.95.

Noise and money are linked. The market research organisation MORI revealed almost 20% of people with a household income of less than £17,500 regularly hear noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants. Only 12% of people with an income over £30,000 could hear neighbours. What’s more, the less well-off are more likely to live right next to the train track or on a busy road, making silence seem even further from reach.

Absurd though it may seem, silence now comes with a wildly expensive price tag.

The search for silence

“We live in a world where the overarching message is that in order to be happier we need to engage more, buy more and have more experiences,” says Amber Hatch, author of The Art Of Silence. “Yet many of us intuitively know that more is not going to help. We need a radical overhaul of the way we interact with the world. Silence is that radical answer.”

Finding silence goes beyond turning down the volume on the auditory stimuli that tug at our attention. Try resisting the temptation to fill your time up with more stimulation, and let yourself do nothing. “Silence is about saying no, refraining and abstaining,” continues Hatch. “It’s only in these moments of silence that we can actually take time to know what it is like to be ourselves, and to notice and appreciate the world before us. Shutting out the noise is a method of self preservation.”

In our search for outer silence, we might dream of getting peace of mind in the stillness of an early morning or the serenity of wide, open countryside. In Japan, they refer to the calming power of nature noises as ‘forest bathing’. But Kagge says even in the middle of a bustling city you can find a quiet space – a park, a bookshop, a church – within 20 minutes’ walk. The new Quiet Garden Movement, where outdoor spaces in farms, private gardens and hospital grounds are open to the public in need of restful contemplation, is growing fast with hundreds of venues across the UK and hundreds more globally. Even this basic, external kind of silence can bring us some sense of peace.

Silence is a luxury, but one that is mostly affordable to everyone.

Merely thinking about turning down the volume is restorative. “Silence can be very replenishing as it calms the blood pressure, lowers stress and steadies the heart rate,” says Professor Kinman. “After a busy day it’s vital to allow our minds and bodies to go down to a healthy baseline state. Twenty minutes of silence can give a psychological sense of resolution. It’s very important to have a space that allows you to reflect without interruption. Your brain has a chance to process your day and still your mind so you can sleep at night.”

Ah, sleep. That’s when you really want to experience silence. Unfortunately, night is the time when we’re most disturbed, and enraged, by noise. Add your partner’s snoring to a conversation outside on the street and a weird creak somewhere downstairs, and you have the recipe for dark bags. Noise-related sleep deprivation is estimated to cost the British economy £40 billion a year, according to a report entitled Why Sleep Matters – The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep.

Though external noise is exasperating, it is at night that our minds are often noisiest. Against the backdrop of a frantic world, silence can seem impossibly far away. It’s time to let our inner silence bloom. “We forget that silence is an inherent quality of the human mind, that each and every one of us has the potential to experience it and that all we need to do is to learn how to cultivate the right conditions in the mind for it to become a regular visitor, a stable experience in our life,” says meditation expert Andy Puddicombe. Silence is a luxury, but one that is mostly affordable to everyone.

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Kate Faithfull-Williams

Kate is an editor, health coach and author of The Feelgood Plan. She likes chocolate and working out in equal measure, and only ever drinks house wine. Her one mission in life is to find a yoga move that smooths out her iPhone claw hand. Follow her on Instagram: @katefaithfullwilliams

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