We live in an increasingly noisy world. The constant drone of traffic, household appliances, music, television and sounds in public places is disturbing sleep and increasing stress levels for many people. Escaping noise is a modern-day challenge, but doing so could be essential to our well-being: the power of silence is scientifically proven when it comes to the benefits it can offer our minds and bodies.
In 2011 the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that studied the impact of environmental noise from planes, trains and vehicles, and other community and leisure sources. The ten-year study looked at links to health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment in children, annoyance and tinnitus.
It found that in Western Europe alone the total burden of health effects from environmental noise was greater than one million years of healthy life lost collectively each year. This figure does not even include the impact of industrial noise pollution in workplaces.
Indeed, modern life is full of noise. There are sounds from the environment and a general lack of quiet that comes with a hectic life. Distractions and interruptions during the day have now become the norm, adding to the noise in our lives.
Cultivating peace with calming walks in nature
Even sounds we are not aware of – particularly those sounds which we hear when we are asleep – can have a tremendous impact on our well-being. The human ear never goes to sleep and is constantly listening to sound. It is a sensitive organ and while we are deep in slumber, the ear is still picking up and transmitting sound to the brain.
The brain receives electrical signals of sound and promptly activates a stress response in the amydgala – neurons responsible for processing fear and emotions – with the immediate release of cortisol, along with elevated blood pressure and heart rate.
In fact, studies show that exposure to nocturnal sounds can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Long-term exposure to noise can lead to a variety of health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep problems, tinnitus, and cognitive impairment in children. Furthermore, noise also causes stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue in both humans and animals.
Noise expert Bernie Krause says that the incessant sounds of modern day living are making people unhappy and driving them to take sleeping pills and antidepressants.
Our lives are busy, and a few minutes of silence is a rare treat for most people. Many of us don’t get to embrace silence as much as our world has become increasingly digitized and we are more dependent on our devices: many of us are constantly ‘on’.
Even conversations with family members, work colleagues, kids and friends do not give us the respite we need from noise. In fact, it just adds to the mental clutter going on in our minds and creates more frustration, anger and an imbalance in our mental and physical health.
“Escaping noise is a modern-day challenge but essential to our well-being: the power of silence is scientifically-proven when it comes to the benefits it can offer our minds and bodies.”
The obvious answer is to take a break from external noise and internal chatter and aim for some silence and solitude. But, for some people, silence can be uncomfortable and scary as they are left alone with their worrisome thoughts, which can be stressful. For others, the fear of silence can be profound, because they are now used to a noisy world.
Silence is important for our health and well-being, just as exercise and nourishment are. So, what are the benefits of silence and how can the power of silence help us?
Two hours of solitude and silence every day could potentially rejuvenate your brain. In a 2013 study scientists exposed mice to three types of sound, including baby mouse calls. They included silence as a control and expected baby mouse calls to stimulate development of brain cells.
To their surprise, scientists found that two hours of silence per day prompted greater healthy brain cell growth in the hippocampus – an area of the brain responsible for memory formation, learning, motivation and regulation of emotional responses.
The importance of quiet sleep cannot be stressed enough as it helps restore the body and the mind, and is important for your physical, emotional and cognitive health.
Ten to 15 minutes of sitting in silence can boost your memory. The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of quiet contemplation also have positive implications for those who have a neurological injury, such as a stroke, and may release a latent capacity to learn and recall for people with amnesia and some sorts of dementia.
A 2014 study on patients with amnesia showed that a ten-minute rest in a quiet darkened room boosted recall from 14 to 49 per cent. The study also found similar results for healthy participants boosting memory recall from ten to 30 per cent.
Embrace the power of silence through meditation shutterstock/fizkes
Stress can disrupt the natural processes of your body, but taking a break and embracing the power of silence can lower blood cortisol level and adrenaline and relieve stress.
In fact, silence is more relaxing than listening to meditative music and just two minutes of silence improves blood circulation and reduces blood pressure to ease tension from the body and brain. Furthermore, when you’re not stressed, your natural biological mechanisms can heal and repair your body.
Silence is not only the absence of sound and speech, it is also refers to the quietening of your ‘monkey mind’ – the relentless stream of evaluative thoughts and emotions that plague our minds. When you learn to quieten your mind with mindfulness and meditation, you will notice a distinct shift in your awareness and sensitivity to the environment around you.
Interestingly, moments of silence can also benefit your heart. The American Heart Association says that taking some time out to practise meditation and mindfulness can do wonders for heart health as it lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and thus lowers the overall risk for heart disease.
Taking a moment to breathe, calm your inner mind and get away from noise has the potential to regulate your breath, and do away with stress which you may not even be aware of. When you are not distracted by noise, your brain returns to its default mode and integrates internal and external information “into a conscious workspace,” promoting mental clarity.
According to Attention Restoration Theory, spending more time in an environment that is restorative, rather than one which has high sensory input, restores the brain’s cognitive resources.
“Embracing the power of silence does not have to be about the absence of sound, but also about getting away from distracting noises that stimulate your brain and trigger a stress response.”
That is why when you take a walk in nature away from urban areas, your stress levels reduce and you feel happier afterwards. A low sensory environment provides the solitude and silence you need, which helps clear your mind, reduce mental fatigue and internal noise, and helps you to rejuvenate and relax.
When you're in a noisy environment, it becomes difficult to make any decisions, as your brain is constantly being bombarded with stimuli.
But just five minutes of silence not only reduces the stress response of the amygdala but it also releases serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin — known as happy hormones. This restores your well-being and your mind becomes calmer. With that, you can make better decisions as you process information with clarity and awareness.
Solitude and periods of silence allows your mind to wander, which is essential for 'incubation' – one of the four stages of creativity where you let go of what you're working on or thinking of.
Studies show that during incubation, even though you're not thinking of any particular thing, there are unconscious processes taking place in the brain, searching for a solution. And it is during this stage that you come up with creative solutions. Daydreaming, taking a walk in nature and good sleep are all wonderful sources for incubation, thus boosting your creative potential.
Clearly, science shows that silence gives our mind and body a break from the noise of the modern world and brings with it many powerful benefits. So, how can you embrace silence in your life? What can you do to find solitude and instill it into your daily practice?
The World Health Organization has called noise pollution ‘a modern plague.’ And rightly so. Many studies and experts have warned us about the harm that excessive noise causes not only to our health and mental well-being but also to the health of this planet.
Not to mention the disruption caused by the noise that goes on in our minds as we stumble through a busy life. Cultivating silence then becomes imperative: there is a power in silence that results in multiple body and mind benefits.
Embracing the power of silence does not have to be about the absence of sound, but also about getting away from distracting noises that stimulate your brain and trigger a stress response.
Depending on where you you live and your lifestyle, you may find it hard to escape from noise at all. But you can always cultivate a habit to find a few moments of powerful silence and calm in your day. And, as you do so, you should notice a world of difference to your health and well-being. •
Main image: shutterstock/Vitalii Bashkatov
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Meena Azzollini is a health and wellness content writer from Australia. She takes a heart-centred approach to help businesses make meaningful connections with their audience through effective content marketing solutions. You can connect with her at www.meenawrites.com.
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