The healing power of silence


Lindy Alexander

Finding time for peace and quiet brings many rewards, writes Lindy Alexander.


Photo: Tara Moore

Silence is golden, or so the saying goes. We have never been more connected to each other, but as the hours we are contactable and available increase, our desire for silence also grows. A recent CNN poll found more than half of surveyed airline passengers would pay extra for silent flights, and in many parts of the world, including Victoria and NSW, quiet carriages on trains are increasingly popular.

Ben Buchanan from Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services says silence can protect against some mental illnesses. "If people have experienced depression or anxiety and during therapy are shown ways to create silence or stillness, they relapse less often," he says. "And when they do, the depression is much less severe."

Silence takes many forms, he says. "I'm not always talking about actual silence, but a mental state of silence or stillness." There are, he says, simple ways to bring more quiet into your life.

Switch off


Australians are one of the highest users of social media worldwide, with a 2013 survey finding that, on average, we spend over 10 hours each day on electronic media. "With technology, the opportunities we once had for silence and stillness are now being filled with habitual, ritualistic checking behaviours," says Buchanan.

Regularly turning off all technology is something Buchanan recommends, although he recognises that for many it isn't easy. "People don't tolerate silence very well because we continually want to have stimulus to pay attention to and process," he says. If the thought of turning off your electronic devices leaves you cold, setting your phone to silent and turning off your computer between 10pm and 6am may be a way to ease into the digital disconnect.

Breathe through it

When she worked as a lawyer, Samantha Nolan-Smith says she barely had time to catch her breath. Now a lifestyle coach, Nolan-Smith learnt a simple breathing exercise that helped her find calm and stillness at work.

"I'd sneak into the bathroom and quickly do a two-minute technique," she says. "You inhale for four counts and exhale for eight. That instantly sends a message to the nervous system to slow down. It's a simple way to use the body to help you come into a place of quiet."

Sacred silence

Churches are one of the few spaces where silence is still revered. Regardless of religious beliefs, most churches have an open-door policy for people looking for a place to sit in peace. "Churches give people a sense of silence, introspection and the space to notice things they may not notice in their busy, chaotic lives," says Buchanan.

Dull your senses

Engaging in activities where some of your senses are amplified is a great way to find peace. Having a bath with the lights off, guided meditation, cycling and swimming are ways of minimising distractions and allowing your body to settle into a relaxed rhythm.

"I think about silence as being in the present moment and absorbing what's happening," says Buchanan. "Tuning into your thoughts and how your body is feeling clears the mental clutter and gives you a chance to live intentionally rather than habitually."

Take a course

For those ready to embrace silence, a residential course may be the answer. An ancient meditation technique, the Vipassana Code of Discipline, prohibits students from talking, reading, or writing for 10 days.

Melbourne social worker Kate Outhred says her Vipassana experience was incredible. "The isolation of being silent and unable to communicate with others prevents you from justifying your thoughts and behaviour, adopting the interpretations of others or distracting yourself from the reality in your own body and mind," she says.

Despite experiencing "some forms of sensory deprivation" and feeling "panicky, anxious and quite fearful" midway through, she now feels a sense of peace, resilience and happiness.

Keep practising

"All these techniques and practices require repetition," says Nolan-Smith. "We don't go to the gym and expect to turn our bodies from flabby to buff overnight. It's the same with silence."

She recommends finding a few minutes each day to practise breathing exercises, turning off electronic devices, or sitting quietly and building up from there. "We live with intense stimulation," she says. "This practice of silence needs to be something we do every day until it becomes natural to us."