For some the sound of silence is a welcome, albeit rare, experience that offers a respite from the usual chaos of daily life. With personal technology and screens interrupting at a moment’s notice, it can be a real challenge to experience a decent amount of silence each day (unless you substitute it with a little Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background, of course). Yet for others, silence is not welcome at all. In fact, it is during the silence when some people feel the most uncomfortable.
During a busy day, technology stimulates our brains, keeps our attention shifting, and constantly gives us material to think about. It also overshadows or blocks out our negative internal thoughts (our anxiety, our doubts, our fears, our self-criticism, etc.). When mental stimulation acts to block out unresolved negative thoughts, it can be quite uncomfortable to be in silence. After all, the silent moments are when you can hear your most personal thoughts. For many people, this time occurs as they attempt to go to sleep at the end of their day. Just as they are trying to shut off their brains, that’s when the anxiety or self-critical thoughts start to intensify.
Think of our unresolved negative thoughts as an annoying radio station that is constantly playing in the background. If the person does not know how to turn off the radio station (or is afraid to approach it to turn it off) they are left with two options: 1.) Be constantly annoyed or feel overwhelmed, or 2.) Drown it out with something less annoying. We often choose option #2 by checking email, surfing the web, texting, watching TV, listening to podcasts, spending time with friends, etc. Every activity is a new radio station that just drowns out (temporarily) the unresolved thoughts that are lingering beneath them. Eventually, as you try to drift off to sleep, you are left with an ever-increasing volume of negative thoughts.
Hopefully it is obvious by now, but I think this strategy of distraction is unproductive. Instead, I recommend that you:
- Confront your negative, anxious, self-critical thoughts by talking about them with a counselor.
- Reduce the distractions of your daily life (throughout the day as well as prior to going to bed)
- Increase intentional silence by: practicing meditation, seeking out silent places, practicing mindfulness, listening to nature, asking God a conversational question and waiting for a response, etc.
The more you confront what lives in the quiet spaces of your mind, the more enjoyable silence becomes. This not only helps you enjoy silence, it also helps you cut out unnecessary distractions in your daily routine that have been stealing your time and energy.
Shawn Healy, Ph.D.