This morning, I read a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “Ode to Silence.” The speaker of the poem is searching for Silence among all the other goddesses, among Heaven and Hell, in earthly homes, but cannot find her anywhere. The universe is full of noise. The poem ends with the lines:
Lift up your lyres! Sing on!
But as for me, I seek your sister whither she is gone.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), my entire body sighed yeeeeesss as I read this poem. We live in a noisy, crowded, overstimulating world that works against any attempt at quiet. The most silent place I’ve ever been is an ancient redwood forest in Northern California. I walked along a path and felt transported back hundreds, thousands of years. My senses heightened: I could hear the tiniest creatures buzzing around, see the colors become brighter, feel the stillness of the air. I was perfectly calm.
It lasted for about five minutes before an airplane flew overhead somewhere above the trees.
Noise pollution is virtually everywhere, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it isn’t just annoying, but can have potential health risks, like high blood pressure and sleep disruption. Experts in bioacoustics are continuously tracking and trying to protect the few places left on the planet that are still (relatively) silent. If I were a scientist, I’d want that gig, although as soon as I discovered the quietest place, I would probably just destroy my cell phone with the heel of my boot, set up camp, and never leave.
HSPs Are Acutely Perceptive to Stimulation
Even though my apartment is set back in a quiet-ish area outside the city, my ears are always buzzing with the sound of my air conditioner, the neighbor’s dogs, an airplane, landscapers, the train… I have to sleep with earplugs if I want to sleep through the night. It seems impossible to escape the noise, to find true silence, and I find this existentially disconcerting (will the next generation ever experience real quiet?).
And, as an HSP, it’s anxiety-inducing.
For me, silence isn’t just a lack of auditory stimulation, but a representation of the most important things I’m searching for as a human being, like inner peace, confidence, and faith. There are innumerable voices—in the media, in my family, in my head—insisting this or that, telling me what I should or shouldn’t do/believe/feel, shaking me to my very core.
HSPs are acutely perceptive to inner stimulation and, just as it seems impossible to find a truly quiet place on earth, it can feel equally impossible to find that sense of calm internally. In fact, it may be even more difficult because inner calm is not a place—it’s a product of hundreds of human variables that develop during our lives.
Silence Is Good for Your Brain
And silence is actually good for your brain. Studies show that experiencing silence relieves stress, lowering blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain more so than listening to relaxing music. Silence allows our prefrontal cortexes—our brains’ “attention centers”—to relax and restore. If you frequently have your head in the clouds like me, you’ll be happy to hear that the natural state of our brains is daydreaming, meditating, fantasizing, wandering. When we allow our brains to do what they do naturally, we are more able to make meaning, empathize, create, and reflect.
Finally, silence actually helps our brain regenerate cells, helping with learning, memory, and emotion, which I find pretty amazing! If we think of our brains like a muscle, then noise and constant thought are like a hard workout, and silence is like the protein that helps it recover afterward. None of us would do a tough workout followed by another tough workout—we would allow our bodies to recuperate. Our brains need the same treatment.
How to Make More Room for Silence
As an HSP, I’m taking it on as a personal project to develop my own quiet. It’s impossible that I will experience real silence every day, but, given the science of silence, I think it’s crucial that I try to bring more calm into my life.
I do not expect to discover a final destination of peace and tranquility, but rather to learn how to process the “noise” in a healthy way that doesn’t leave me curled up in bed with a pillow over my head.
Here are five habits that I’m attempting to develop and how they’ve affected me:
1. Turning off my phone after 7 p.m.
When I put my phone away in the evening, I’ve exited consumer-mode—I’m not reading the news, scrolling through Facebook, trying to beat my Tetris score. When my phone is out of reach, I can focus on my significant other and our time together. I confess, it’s been more difficult than I’d like to admit to consistently keep up this habit, but when my phone (along with the TV and other technology, for that matter) is shut down, my bedtime routine is more consistent, which means I go to bed at a decent hour, I sleep better, and I wake up rested.
2. Free-writing first thing in the morning for 30 minutes.
I don’t know about you, but most mornings I wake up and immediately jump into productivity mode, listing off what I need to accomplish. When I wake up, make my coffee, and sit on the couch with my pen and notebook, I have the chance to clear away cobwebs and negativity (all the junk that builds up unconsciously), to put down on paper the positive and creative ideas that would normally get lost in the shuffle, and to ease into my day with a fresh palette. When I’m finished, I’m more awake and actually ready to begin whatever my day holds. (Check out this article about the benefits of writing morning pages.)
3. Reading for at least 30 minutes before bed.
When I was a kid, more often than not, I fell asleep on top of a book. When I try to recapture that now, the benefits are obvious, mostly when it comes to my quality of sleep. There is something about reading a good story right before bed that prepares our brains for rest. My racing thoughts disappear, my anxiety-ridden brain escapes into a story, and my senses relax. I will note that I think fiction works best for this habit as it’s difficult to escape into informational reading. Here’s some science to back up why this is a healthy habit for everyone.
4. Reading a poem aloud when I feel overwhelmed.
I struggle with high-functioning anxiety, so having something that will calm down my mind and body when I’m anxious is important. When I read a poem out loud, I get my voice out of my head and into the open, I put all of my nervous energy into the poem, and my mind is calmed by the patterns and language of the poem. It might sound like an oxymoron to read something aloud to experience quiet, but sometimes my spirit needs to be quieted down as much as my surroundings.
5. Taking breaks from productivity throughout the day.
Sometimes I lay down with my eyes closed, sometimes I sit and focus my attention on an object, sometimes I snuggle with my cat. The point is to let my mind wander where it will without forcing it in any particular direction. Putting myself in as quiet an environment as possible allows my brain to rest and refocus, which means my work is better and I’m more productive when I need to be.
Many of my habits are focused on reading or writing, because I’m a writer and literary nerd. It’s what makes me feel sane and connected, and it requires very little noise. Maybe these habits will help you cope with the external and internal racket you face every day, or maybe yours are different than mine.
Whatever the case, I hope we—the quiet ones, the twitching ones, the ones with our fingers in our ears—can help each other find some peace within the commotion. We can be the kind of people who bring calm, who aren’t just another voice in the cacophony of voices, who keep each other company in the quiet.
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