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The mental benefits of the sound of silence

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register for 2018 atwww.employeerecommended.com.

Did you know that silence is good for your mental health?

Noise is all around most of us for all our waking moments, from the hum of a computer, fans, people and traffic to airplanes landing. Pause for a moment and listen closely to what you hear. Take note as you focus on the different sounds what happens inside of you. If anything changes as you bring the sound forward, you may become distracted until you tune it out again.

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Nick Seaver, who does the TEDx talk called The Gift of Silence, begins by displaying 18 seconds of silence to set up the story of where he and his wife spent 18 months in silence. He purports that silence and solitude are the worst form of punishment, because people are left alone with their own minds. Would you agree? Do you find it hard to stop and find quiet and enjoy pure silence?

This micro skill promotes the value of silence. Some may think that we like background noise because we find it soothing. This may be true; however, if the brain is actively processing noise it's working and as a result it doesn't get a chance to turn off, rest and reset.

Silence is different than sleep; it's akin to meditation for the brain. However, different than meditation, we're left alone to process our thoughts.

It can be hard to escape noise to find silence. Silence is the absence of noise. Adding silence to your day can increase your creativity and decision making that can assist you to solve daily challenges to keep you on track to your desired goals.

One study reported that just two minutes of silence a day can – for some – be more relaxing and helpful than listening to relaxing music. Another study found that increasing periods of silence helps the brain generate new brain cells that can positively support mental health.

Awareness

First, see how difficult it is for you to find a quiet space with the absence of any noise. Once you get there, set your watch for two minutes of silence where you sit in quiet and relax. If you find this difficult, that's fine. The real first step to adopting silence is noticing it. The more you do, the more likely your brain will be grateful, as well as you and the people around you. Practicing silence is a form of mindfulness where you're aware and in the moment, open to just pause from the world of noise, and allowing your brain some resources and space. In these moments, you may find more clarity.

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Accountability

When some people are learning skills like silence or mindfulness, their brain may not co-operate, resulting in some tension and the brain firing off a mini alarm: "I forgot to call Mary back; I need to text her now that I will call in the morning."

This micro skill requires practice, patience and the self-discipline that you will accept your first thought. For example, "For the next two minutes I'm going to sit in silence and the world can wait."

Action

Creating silence action steps:

· Begin with preparation – Determine where your quiet spot will be, and have all distractions like cell phones and telephones turned off. Safe ear plugs and noise cancellation headphones may be helpful for finding silence.

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· Set a silence target – Start with short silence sprints of two to three minutes, and build from there.

· Be still and silent – Get into a comfortable position with your eyes open, gazing down at the floor, and allow your mind to do as it pleases. Set no rule other than being still and silent for the targeted silence session. There's no need for pressure; this isn't a pass or fail, just silence.

· Ignore the impulse for stimuli – Commit to your silence target without checking texts, e-mail or reading. Just be still and silent with your thoughts. Keep it simple; no distractions.

· Stop and re-enter your world – Once your time is up, get on with your day. With pressure gone, notice how you may have remembered a name you were looking for, found a solution to a particular problem or felt more relaxed after the silence session. This can help your critical conscious brain see the benefits. The more you practice, the more you'll notice how silence can help you gain new perspectives that were not possible with all the stimuli and noise around you.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.

Register today for the 2018 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at www.employeerecommended.com

Read more columns like this, and read about the winners and finalists of the 2017 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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