Intentional silence may be just what you need to bring peace and calm to your life.

By Elizabeth Yuko
August 17, 2020
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If you’re someone who is really into yoga and/or meditation and find that the practices reliably provide you with the peace and calm you need in your life, that’s fantastic. But then there are the rest of us, trying to stifle a giggle during yoga or group meditation. It’s not that we think they’re ineffective, but listening to a raspy voice on an app, guiding us through breathing exercises or feeding us mantras, doesn’t do it for everyone. (And that’s fine and perfectly normal — you’re not broken!)

There are many forms of meditation, and everyone has their favorites—the key is figuring out what works for you. For instance, during periods of intense stress, I’ve found that it helps if I take even five minutes to sit in silence. And that’s it. I don’t try to force myself to set intentions, focus on my breathing, or repeat a mantra. It’s just silence. Of course, this is nothing new—various religious orders around the world have incorporated silence into practices for centuries—so it caught my eye recently when I saw it packaged as “intermittent silence.” Given the popularity of intermittent fasting, this label made sense—after all, there’s a clear appeal of something we can do to feel better, but only have to do it in short bursts. But what exactly is intermittent silence? Here’s what you need to know about the potential benefits of the practice and the most effective way to do it. 

Intermittent silence is exactly what it sounds like: taking a break to intentionally sit (or walk or stand) in silence for a period of time, giving yourself the opportunity to disconnect from the noises and distractions of daily life. “In the same way that people take a rest from eating, or rest their physical body to lower their heart rate, it is also important to rest the brain,” says Krishna Bhatta, MD, a surgeon and chief of urology at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Maine.

As someone interested in integrating Eastern practices into Western medicine, Bhatta has been recommending this form of meditation—using the term “intermittent silence”—for the past few years. It’s also referred to as “intentional silence,” which is something Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist and yoga instructor, has found to be both a useful mental health strategy and yogic practice. Not only does it give you the chance to unplug for a few minutes, it also temporarily relieves us of the obligation of having to interact with other people in person, over the phone, or electronically. “It takes the pressure off people to feel like they need to be constantly chattering or constantly communicating,” Carmichael says. “It can also make us more conscious of when we are choosing to speak.” 

It may seem odd that doing nothing and being silent can have an impact on our brain function, but that’s exactly what’s happening. According to Carmichael, the Wernicke’s area of the brain is the part in charge of listening, while the Broca’s area is responsible for speech and communication. Practicing intermittent silence gives both of those areas a much-needed break, she explains. 

While the practice of spending time in silence has been around for a long time, Bhatta says that to his knowledge, there isn’t empirical research specifically on the use of intermittent silence, though he is interested in conducting his own on whether the practice can improve productivity and performance. There are, however, studies on the impact of silence in general. For example, a 2006 article published in the journal Heart measured various vital signs in people as they were listening to music, and found that a pause of two minutes of silence between songs decreased blood pressure and heart rate, and assisted in relaxation. Another example comes in a 2015 article in the journal Brain Structure and Function, which describes how silence was found to stimulate the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that handles learning, memory and emotions). 

As clinicians familiar with intermittent silence, Bhatta and Carmichael have observed a variety of benefits resulting from the practice. For instance, Bhatta says that it can be helpful for managing what he calls “emotional storms”—meaning periods when anger, sadness, or another intensely negative emotion arises while you’re practicing intermittent silence, or something else involving paying close attention to your own thoughts. “By becoming well-versed in identifying and recognizing negative thoughts, you will develop skills for processing and dealing with the same types of intense emotions in your day-to-day living,” he explains. 

Another benefit that both Bhatta and Carmichael mention is that by giving the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of our brain a rest, it can improve our ability to communicate once the silent period is over. “By not speaking, we can potentially learn how to respond appropriately after pause and thought, rather than immediately react to any input, be it email or verbal,” Bhatta explains. Along the same lines, Carmichael says that like intermittent fasting, which may make us more mindful of the food we eat once we break the fast, intermittent silence can make us more mindful of what we say and how we speak. 

“With intentional silence, we can start realizing that it's a choice to speak, and we can start becoming reflective about why we're choosing to speak,” Carmichael says. “Is it because we're feeling the need to fill up empty space in a conversation? Or is it because we're feeling the need to try to showcase ourselves or prove our value? There's a lot of different reasons a person would choose to speak, and we're not always conscious of that process. Practicing intentional silence can help with that.”

While practicing intermittent silence may seem like a solitary activity, Carmichael says that it’s also something that can be done with a partner, or in groups to help people to learn how to increase their nonverbal attunement with one another. “Whether it's as a couple, or with friends or family, choosing to practice intentional silence together removes the most obvious way that we have of communicating, which is with our words,” she says. “But just learning how to coexist together, and share space, and breathe the same air, and start tuning into nonverbal body language—and even just trying something new together, and then talking about the experience afterwards—can be a lot of fun.”

Overall, intermittent silence is a pretty low-risk activity, involving no substances, supplements, or tools. But if a person is already struggling with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, practicing intermittent silence could provide their brain with the space to tune into feelings or emotions they may otherwise try to block out. 

“Silence can initially amplify the noise of our internal world, which is normally drowned out by the noise of our external world,” Jamie Price, creator of MyLife, a mindfulness and total wellness app, says. “When you ‘mute’ external noise, the thoughts and feelings that were already there under the surface can become much louder and more obvious.” Of course, everyone reacts to this in their own way. For instance, Price says that she becomes more aware of feelings of sadness and loneliness, even though she is surrounded by people. Others may become increasingly aware of a constant, low-level hum of anxiety, she says. 

Because a sense of helplessness is one of the hallmarks of depression, Carmichael says that people with the condition should take a cautious approach to intermittent silence. “Sometimes speaking and hearing your voice is a good way to advocate for yourself, and if you're dropping into silence, it can feel like a sense of resignation,” she explains. “One of the other ways of thinking of depression is a negative cognitive triad: negative thoughts people have about themselves, the world and others. If you're choosing not to speak because you are feeling like you're not getting what you need from people anyway, then that would be the wrong reason [to practice intermittent silence].”

Sure, you can just find somewhere quiet and dedicate a few moments to silence, but if you’re looking for a little more guidance, Price and Bhatta have a few suggestions. For example, Price says that waking up earlier than usual is one of the best ways to experience silence. “My teacher used to recommend getting up ‘before you can hear the sounds of the birds,’ which is before dawn,” she says. “This may seem painfully early, but the rewards of absolute stillness and quiet are significant and worth the bleary eyes that come with waking up just before daylight.”

If you want to remain silent for a specific duration, using a timer can help. The timer on your phone may be a bit jarring after a period of silence, but Price says that there are apps with customizable meditation timers, like MyLife and Insight Timer, where you can also choose settings with no background sounds. Another app option is Relaxx, which Bhatta created. It provides users with a daily intermittent silence routine, as well as a variety of meditation techniques, both guided and unguided. 

Though it may be helpful for some, Bhatta stresses that you don’t need an app for intermittent silence. But if you find that going into something new is easier with some sort of road map, Bhatta says that the best way to start intermittent silence is to work through the following four components for 10 minutes each day: (1) Close your mouth; (2) Close your eyes; (3) Silent listening; and (4) Silent watching (of your thoughts).

“By closing the eyes, the visual pathway is able to rest,” he explains. “Then, by listening in silence and hearing sounds without judgment, the auditory pathways are able to rest. And finally, allowing thoughts to pass through without paying attention to them will give rest to the brain.”