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Shhh! The Impact Of Sound And The Health Benefits Of Silence

The Getaway House in Lisbon, Ohio offers phone lockboxes for guests to experience silence during their visit. [Shelli Reeves / ideastream]
Guest room at the Getaway House in Lisbon, Ohio

The world is so filled with sound, it could be hard to imagine even just a few seconds of silence.

That’s why companies are now trying to capitalize on the desire to get away from the sensory overload of daily life. But is there any truth to the health benefits of silence?

The Getaway House just opened in Lisbon, Ohio, offering respite for people wanting to get away from city sounds in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The company encourages guests to lock their phones away during their stay in a provided phone lockbox.

The Getaway House in Lisbon, Ohio offers a phone lockbox. [Shelli Reeves / ideastream]

There are sensory deprivation tanks like True REST Float Spa in Rocky River, which immerse customers in complete silence and darkness. There are people who practice silent meditation or go on silent retreats throughout the state and the county, which require guests to not speak for hours or even days.

MetroHealth’s Dr. Kathryn Teng says while there are some health benefits to silence, it’s often what you do with the silence that determines how beneficial it is.

“People have written a lot about how to use that silence best,” Teng said. “And so there’s a lot written about meditation, mindfulness, prayer to some extent, and just taking the time to be reflective, and how that can really rejuvenate people and give people more energy and help them to be more resilient in life.”

Teng says when people use silence to reflect and meditate, it can lower their blood pressure and heart rates. If you have those periods of silence before bed, it can improve sleep, which can then provide more focus and energy. She says silence can also change the hormones in the body, lowering adrenaline and cortisol levels.

As for whether a person needs to pay for silence — Teng equates it to a gym membership.

“Some people need some structure. They need someone to tell them what to do and how to do it, and they need to be in a class,” she said. “Other people can do it on their own; they’re self-motivated. You can do it on your own, you absolutely can, but I would say if you’re the kind of person who needs to be in a group, then there are lots of opportunities for that as well.”

Suzanne Cushwa Rusnak is the coordinator of mindfulness programming at University Hospitals's Connor Integrative Health Network. She’s tried a lot of strategies to build more silence into her own life because she says we’re surrounded by noise all the time, whether it’s the radio in the car or the chatter in our own heads.

We’re often multitasking because we want to feel like we’re using all of our free time to be productive, but she says doing nothing can be productive too.

“It makes sense that we want to be productive with our time. That’s a cultural message that we get,” she said. “When we’re distracted all the time, it’s really pulling energy, if you will, from our brains, from our ability to think clearly and for the brain to function at its highest level.”

Cushwa Rusnak has been to many silent retreats, even one where she was silent for seven days. Silent retreats often mean no reading, no eye contact, and definitely no talking. It was uncomfortable for her at first. Now she finds community in the experience, even if no one is talking to each other.

But she says it’s not necessary to do a retreat or float in a tank in order to reap the benefits of silence.

True REST Float Spa in Rocky River touts health benefits such as increased blood circulation and stress reduction. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

“Everybody should have the opportunity to experience silence and relaxation in whatever way works for them,” Cushwa Rusnak said. “Recognize that you have that power for yourself. Every once in a while going to do something like that is going to be nice, but it isn’t going to create the longer lasting effects and benefits that, say, a daily practice of some sort of silence for yourself would provide.”

There are extremes to silence though, like when it’s used as a punishment.

“In solitary confinement, there is no human interaction. In a silent retreat, you are still interacting, to some degree with your fellow humans,” she said. “So you’re not being deprived in the same way as prisoners who are in confinement. And you’re not locked up. You can actually come and go, and if there was a point you reached where you just were not ok anymore, you didn’t want to be there for whatever reason, you can just leave. Prisoners don’t have that opportunity, and I think those are huge differences.”

And on the other extreme, loud noises can negatively impact your health, raising a person’s blood pressure and even potentially causing reproductive problems, due to hormone changes in the body, says Dr. Karen Mulloy of Case Western Reserve University.

After a certain point, no amount of silence can repair the damage.

“If you have some exposure and then you go to a quiet place, your body kind of readjusts a little bit. But if you have that continuously day after day after day, then your body does not change,” Mulloy said.

On this extreme end of the sound spectrum, Mulloy recommends wearing earplugs if you’re around loud noises.

People practice group silent meditation at the Heartfulness Institute in Valley View, Ohio. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

For those who want to find themselves in the middle of this sound spectrum, and find moments of silence throughout their day, there are groups and activities to join.

At the non-profit Heartfulness Institute, a group of about 40-50 people gather for group silent meditation, which may seem counterintuitive. If you want to find silence, should you really surround yourself with a group of people?

But meditation trainer Brian Jones says for people just starting meditation, they might not be able to focus on being silent. Being around others can help keep you motivated.

“It’s just something you have to take up just like going to the gym or making a New Year’s resolution. You have to do it with some regularity,” Jones said. “And then you eventually find out: this is the very best time of my day. I can’t wait to sit down and be quiet and get out of my head and get out of all of these thoughts. Because when we do that, we’re getting away from all the stressors of the day.”

As with most things — the sweet spot for sound lies somewhere in the middle, and finding it can provide some real health benefits, whether you pay for it or not.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158