The Sound Of Silence

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It’s miraculous how the brain adjusts to noise. When I lived literally spitting distance from the roaring Westway/M40 and the every-two-minutes rumble of the Metropolitan Line, in London, I barely noticed those sounds, after a week or two of ‘adjustment’.

Or so I thought. But when I moved out away from the metropolis to somewhere so silent that I can hear owls twit-twooing half a mile away, I realised how very precious silence is – and how constant noise can undermine wellbeing. According to the World Health Organisation, one in five Europeans is ‘regularly exposed to sound levels at night that significantly damage health.’ And those sounds go way beyond having us toss and turn at bedtime, making sleep elusive. Noise triggers the production of cortisol – which along with adrenaline, raise blood pressure, potentially causing cardiovascular problems if there’s prolonged exposure. As a result, according to some studies, those living in areas with the noisiest daytime traffic are 5% more likely to be hospitalised with strokes than those in quieter zones – a risk that rises to 9%, among the elderly.

So even though I wasn’t conscious of the vibrations from the Underground or the roar of the motorway, it was still having an effect on my body and psyche. And when you think about that, it’s not really surprising. Noise – from the internal combustion engine, diggers and drills, the bass thumping from your neighbour’s boombox – is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the industrial revolution, the loudest sounds you were likely to encounter were the cheers at a wedding, the moo of a cow, the bleat of a goat. All of which sounds like a world straight from the pages of a Thomas Hardy – but truly, that’s what life was like as recent a couple of centuries ago. Loud noise was something so unusual that we responded to with a fight-or-flight response – so It’s hardly surprising that we haven’t yet evolved to deal with the almost constant background rumble and clang of life in the 21st Century.

I certainly consider myself incredibly lucky now to live somewhere so quiet. It’s all the more amazing to me because actually, my home’s in a busy town. However, since our bedroom is in the back of the house, facing a steep, woodedhill where badgers and foxes and owls still think they own the joint, we’re away from any road noise – and have just the rustling of the leaves and the hoot of that owl to disturb our sleep. Oh, and seagulls. (These, however, are now my equivalent of the Metropolitan Line: I never hear them. And because they’re a nature sound, they’re not undermining my wellbeing as artificial sounds do.)

But on nights when I have to stay in a city, or find myself in an otherwise noisy environment – hot-desking in a busy office, for instance – I’ve realised how vital it is ­to master techniques for blocking out the noise. Here’s what I’ve learned.

If you’re working in an open-plan office or a café and you need to focus, noise-cancelling headphones really help. A lot of us have to put up with background noise, at work. Sometimes, some days, it can be like water off a duck’s back. But a particularly loud colleague who likes to discuss their social life at full volume, or just the background buzz of a busy sales department, can also be very distracting. So it may just be easier to get yourself some earplugs or a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, to help you zone out. (In a really busy work environment, you may be able to get your boss to cough up for these in the interests of increased productivity.) Far better for your health than sitting there festering with resentment, that’s for sure.

Shut down electronic devices when not in use. The TV, DVD player, computer, printer; all can emit a low-level humeven on standby that you may not even be aware of – but which on some level affect your mind and body.

Turn off your ringer and notifications. Phone sounds are a constant interruption to our concentration: all those pinging texts, incoming e-mail alerts and other e-notifications. Switch your phone to silent unless you’re expecting an important call; leave it on vibrate and you should still be aware when someone’s ringing you – but even if you miss a call, chances are it’s not the end of the world.

Close the window at night if you live in a noisy neighbourhood. OK, so this is a trade-off: fresh air –v- the background noise of sirens, motorcycles revving, the pub opposite spilling revelers out onto the street after closing time… Much as I am a fresh air fiend, I’ll compromise on that in my quest for calm and silence. (And it’s quite astonishing, by the way, how much double glazing helps in a noisy setting – even if you only install it the bedroom.)

Download a white noise app or invest in a white noise ‘device’. So what’s the point of white noise – it’s still noise, right? Well, yes. But ‘white noise’ is specifically designed to distract the brain from focusing on other, louder noises; the ‘whooshy’ noise is thought to be effective because it mimics the environment of the womb. After a while, if you do this nightly, it can help to form a sleep association that lulls you to nod off. The No.1 white noise app on the iTunes store is called White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds, and it’s very good.(Alternatively, you could do what I’ve done and download ‘Owl Sounds for Relaxation’, from iTunes, which I now play when I’m away from home to drown out any background noise and in some way create the illusion of being in my own blessed bed.)

Read a book called ‘Silence in the Age of Noise’. Explorer Erling Kagge spent 50 days walking across Antarctica without radio contact. Much as I dislike noise, that would in itself drive ME crazy – but his account of that journey is a surprising bestseller, translated into more than 30 languages.Definitely makes you think about silence.

Look for appliances with the ‘Quiet Mark’. Kettles, hairdryers, washing machines, dishwashers; manufacturers can now apply to have the decibel level of their appliances measured, and certified as ‘quiet’. Certainly worth considering next time you’re replacing white goods.

Find a way to cultivate inner silence. I’ve written before about how meditation and yoga have helped me to find balance in a bonkers world. I’m not going to make a prescription for you – we’re all different (although those are darned good places to start). But when the world’s making a cacophany around you – the dog’s barking, the neighbours have the power drill out (and the neighbours on the other side are mowing a lawn) – it really helps to have a resource that enables you to find peace and stillness.

Because – whisper it softly – we live in a world that’s unlikely to get much quieter, anytime soon. So it may be time to stop focusing on the ruckus – and take control of our own individual capacity for silence…

Do You Have Highly Functioning Anxiety?

Anxiety

At one point or another all of us have experienced stress and anxiety. In fact, according to recent headlines 82 percent of us feel stressed or anxious at least once during the working week. Would you regard yourself as having highly functioning anxiety though? While it’s not medically recognised, the term is becoming increasingly common. Read More…

Why We All Need A Telescope And A Microscope

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We all need heroes in this world, and one of mine – notwithstanding the fact that she went to jail for insider trading – is Martha Stewart, creator of a homewares and mega-media empire in the States. It’s not because of her gorgeous floral arrangements, or her gardening tips, or the drool-worthy recipes in Martha Stewart Living, her glossy lifestyle magazine. (Sad but true: being a great believer in the power of home-making – as a solace not just for self, but for the family and much-loved friends who gravitate to ours – I still have every issue ever published, which means over 20 years’ worth!)

I like the way Martha’s made a business out of style, and taste, and reassured me that just because I may want to decompress from a week of 18 hour days by organising my linen closet or my gift-wrapping supplies, that’s OK; it doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, and it doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. It means I just like things to be nice, too.

But what I really admire Martha for is an excellent book that she wrote called The Martha Rules. It’s a brilliant how-to book for women, in particular, setting out on an entrepreneurial journey – so good, in fact, that I’ve gifted it to lots of young women embarking on start-ups. But the lesson I really took away from it is the importance of having two tools: a microscope and a telescope. Martha was referring to business – and how important it is to step back from working on the detail, to look at the bigger picture and how your business sits in the wider landscape. But what I took away from that book – and what I try to apply to my life, not just my ventures – is the telescope lesson.

Today, all of us spend our lives fixated on tiny screens, on problem-solving, on figuring out a way to deal with one crisis after another, whether it’s a sick kid who unexpectedly throws a spanner in the works (or rather the working week), a broken dishwasher (my current domestic status update), a lost bank card (er, actually also my current status update), whatever. Entire days – no weeks! – can disappear, simply dealing with everyday life, without us ever taking a moment to stand back and look at that bigger picture.

And it’s just so, so vital to do that – because it’s only by looking at things from afar that we realise a) what’s really important in life, and b) what needs changing. Fact: life is short. Way too short to spend it mindlessly dealing with trivia (trust me, nobody’s going to go to their grave wishing they’d spent more time on Twitter), or lurching from one crisis to another, or generally watching the days slip between our fingers. And this isn’t just about stopping to smell the roses (or right now, the lily of the valley which are flourishing near my back gate and I’m spending too little time up-close-and-personal with). How often have you read about someone with a life-threatening illness talk about how it was such a wake-up call, and it made them realise what really mattered (whether that was spending time with family or a partner, or quitting a job they didn’t enjoy, or maybe even ticking that climb up Kilimanjaro off the bucket list)? Answer: all too often, because for many of us it’s only when something dramatic happens that we get to look down that telescope.

So: how to do that more often? Well, one way is meditating. I’ve written about that before – and personally, I now swear by an app called Calm (check it out at calm.com). For ‘big picture’ stuff, perhaps think about taking an actual course in meditation – not just because it’s a great way to learn to focus, but because there’s something about signing up to learn anything that can make us think: ‘Shouldn’t I be finding time to do more of this, in my life…?’ Which can perhaps nudge us to do more new things, rather than just more of the same.

Holidays are great for ‘big picture’ stuff, too. (As in, perhaps: ‘Do I really want to be doing this stressful/unenjoyable/dull job that I am going back to next week/in a fortnight – or should I be thinking about looking for other challenges and new opportunities?’) For me, though, it’s daily walking that helps me with the big picture stuff. Almost as if I’ve got an invisible telescope packed in my pocket, alongside my phone and house keys.

Recently, I had a big challenge with one of my ventures. A tricky conundrum that nobody could seem to solve – not business-threatening, but something that needed a new approach so we could move forward when we’d been going round in circles. One morning, partly because it was just gloriously sunny, I absented myself from the office and my team and took myself off for a long, blustery, blue-skied seaside walk. A few miles. Instead of whiling away my morning answering what always feels like a deluge of e-mails, I chewed on my metaphoric pencil, as I put one foot in front of the other – and hey, presto: after a mile or so, I had the required brainwave. Ta-dah! I took the solution back to the team, we actioned it – and could move forward again. But I absolutely, 100% know that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at my desk, sweating the small stuff and dealing with detail.

So I invite you: make this the month you invest in yourself – and your life – by trying to spend time looking at things from afar. After all, if Galileo could discover the moons of Jupiter (and more) by staring down his telescope, what heavenly future can you make for yourself, just by spending a little time standing back from the world…?

PS. In her intro to The Martha Rules, my hero Martha does acknowledge the jail term and the lessons it taught her – so it’s not like she’s brushing that under the carpet with some posh broom! She’s clearly not proud of what happened. But I also admire that she didn’t let a huge, image-damaging incident hold her back. Which might just be fodder for a future editorial, I suspect…

Good Vibrations: The Power Of Sound Baths

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Gong baths, crystal bowl meditation and chanting sessions are shaking off their rainbows and kaftans image and are now firmly on the schedule of London’s best yoga and meditation centres.Recently, the uber luxe Edition Hotel played host to a month of sound healing evenings where the hipster wellness crowd lay supported by Tempur pillows, wrapped in soft woollen blankets with silk masks covering their eyes as good vibrations from singing crystal bowls washed over them. So what’s drawing the in-crowd and how does sound help us relax our body and mind?

We instinctively know sound in all its forms has the power to transport us – we often automatically use it to self-medicate on many levels. Think of a mother’s voice soothing an upset child; singing in unison in a choir, at a festival or concert; the hypnotic rhythm of Tibetan monks chanting. Because sound is vibration, it’s not just heard through our ears, our whole body is affected. And we know this has tangible effects on stress levels. For example, a recent study showed that playing music to breast cancer patients could help them manage pre-operative anxiety when going through surgery, and another showed that stress hormones including cortisol are reduced in audiences at a live concert, producing relaxation effects. Read More…

What It’s Like Living With An Autoimmune Disease

Hope stone on grass

‘The trouble with us’, says a friend who used to edit a Sunday newspaper and is now retraining as a chef, ‘is that we used to be somebody’. Did we? Or perhaps I should say ‘Did I’? Because said friend is now already officially ‘somebody’ again, a busy private chef, restaurant critic and food editor. I, on the other hand, find myself defined by something else entirely unexpected and unwelcome (though for the record I’m not convinced that editing fashion magazines, writing columns and sitting on uncomfortable chairs at fashion shows ever really qualified as anything meaningful). Almost three years ago I was diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune disease – Takayasu’s Arteritis, which attacks the aorta.

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The Basics of Meditation

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Teaching at a busy meditation school in the heart of London’s Soho, the stresses of modern city living couldn’t be more apparent – the sash windows of the Georgian building offer little protection against the constant buzz of traffic and the clinking of glasses and jollities from local bars and restaurants echoing down the street. Once inside though, the studio is peaceful and cosy – and as we sit in silence, these sounds eventually fade to a distant hum, becoming a comforting reminder that we can always find stillness even in the cacophony of a fast-paced life.

Each day, people of all ages and all walks of life come searching for peace of mind – my last course included a 17 year old student and a 60 something American in charge of 300 men working at a major car factory. Most arrive wanting to ‘stop the thoughts’ – something I know I certainly yearned for when I was first drawn to meditating. The truth is the thoughts don’t ever stop coming, we learn how to manage them, to be more discerning with them. It is a process through which the mind begins to settle so we’re able to re-connect with our own inner silence, eventually allowing us to remain calm despite all the busyness around us.

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