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Mental Health

The Importance of Doing Nothing for a Little Bit Every Day

In our present culture of over-stimulation and hyper-productivity, it is easy to fall into the trap of overworking your body and mind. This unhealthy work ethic may even be so ingrained into your routine that you don’t even notice the signs of burnout until you find yourself passed out on your desk in the morning. We all fall into this habit of overworking ourselves from time to time, but I’m here to tell you that you deserve a break from thinking, planning, and analyzing. In a society that glorifies working yourself to death, let’s flip the script and follow those who habitually carve out time to do nothing and sit in silence at least once a day. 

Rest is just as important as work 

As a college student, I bet you are familiar with the all-nighter “study strategy.” It could be described as the way to get the most done in the least amount of time. I also bet while preparing to pull an all-nighter, you may have searched various tips and tricks to boost your productivity to keep working through the night. On the other hand, how many times have you stumbled upon articles which promote daily rest, stillness, or even mindfulness? I’m guessing not as often as the articles which tell you to down caffeine in the wee morning hours. 

Some people may think that spending more time pushing their brain to work is a fruitful task, but I believe overworking your body and mind is a waste of time and energy. Just as there is value in your work, there is value in your rest. Rest allows the body and brain to recharge after a laborious day of living. According to David Vago and Fadel Zeidan, authors of the NCBI article “The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of mental tranquility,” “although the majority of research on brain function has focused on task-evoked activity, current research focusing on the task-unrelated resting mind–brain is beginning to reveal the critical importance of this largely ignored part of human life.” Resting is a natural, biological function, not an inconvenience or weakness that needs to be remedied.

In another report, researchers Craig, Ottaway, and Dewar explain how “a brief period of awake quiescence (quiet resting), too, can support consolidation: people remember more new memories if they quietly rest for several minutes after encoding than if they engage in a task involving ongoing sensory input after encoding.” So, if you need an excuse to zone out after a long study session, here it is: waking rest facilitates information consolidation which is integral to the learning process. Rest is learning!

In addition to boosting your ability to retain information, according to an Oxford Sleep article, wakeful rest can help you regulate your emotions, “creating time for waking rest may be especially important for our feelings and emotional control, and may help remedy various mental health and sleep problems.” Emotional health deserves more research and attention, and resting is a great way to ensure you are taking care of your emotional health, so rest up!

How to give your noggin the most effective silent treatment

Since quarantine, it may have been more difficult to find a room to yourself, but perhaps you could explore ways in which you can figuratively have the room to yourself if you can’t have it literally to yourself.

According to Vago and Zeidan, “a sense of tranquility or stillness of mind involves the elimination of distortions and distractions in an effortless and sustained form of awareness and can have lasting effects on one’s mental habits, biases, and worldview in relation to the surrounding world.” This beneficial self-awareness can be achieved through daily practices of sitting in silence, but first, it is a good idea to eliminate distractions.

To create a space in which you feel alone, you might have to “turn off” your senses if they are being distracted by your current environment. For instance, try a divider made out of stacked boxes to hide from your roommate’s sight, noise cancelling headphones to drown out the TV, or an eye mask to block the hideous fluorescent dorm lighting. We all know how difficult it can be to concentrate if our senses are engaged with outside stimuli, so shielding yourself from as many of them as possible will help you increase your inner engagement and find peace in the silence.

If you are having trouble finding privacy indoors, perhaps expand your search outdoors to a park bench or under a tree. The key to a great place for your daily silence practice is comfort and privacy, so always make sure you are in a safe location free from distractions.

Woman laying in a field of flowers
Photo by Guillaume Bolduc from Unsplash

How to create a calming space

Creating a calming space is a personal endeavor, so adjust the area to your liking such as by:

  • Closing the door

  • Changing into comfortable clothing 

  • Lighting an unscented candle (scent can be distracting)

  • Dimming the lights 

  • Wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket 

  • Sitting on a pillow or yoga mat (if on the floor)

  • Decluttering the area 

  • Silencing or turning off electronic devices

Once you get comfortable, you can choose to close your eyes if it helps you relish in the silence.

Help, my mind keeps wandering!

Once you are sitting in the silence you created in your safe space, your brain may start to wander into worries, dreams, planning, etc. This is normal. I find that acknowledging the mental distraction and not trying to push it away, name it, or emotionally respond to it, makes the thought or worry disappear faster than if I decided to dwell on it. As my favorite meditation app, Headspace, suggests, “‘distractions are everywhere. Notice what takes your attention, acknowledge it, and then let it go.’”

If your brain needs to have something to think about, I suggest trying my favorite grounding exercise, the five senses technique, which I frequently use to combat my anxiety. This technique keeps my mind busy, but in a way that keeps me in the present moment of silence.

woman meditating outside
Photo by Omid Arman from Unsplash

Resting is productive

Still not convinced that taking a break from all the noise is beneficial? Try looking at it this way: allowing yourself to do, say, and think nothing can be a form of self-care. By granting yourself this moment of silence, you are saying to yourself, “I deserve rest. This is what my body and mind need. I am showing myself kindness.” Taking care of your brain is productive.

If you’re not yet convinced, Vago and Zeidan found that the brain never achieves a complete state of total rest just by way of performing tasks to keep you alive. Even if your brain is technically still chugging along even during rest, wouldn’t it be nice if you let it have a few moments of a lighter workload? If so, sitting in silence might be the new way for you to show some extra love to that hard-working brain of yours.

Julianna is a writer, artist, and mental health advocate. She graduated from Rowan University in 2020 with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing. She was the Fall 2o2o Media Editor for Glassworks Magazine, a publication of Rowan University's Master of Arts in Writing. In her free time, she enjoys baking desserts for her family, adding to her sticker collection, and listening to spooky stories.
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