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Anxiety and Uncomfortable Silences: Anxious in a Quiet Zone

Social anxiety makes silence uncomfortable in a crowd. Why? And how can we be less anxious or take the uncomfortable out of a silence that descends on a group?

To be anxious in an uncomfortable silence can create an unbearable quiet zone where all eyes could be on you. Anxiety, especially social anxiety, can flare when we're in a room full of people. Noisy chatter, clanking objects, clicking shoes, slamming doors, and all other background noise is amplified by anxiety. In turn, anxiety revs up, and all of this commotion can make us tense, shaky, dizzy, and fearful that we're doing something wrong. As miserable as a noisy room can make the anxiety-sufferer, when things go quiet and silence descends, it is often then that anxiety spirals out of control. Being anxious in an uncomfortable silence is common in social anxiety, but it doesn't have to forever plague us.

Social Anxiety and Uncomfortable Silence

Social anxiety disorder creates an unquiet mind. The hallmark of social anxiety is an often intense fear of being judged. As soon as one enters a social situation, be it a classroom, a meeting room, a line in a grocery store, a party, or anything else where there happen to be human beings, anxiety flares. Wouldn't it make sense that to someone with social anxiety, silence would be golden, offering peace and an excuse to avoid having to talk? Ironically, not always.

With social anxiety, silence is not golden; it is the color of vomit. Silence is uncomfortable and awkward, and it makes us all the more anxious in a quiet zone.

Recently, I attended a celebration of my daughter's high school tennis season. Parents made small talk with each other and with the players. It was casual and easy-going and enjoyable--until the lights went out. The coach played a video with images and clips from the season. It was a wonderful video, but sitting in the room (ironically it was the school library, and hanging from the ceiling was a sign that read "quiet zone") watching the video with others was anxiety-provoking.

Why We Can be Anxious in an Uncomfortable Silence

It is true that when we're in a noisy room, social anxiety can skyrocket. However, sometimes all of the noise and chatter around us can intermingle with our own anxious thoughts and provide a distraction. When a room full of people turns into a quiet zone, however, we can become even more anxious in the uncomfortable silence because the external distractions disappear. We are left with only our anxious thoughts.

When silence settles upon a room, it's about as comfortable as skinny jeans after a Thanksgiving feast, and like said jeans coupled with that over-stuffed, bloated feeling, it becomes our primary focus. With few other distractions, we often find ourselves ruminating about thoughts like this:

  1. What should I say?
  2. I shouldn't have said...
  3. What are people thinking?
  4. Are people looking at me?
  5. Did I do something stupid?
  6. Will I do something stupid?
  7. Should I laugh at this picture or what the speaker is saying, etc.?

This list can go on and on. In general, it's common for anxiety and racing thoughts to go hand-in-hand. Simultaneously, it can seem as though our mind goes blank and it becomes difficult to think of something to say that won't get us judged as incompetent. Further, anxiety can create a pressure to talk, a need to decrease the uncomfortable silence. Together, this makes us anxious in a quiet zone.

How to Be Less Anxious in an Uncomfortable Silence

The pressure and worries of social anxiety can me magnified when it's quiet. No one is "abnormal," "wrong," or "bad" for being uncomfortable among people when it's silent. It's simply part of anxiety. This means, happily, that it not part of you or who you are as a person. Anxiety is something we might live with for awhile, but it doesn't define us and we're not doomed to experience it throughout life.

There are ways to gradually become more comfortable and less anxious with silence.

Let go of the "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts." As worried about being judged as social anxiety makes us, the judgement we really need to attend to is our own. With anxiety, we tend to be quite self-conscious and very hard on ourselves. The more we mull over what we should or should not have said or done, the more anxiety we experience. Start catching yourself in the act, and when you notice yourself "shoulding," stop yourself, examine what you did right, and move on. The more you practice doing this, the easier it is, and the more comfortable you become with yourself and with silence.

Return to the moment. In other words, get out of your head and into the world. Distract yourself. For me, I returned again and again to the actual video. When I noticed thoughts running amok, I stopped them, countered them, and then enjoyed the slideshow. Did I have to do it more than once? Yes. Did I become more comfortable with the silence and thus enjoy myself every time I did? Definitely.

Be objective. Glance around you. What are people doing? Are all eyes on you? Are people making faces at you, whispering and pointing? Probably not. If someone happens to be looking, they might be doing the very same thing as you. Or they're admiring your outfit. Or they're bored. This can put your mind at ease and help reduce anxiety when you see that you're not the center of attention. Then, return to the moment.

When a room full of people suddenly becomes quiet, it can be unnerving and make anxiety spike. However, when you silence your mind, you just might find that you are no longer anxious in a quiet zone or uncomfortable with silence.

You can also connect with Tanya J. Peterson on her website, Google+, Facebook,Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest.

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2015, May 21). Anxiety and Uncomfortable Silences: Anxious in a Quiet Zone, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/05/anxious-in-a-quiet-zone-uncomfortable-silence



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sarah
says:
May, 9 2019 at 4:05 am
Hi, thank you writing this, I was starting to feel as though I was the only one! I'm sure I have this problem, silence makes me feel uncomfortable whether this is at work or in a social setting. I can almost feel my body tensing and it manifests itself in physical symptoms, mostly an unsettled stomach. As soon as some background noise comes on at work such as a fan whirring, it's a switch and my body automatically relaxes and the physical symptoms disappear. It's like an on/off button. I can't walk into a library and have a fear of meetings/conferences etc, even at work I hate that our office is pin drop silence. Not sure how to cope, getting to me at work!
May, 13 2019 at 11:00 am
Hi Sarah,
Yes! This anxiety can absolutely show itself anywhere in the body in addition to thoughts and emotions. It pretty much makes the noise for us (us as in me, too) but not a helpful kind of noise! Is it possible to have a small white noise machine at work? If whirring fans help (a type of white noise), having a small, non-disruptive machine could be helpful. Listening to background music with earbuds might be good, too, if you're allowed to do that. If you're comfortable doing so, talking with your supervisor and explain that white noise or music/sounds would make you more productive could give you the permission you need to add some noise and feel relaxed and confident about it. Practicing being comfortable with silence can, in time, help you be less anxious (you might always hate silence but it becomes more tolerable). Keep going to the library or other quiet places. Sit down and do some progressive muscle relaxation exercises where, starting with your feet and ending with your head, you tense and relax muscle groups. This has been proven to reduce anxiety and stress if done regularly. While you do this, breathe slowly and deeply, being out of your head and into the present moment (mindfulness). Use your senses to tune in to what's around you. Use sight, smell, and touch -- but pay little attention to hearing. This approach is effective, but doesn't happen in an instant. You might even feel more anxious at first, but it will improve. Think patience, practice, and persistence -- and a relief from silence-induced anxiety!
chris
says:
June, 7 2018 at 4:40 am
hi, my daughter seems to be suffering from Anxiety at secondary school in the uk. she gets really wound up in Silent areas - classrooms at times and Test rooms where everything is hightened to a point where she feels she has to escape the room. Is there any articles on this site or elsewhere we / she can look at?
June, 7 2018 at 11:04 am
Hi Chris,
I just did some searching for articles and research studies about this, and so far what I've been able to find is the exact opposite of what your daughter is experiencing. Usually, quiet space is recommended to calm anxiety. Yet it's also true that quiet classrooms, testing rooms, libraries, etc. can be stressful, unsettling, and cause anxiety to skyrocket. There is something called school refusal in which students of any age are highly resistant to going to school. While it doesn't sound like this applies to your daughter, there are components that you might find useful--there are similarities between her wanting to escape the room and escaping school itself. Below are some links to articles that could contain useful information. Skim parts that don't apply, and adapt tips and other information to your daughter's experience. I really wish I had better information to share! At the very least, this might spark some ideas of your own.

School Refusal: https://www.emedicinehealth.com/school_refusal/article_em.htm#what_causes_school_refusal

What to Do About Teen Anxiety and School Refusal: https://paradigmmalibu.com/teen-anxiety-school-refusal/

Effective Strategies for Treating School Anxiety and School Refusal: http://www.centersforfamilychange.com/blog/?p=67

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