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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
Peterson, T. (2015, May 21). Anxiety and Uncomfortable Silences: Anxious in a Quiet Zone, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 19 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 delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, 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 also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Unknown
September, 29 2020 at 10:30 am

Hi I have been struggling with this problem for a couple of school years in my experience I was laughed at for having stomach noises and it made me embarrassed but I have somewhat conquered it I now struggle with thoughts of worry like “omg is it going to happen” or “ my stomach is going to make a noise”. My anxiety goes through the roof and then I make myself sick to where I can’t go to school whenever I’m in a quiet class I find it better to sit all the way in the back so that if my stomach makes a noise I can see who hears it this tip has really helped me a lot.

Ashanti
February, 10 2020 at 3:42 pm

I have the same problems

unknown
December, 3 2019 at 8:24 pm

Hi. i’m 15 years old and i’m in the 10th grade. most of my classes are very silent. in those classes, my stomach makes a very loud noise. I absolutely hate it. causing me to skip the class and do the work the next day because it’s so embarrassing that i don’t want to go through it. it does this everyday so i pick up my notebook and start flipping the pages very loudly so if my stomach tries to make a noise, no one will hear it. i once asked my teacher could i go to the bathroom and i never came back.
i even once asked my teacher could i get some water. as soon as i stepped out, i started to feel better. it’s like everything is better when i’m alone. As soon as it gets quiet, i just start freaking out like “please don’t do this to me, not today, give me a break.” when everyone in the class is talking, it seems to calm me. but, it won’t always be like that during those long tests. i’m not sure what to do. i really want this noise to stop. i want to stop skipping my classes. i want to learn how to sit in silence with a group of people without feeling like i’m the only different person there. i just want to be normal.

December, 4 2019 at 1:59 pm

Hi! Your experience sounds really stressful. To put your mind a *little* bit at ease, it's really normal, especially in high school, to sit in a quiet room and notice every noise you are making and feel really embarrassed. It happens to almost everyone, if not absolutely everyone. Of course, this information doesn't quiet your stomach or suddenly make you okay with it! Anxiety can make your stomach active, and then that makes anxiety worse, and it just spirals downhill in a vicious circle. Are you allowed to have water bottles in your school? Drinking water can calm the stomach, making it feel better and behave better. Also, practicing sitting in silence at home might be really helpful. People sit and meditate in silence to quiet their mind and to calm their bodies. Every day (or night, before bed), try sitting in complete quiet. Breathe deeply and slowly. Visualize something that calms you and/or makes you happy. Start by doing this for maybe five minutes at a time, and gradually increase the amount of time. When your thoughts wander, just gently return your attention to your breathing and your imagery. This can help train your body to stay calm in silence, and it's a useful thing you can do when your stomach talks turning class. You're teaching it to be quiet. It takes time, but exercises like this are effective in reducing anxiety and bringing your mind and body into alignment. In the meantime, if anyone snickers or says anything to you, they're usually doing it to hide their own insecurities (I speak as a former high school teacher/counselor). :)

UNKNOWN
February, 19 2020 at 12:23 am

Same this happens to me and I really hate it. I talked to my mom about it but it didn’t really seemed to help. She gets me in trouble for wanting to skip class because of it. I really, really hate it.

Laura
February, 21 2020 at 10:28 am

That's exactly what happens to me too, I struggle a lot with it. Do you guys have some tips on how to calm yourself in this situations?

February, 24 2020 at 1:54 pm

Hi Laura,
I have found that practicing mindfulness helps me be comfortable not only with silence, but with myself in situations like these. To make it possible for me to pay attention to what is going on rather than on my thoughts about it or on my anxiety and discomfort, I ground myself. You might find that helpful, too (it does take a while to get used to). Try placing both feet firmly on the ground, and notice the feel of the floor beneath your feet. Breathe slowly and deeply (even deep breathing can be done quietly so you don't feel like you're drawing attention to yourself). Don't try to force thoughts, but just notice your feet planted and your body breathing. Then, let yourself find a focal point and concentrate on that, noting shapes, colors, etc. Grounding yourself this way calms your mind and body and allows you to gently turn your attention to the moment at hand. When you catch your anxiety climbing again (as you know, anxiety tends to do that!), do the grounding exercise again to re-center, then return to the moment. The idea isn't to force thoughts out of your mind but to clear your mind so you can be fully present in your moment.

Sarah
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
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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