This article was published by Whimn.
“The quieter you are, the more you are able to hear,” goes the #inspirationalquote by spiritual teacher and deep thinker Ram Dass. I wonder what Dass would have to say about me – a self-professed headphone addict who spends almost every waking hour avoiding the quiet. Like many city dwellers, I can almost always be found plugged into my headphones, keeping silence at an arm’s length for as long as humanly possible.
Think I’m over exaggerating? I start the day with news from the Skimm, commute with a podcast like Shameless or The High Low, block out distracting conversations at work with focus playlists (Audible Adderall works a treat, BTW) and get through my thrice-weekly runs with audio guidance from the Nike Running Club app. Putting my headphones on was as much a part of my leaving-the-house routine as cleaning my teeth or almost forgetting my keys. I wear ‘em everywhere: to take the bins out, to block out my noisy neighbours, to soothe myself to sleep.
As you can imagine, living with a pair of headphones glued to your skull isn’t exactly practical: in the last few weeks, I narrowly avoided colliding with a cyclist, missed my tram stop and accidentally ignored a colleague because I was lost in headphone land, totally disconnected from the world around me. Those behaviours fit the definition of addiction – continued use despite adverse consequences – alarmingly well.
There might not be 12-step programmes or support groups for my particular addiction, but it’s by no means a rare affliction. Look around any rush hour train carriage, hit up your local gym or people-watch at any major shopping centre and you’ll find a good section of the population is plugged into their own portable soundscapes, too. 27-year-old Chessy is so dependent on her headphones, she can’t leave the house without them. “I feel physically sick if I misplace them and have to go out somewhere without mine. I feel really vulnerable without them,” she told me. “Even if my phone dies, I keep my headphones in. It’s a comfort thing. I think it’s a mechanism, to also be like, ‘don’t talk to me, I’m busy’ so I don’t feel too exposed in a crowd.” Similarly, Deeksha, 24, told me she used her headphones to opt out of socialising. “It became so bad that if I had to do the dishes, I would use them to stay out of conversations, be it in shared houses or at my parents’ home,” she said. And 26-year-old Alice admitted, “I have mine on any time I have to travel on my own, to block out the world.”
Anxiety disorders are on the rise, but the number of mental health services available to patients is sadly not. 3.2 million Australians are said to suffer from anxiety – an increase of 600,000 from 2015. Suffice to say, there likely are a fair few of us who don our headphones to block out stress triggers like crowds, commutes and screaming babies. I know I can count myself in this camp; headphones create a barrier between me and whatever is setting off alarm bells in my head.
Even for those with enviously low stress levels succumb to the allure of whiling away the hours with a podcast binge. Why suffer through the sound of inane office conversation when you can plug into something far more enlightening? There are an estimated 30 million episodes of some 750,000 podcasts [LINK: https://www.podcastinsights.com/podcast-statistics/%5D ready to to binge our way through. With the popularity of podcasts on the rise, we’re just as likely to hear about a must-listen series as we are a must-watch show, providing all the more reason to glue your headphones to your head and check out from the real world.
The problem is, wearing headphones all the time means never allowing yourself a bit of silent time can be a nightmare for your mental health. “Having quiet moments in our days allows us to reflect on our thoughts and to process things happening in our lives,” Dr. Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Adviser, Beyond Blue told me. The good news is, headphones do have their perks to our mental health when used in moderation. “Headphones can be a useful tool to relieve stress by listening to music or a mindfulness podcast. However, their overuse as a crutch could lead some people to isolate themselves and be part of a pattern of social avoidance.”
With Dr. Blashki’s words in mind, I decided to take the plunge and challenge myself to a week without headphones. The mere thought of spending seven long days without my beloved ear armour was enough to make me break out in a nervous sweat, but it couldn’t be so hard, right? Before the 80s, people managed without so much as a Sony Walkman to entertain them. Can you imagine?!
The first few days were truly awful. I felt irritable, exposed, bored, anxious and a few degrees colder without my trusty over-ear accessories. After the initial shock and adjustment period, I found myself observing boring, everyday things with new curiosity; tantalising loaves of bread appeared to wink at me from the bakery window, the birds seemed to chirp their tunes just for me and I felt the unapproachable air around strangers thaw a little.
Until my little headphone-free experiment, I had never been for a run without music in my life. Exercise is a necessary evil, something to be tolerated with the help of running playlists and running apps, and while I still resent working up a sweat, I can see why so many runners go headphone-free. With only the sound of your trainers hitting the path and your panting breath for company, there’s more room to flesh out thoughts and observe your surroundings. I felt a new sense of calm and connection to my environment, like a newfound yogi or a teenager who just smoked weed for the first time. I felt, I guess, kinda zen.
Obviously ditching of your headphones won’t cure your burgeoning social anxiety or make you fall back in love with a job you’re totally over, but getting rid of your number one distraction device might help you to reconnect with your surroundings and appreciate the beauty of the everyday. Do you know what? Ram Dass might be on to something.