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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

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10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

Back in 1996, I attended my first silent retreat. It was a Buddhist retreat led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was new to meditation, and completely unfamiliar with Buddhism, so I had no idea what to expect.

A friend of mine in Miami, where I lived at the time, told me about it with great enthusiasm. He said the retreat was going to be held in Key West, someplace I had never visited before.

I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I figured that if I wanted to learn about meditation, then training with a Zen master was an excellent opportunity. It was a life-changing experience.

Now, I lead yearly silent retreats in North Carolina to help other people transform their lives like I did at my first silent retreat. In fact, we just had our retreat last month.

There are many misconceptions about silent retreats. Here I am going to share with you what a silent retreat is, and how it can improve your mental health.

What Is a Silent Retreat?

The term “silent retreat” is more of a general term to describe a certain type of retreat. The reason is that since different teachers and organizations provide the retreats, their formats can vary significantly. Some are religious, and some are not.

Basically, a silent retreat is an event where you go and spend some time away from your daily life and personal responsibilities, and engage in a combination of meditation and learning. And of course, it also involves some degree of silence throughout the retreat. That is, you refrain from speaking.

The purpose of the silence is two-fold. First, the silence allows your mind to settle down, so you can begin to see the world with greater clarity. Second, it helps you focus your attention on your inner world, which is why you’re there. We often use conversation and other activities to distract ourselves from ourselves.

Why Attend a Silent Retreat?

The whole purpose of the silent retreat is to facilitate personal transformation. Many of us want to work on ourselves in order to grow mentally and emotionally, but it’s hard to do that kind of work in our daily lives when we’re constantly being distracted by our activities, responsibilities, and other people.

Your whole time at a silent retreat is spent relaxing, and getting to know yourself on a deeper level. You can leave all your responsibilities behind, including cooking and cleaning. You can enjoy true rest and relaxation, something we don’t always do on a regular vacation with a busy itinerary.

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Silent retreats are usually held in some remote location with beautiful scenery, so you can be closer to nature. There is something quite relaxing about being surrounded by nature. I think it takes our mind away from our busy lives, and helps us put things into a different perspective.

Our retreat took place in the scenic countryside of Central North Carolina. There was a lake, trails, and deer roaming freely. Participants went for leisurely walks around the lake, and some even went canoeing. Others caught up on their sleep.

How a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

There are various ways a silent retreat can improve your mental health, some directly and others indirectly. Here are the 10 most common ways.

1. Overcome Stress and Anxiety

One of the benefits of meditation most often touted is that it helps you overcome stress and anxiety.[1] Many of us have extremely busy lives. We have demanding jobs, families to care for, financial commitments, and other activities. These can lead to us stressing over how to keep everything under control.

When you’re at a silent retreat, you get a break from all of your responsibilities, and have an opportunity to let your mind settle down. This alone, will ease stress and anxiety.

You see, we don’t just have too much going on in our lives, we also have too much going on in our mind, and this is what contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

2. Gain Greater Clarity

It generally takes about 24 hours of silence for your mind to quiet down.[2] Once your mind settles down, you’ll naturally begin to see things with much greater clarity.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes going for a short walk helps you clear your mind? At a silent retreat, that effect is much greater.

Imagine the impact this would have on your life. You’ll be able to understand yourself much better, as well as the world around you. This will lead to better decisions that can have long-term implications on the direction of your life. Several participants at our retreat mentioned that they gained new perspectives on their lives, and continued doing so after the retreat was over.

Probably the greatest benefit of having greater clarity is that the world will make much more sense. Confusion will begin to disappear, and as a result, you’ll be able to pursue your life goals without hesitation.

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3. Develop Mental Discipline

There is an old Buddhist story about a man riding a horse, which is used to illustrate what a racing mind does to us. One day, the man was riding his horse quickly down the road and with great determination. A bystander shouted to him, “Where are you going?” The man on the horse replied, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!” Our racing mind does the same thing to us: It takes us for a ride, and we don’t know where it’s going.

Most people don’t have much mental discipline, nor do they think it’s possible to control their mind. They let their racing mind rule their lives. When your mind settles down, it will no longer be racing out of control. Then you’ll gain greater ability to focus your attention, and therefore, have more control of your mind. In addition, your memory, abstract thinking, and creativity will improve.

4. Gain Greater Control of Your Emotions

All of our emotions are triggered by our thoughts, either conscious or unconscious. So if our mind is flooded with thoughts, then it is also flooded with emotions.

When your mind calms down at a silent retreat, you will naturally experience fewer emotions. In addition, with the increasing clarity, you’ll be able to heal the wounds from your past, which fester in your subconscious mind.

Another way a silent retreat can help you gain control over your emotions is by developing greater self-awareness. When your mind is more peaceful, there are much fewer unnecessary thoughts in your mind that hinder your ability to monitor yourself.

5. Gain Greater Control of Your Body

Self-awareness also extends to our body. When we are more aware of our body, we are more conscious of the subtle queues our body is sending us. This will lead to better decisions regarding our nutrition, physical activity, and medical care.

As a result of making better choices for our body, we will feel better physically. This is especially important as we get older. As we age, our body begins to wear down, leading to various physical ailments that cause a great deal of pain and suffering.

With better physical health, we will feel better emotionally. We will feel more confident and energetic. And we’ll avoid emotional problems, such as depression and loneliness, which often come with an aging body.[3]

6. Heal the Wounds from Your Past

Most of us have issues from our past that we haven’t fully resolved. They can range from unpleasant situations to traumatic events. Whichever the case, they’re always festering in our mind, whether we’re conscious of them or not. If they’re in our subconscious mind, then they continuously manifest themselves in our attitudes, and therefore, our actions.

Silent retreats are great for healing the wounds from your past. As you develop greater clarity through a calming mind, you’ll be able to see past issues from a different perspective. In addition, your calming emotions will help you look at them with greater objectivity.

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The silent retreat is also a supportive environment where it is safe to deal with unresolved issues. Since the other participants at the retreat are also dealing with their own issues, you develop a bond with them that aids the healing process.

7. Improve Your Relationships

As your mind and emotions calm down, and you heal the wounds from your past, you will behave much differently in your relationships, especially with loved ones. You will be less likely to react to provocation from others. You will also speak and behave with more love, compassion, and gentleness.

As your behavior improves, so will your relationships. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the behavior of other people in your life will improve, but at least you’ll be less likely to engage in behaviors that provoked them.

There is one thing to keep in mind. As you become less likely to react to provocation from others, this can be unsettling to them because they are used to pushing your buttons. This forces them to either ramp up their efforts, or change their behavior.

8. Get in Touch with Reality

Many of us are not fully in touch with reality. We are either living in the past, or in the future, neither of which are reality. The past is already gone, and the future has not yet arrived. To be fully in touch with reality means to live deeply in the present moment. This is where all of reality is taking place.

When we’re in touch with the present moment, we make decisions based on what is truly happening, not on unrealistic thinking. This will lead to better outcomes, and less worrying about how things will turn out, because with a calm mind and emotions, we’ll be better able to accept the outcomes.

9. Speed up Your Personal Development

A silent retreat can accelerate your personal development in just about every way physically, mentally, and emotionally. The work that you do at a retreat basically enables you to perform at an optimal level by eliminating the barriers that are holding you back. Such barriers include stress, unresolved issues, and a racing mind.

The reason a silent retreat speeds up your development is that you’re focusing all of your attention on your personal needs the entire time you are there. You are essentially doing several years’ worth of work in just a matter of days.

I would even argue that the results you achieve at a silent retreat can’t be replicated in any other setting. You see, at a silent retreat, your mind reaches a level of calm that takes a continuous combination of silence and meditation to achieve. It is like driving on a highway, compared to the stop-and-go of a street with traffic lights.

I should point out that optimal physical performance still requires exercise and good nutrition. You can’t develop a good looking and healthy physique by just meditating. However, the silent retreat will help you be more effective in your pursuit of your health goals.

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10. Gain Greater Peace and Happiness

Overall, a silent retreat will help you realize greater peace and happiness. You will overcome stress, heal the wounds from your past, and gain greater insights about yourself and your connection to the rest of the world. At our retreats, participants become so peaceful that they begin speaking much more softly without even realizing it.

Imagine how liberating it would be to no longer have any unresolved issues from your past. There is a great comfort that comes from healing and accepting things that have troubled you for so many years. You also stop accumulating more baggage.

It is also very comforting to understand yourself, others, and the world on a much deeper level. Some of the greatest mysteries of the world are often revealed to you when you’re able to see the world with greater clarity and objectivity. The result is a much happier and fulfilling life.

Final Thoughts

I have always been intrigued by the potential of a human being. I’ve always wondered what I could accomplish if I developed my mind, body, and emotions to their fullest capabilities.

I’ve been on a path of personal development since I was 23 years old. After attending my first retreat with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I realized that a silent retreat was the best tool I had to help me reach my greatest potential.

A silent retreat is a life-changing experience. It’s hard to put into words the impact it will have on your life. You will learn things about yourself that will amaze you, and you’ll develop the inner strength to stay in control of yourself, and pursue your life goals without hesitation.

To truly understand what I’m talking about, you will just have to try it. You won’t be disappointed.

More to Calm Your Mind

Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Mayo Clinic: Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
[2] eLuxe Magazine: 6 Amazing Benefits Silent Retreats Can Bring to Your Life
[3] American Psychological Association: Aging and Depression

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

How to Start Living in the Moment and Stop Worrying 20 of the Best Guided Meditations for Sleep and Insomnia How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control How to Cope with the 5 Common Stressors In Life and Feel Better 10 Ways a Silent Retreat Improves Your Mental Health

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Last Updated on September 23, 2021

Overwhelmed at Work? 17 Ways to Manage Work Anxiety

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Overwhelmed at Work? 17 Ways to Manage Work Anxiety

Sadly, being overwhelmed at work has become commonplace in many industries in the United States, with an astounding 83% of US workers reporting that they are suffering from work-related stress. The US has been deemed the most overworked developed nation on the planet.[1]

Some of you are nodding your head knowingly, while others might be doing a questioning head tilt right now. Here’s the deal—data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the average productivity of American workers has increased since 1950.[2] Unfortunately, since that time real wages have remained largely unchanged (adjusted for cost of living and inflation), meaning that to earn the same amount that we did in 1950, we have to work approximately an extra 11 hours each week—and an unthinkable 572 hours a year. Sounds a little bit stressful, doestn’ it?

To put things into perspective, here are a few statistics to chew on:[3]

  • People are so overwhelmed at work that it’s costing American companies over 300 billion dollars a year and over $190 billion in healthcare costs.[4] This is partly because feeling overwhelmed at work manifests itself in increased sick days, decreased productivity, poor mental and physical health, more errors on the job, and increased turnover.
  • Moreover, stress at work is not just costing us money but also our lives. With a staggering 120,000 deaths annually attributed to work stress, something needs to change.

If the external demands are not enough to raise your blood pressure, we are also unwittingly making our situations more challenging by perpetuating an ideology that would stress out even the coolest cucumber. Let me explain.

The idea that’s been drilled into us for most of our American lives has been this: hard work and working hard is to be admired while admitting something is too much is being a lazy wimp. This underlying attitude we’ve all been spoon-fed is called Internalized Capitalism. According to Anders Hayden, a political science professor at Dal Housie University in Nova Scotia,[5]

“Internalized capitalism is this idea that our self-worth is directly linked to our productivity.”

Someone struggling with internalized capitalism might look like any or all of the following:

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  • Putting work before their health and well-being.
  • Feeling guilty when resting or participating in a leisure activity.
  • Feeling lazy and/or anxious when sick, hurt, or otherwise dealing with personal or physical adversity that delays them from doing their job.
  • Feeling that whatever they do it’s never enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is admirable to be a hard worker. But here’s the caveat—when our self-worth and lives suffer because of the overwhelming and relentless demand for productivity, profit, and performance, we need to start reconsidering what’s going on. And here’s the real kicker: this attitude plays right into the hands of the few who are profiting from the many. It’s almost like we have been brainwashed to police ourselves against our self-interest.

Now that we are all on the same page about how we got here, the question is this: How can we overcome a difficult system and dysfunctional thinking?

Honestly, we didn’t get here overnight, and there is not a magic wand to wave that will change things for the better instantly. True change will occur with a blend of systemic and individual tweaks—or overhauls. Okay, it’s really “overhauls” that we need, but I didn’t want to scare anyone so I said “tweaks.”

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the solutions and changes we can make as individuals. Let’s just be frank and put it out there that these problems won’t be fixed only by reminding people to take better care of themselves. Taking personal responsibility for your self-care is part of it, yes, but this runs much deeper than that. We are talking about undoing deeply held beliefs that govern our self-esteem and self-worth.

1. Process Your Emotions

“So, if you’re mad, get mad!” Isn’t that how the song goes? (I’ll Stand by You by the Pretenders.) Finding healthy outlets for our emotions is a key aspect of processing and being able to truly move on.

“Name it to tame it,” is a phrase coined by Dr. Dan Siegel about the power of labeling an emotion to reduce its impact. Examples of this could be journaling or talking things out with someone. Honestly, this step really needs to come first as it is extremely difficult to think clearly when we are feeling very emotional.[6]

2. Be Aware of Negative and Judgmental Self-Talk

Are you staying late at the office and missing time with friends (or your dog) because your internal critic is telling you that if you don’t get this project done, you are a lazy, underperforming blob of an employee? This type of self-talk is not productive or healthy.

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You can overcome this by becoming aware of the story you are telling yourself and the judgment that accompanies it. This is the most important step by far. These stories and criticisms we tell ourselves that keep us working crazy hours and provoke toxic anxiety are the same cockamamie stories that prevent us from taking the time we need to take care of ourselves.

3. Question Your Beliefs

Once you notice the narrative you are telling yourself, take a step back and try to see it for what it is. “Is this really true? Why do I believe that? Is there any evidence to the contrary?”

4. Make New Beliefs

Rewrite your story with what feels right to you. Luckily, we are our own authors, and we get to choose the things we tell ourselves. It doesn’t sound like much, but the power of perspective and authentic positive thinking can be monumental. It’s healthy to evaluate our internal beliefs and self-talk from time to time.

5. Be Clear on What You Want

Be clear on what you want and how you’d like things to be different. Do I want to work a zillion hours a week and then be too tired/anxious/grumpy to do anything else in my life? What are my priorities and does my situation now reflect that?

6. Talk to Your Supervisor

Talk to your supervisor to clarify expectations. Are you holding yourself to implied or self-imposed expectations? Or have they explicitly been set by your employer?

7. Have a Solid Support System

Having a solid support system helps prevent you from being overwhelmed by work anxiety. They can be your friends, family, life coach, psychologist, teammates, social groups—whoever feels supportive, positive, and encouraging.

8. Brutally Assess What You Can and Can’t Control.

This step is important as it dictates the actions you have to choose to move forward. I used to wish I would win the lottery, but the time and energy spent on that didn’t get me anywhere. Changing my work hours, taking some classes, and cutting back some expenses did.

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9. Develop an Action Plan

Develop an action plan based on your findings in #8. It’s not all going to change at once. Start with one small thing, and keep chipping away until you get wherever you want to go.

10. Talk to Someone in HR

Talk to your supervisor or someone from HR about your concerns and struggles. Find out about your options and any assistance they may be able to offer.

11. Set Boundaries and Limitations.

Just because you can work from home and check your email at 2 am doesn’t mean that you should. Learn to set your boundaries. Limit digital contact. Limit work to work hours and stick to it.

12. Complete One Thing at a Time

We are only neurologically capable of doing one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth and, when attempted, has been shown to take up to 40% longer to complete a task.[7] Don’t waste your precious time and energy doing many things at once. Instead, focus on one task at a time.

13. Be Organized and Timely But Also Realistic

Don’t set yourself up for increased stress and overwhelming work anxiety by putting an unreasonable amount of things on your “to-do” list over a short period of time. Prioritize what needs to be done, and set realistic time frames for completion.

14. Good Enough Is Sometimes Good Enough

Don’t get bogged down in the minutia and cost yourself hours of needless work by re-reading an email 14 times before sending it. Read through it twice and hit send.

15. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

There is a saying I like: “Comparison is the thief of happiness.” I have no idea who originally said it, but they are brilliant, and most of all, correct. Wasting time and energy comparing ourselves never leads us to a good place. Instead, ask yourself if you are doing the best you can given your own set of circumstances.

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16. Take Time to Fill Your Tank

Meditation, yoga, quiet time, exercise, breaks, breathing, quality sleep, good nutrition, and hydration—just to name a few—are all scientifically proven ways to reduce our internal stress and better manage our energy.[8] On top of good self-care habits, taking the time to do whatever it is that fills your individual tank is crucial to feeling less overwhelmed with work anxiety. I frequently ask my clients which car will make it on a cross-country trip: the car you stop and put gas in, checking the oil and tires intermittently, or the car that you just keep driving?

17. Reframe Your Perspective

We all get caught in the habit of seeing things from only one perspective. A friend of mine used to always tell me, “there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs and something in the middle.” She was right, and honestly, there are many more sides than that.

Critical coaching moment here: Take a step back and try to think outside the box to see the vast expanse of options available to you. Try not to discount them right off the bat as they might not readily fit into the narrow view or expectation that you previously held. Allow your mind to run free, be creative, and find solutions.

What Organizations Can Do About It

As we mentioned earlier, this problem of being overwhelmed with work anxiety is not one-dimensional. Much of the onus falls on the system itself. Not ready to make the full commitment necessary, many organizations encourage their employees to “take care of themselves” or “prioritize work-life balance” while, at the same time, covertly/overtly making unrealistic demands in workload and time.

The positive side is that there are companies who have truly taken the task of supporting their employees as people with personal and professional lives to heart.[9] These organizations stand at the forefront with fair wages, employing enough staff, and setting realistic work expectations, boundaries, and goals. Some top organizations employ life coaches, psychologists, and other support staff, offer employee wellness programs, encourage good nutrition through free healthy meals at work, provide access to fitness and game rooms, and provide unlimited paid time off, flexible schedules, the ability to work remotely, as well as resources to assist with daycare, legal issues, and in-home care to name a few.

Lastly, solid training for managers and HR in addressing employees as “whole” people and taking some of the onus off of the employee to find their own solutions to problems that stem from the workplace is another critical component to successfully supporting employees.[10]

Final Thoughts

Improving support for people in the workplace is good for everyone. It’s better for people’s health and well-being, it’s better for productivity and making fewer errors, it’s more cost-effective for companies and our healthcare system, and it increases the bottom line for companies.

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As we discussed earlier, the big picture will not change overnight. For now, take control of what you can and evaluate ways to better manage your end of things. If these changes are not enough to make the difference you are looking for, then a change of environment or to a company that holds the same beliefs that you do may be in order.

More Tips on How to Manage Work Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Elisa Ventur via unsplash.com

Reference

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