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Walking Therapy and Emotional Processing

I often hear myself say, "I'd rather walk." When I have the option to walk to where I need to go, I'll choose that every time. Surely, it's beneficial for my physical health; sometimes I think my apple watch might spontaneously combust trying to keep up with my step count! But walking, is also incredibly beneficial for our emotional and mental health.

I don't think I'm telling you anything you probably don't already know. But I wanted to shed some light on why walking is such a great tool for emotional processing specifically, especially when practiced with the intention of processing within a therapeutic relationship.

A lot of my studies in graduate school grew from the theories, practices, and philosophies of Carl Jung. Jung was a Swiss psychologist who began as an understudy to Frued. At a certain point in their relationship, Jung saw that Freud's views were too narrow and he followed his intuition into more expansive theories of the mind. Jung was a bit of a rebel in that, he didn't feel the need to conform to any mainstream ideas of what healing should look like. The medical model of psychotherapy was not his vibe! In a nutshell, Jung took a much more spiritual approach to working with his clients and understanding his own psyche.

All that being said, I remember reading one of Jung's books and him referencing his practice of taking clients out of his office and going for walks around his property with them instead. For his time, taking clients out of the office and into nature for a psychotherapy session was pretty wild and crazy stuff! And if I've learned anything about myself over the years, I know that wild and crazy is my vibe!

True to my Jungian roots, walking through my property with my clients is one of my most effective tools. And the effectiveness of getting outside and walking for a session, is not just a woo-woo concept. The benefits are being backed by some very serious and impressive science. It was easy for me to see that getting clients outside for a session was beneficial because they are getting some exercise, some sunshine, and grounding. But what's happening on an unseen level is that while we are walking, and talking through difficult emotional and psychological material, the left and right hemispheres of our brain are connecting and being stimulated in a way that is not happening while just sitting and talking. And when we can facilitate this connection in our brains, our emotional processing is more deeply supported and integrated.

You see where I'm going with this right? When we can facilitate deeper emotional processing and integration, we can make more progress and see results quicker. Conclusion: Walking therapy is more effective than just sitting in an office and talking about our problems. Of course, I'm generalizing somewhat, and therapeutic response and success depends on a lot of factors and is very specific from person to person. But overall, when given the choice, I'd rather walk.

It is very interesting to note also, that the understanding that walking facilitates emotional processing through connecting both sides of our brains, was the inspiration for EMDR therapy, which essentially does the exact same thing as walking by stimulating left and right hemispheres through bilateral movement while processing emotion.

It's ancient wisdom. We're just reinventing the wheel! If we aren't involving our BODIES in the therapeutic process, we are not involving our whole selves. And if we're not involving our whole selves, the integration just isn't there. We have to integrate on an embodied level. We cannot integrate on just a head space level.

And don't even get me started on the other element in walking therapy which is the numerous healing benefits being showered down on us by the simple act of just being in nature. Just to list a few of the benefits documented by science:

  • reduced anxiety

  • reduced levels of stress hormone

  • increased positive outlook

  • decreased blood pressure

  • increased dopamine levels

  • increased creativity

Even if you don't consider yourself an outdoorsy person, you will receive the benefits of being outside. One of my favorite books on this subject is The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. One of the best examples in this book of the support from clinicians to get patients/clients outside to facilitate their healing process, is about how Japanese doctors will prescribe their clients 'forest bathing,' to remedy a number of issues.

Can you imagine? You go to your psychiatrist to tell them about your anxiety and depression and instead of them writing you a prescription for a pharmaceutical they tell you to go take a 20-minute walk in the park 3 times per week?

I have so much more I could say about the nuanced and layered ways that walking with my clients is so beneficial. I've seen truly incredible results with this method and I'm extremely gratful that I have such a beautiful space in nature where I can practice. I just hope that I have sparked some interest in how therapy can look different from sitting in an office. Let's get wild and crazy and go for a walk together!

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