I recently read an article about a psychologist who walks with her clients. A kind of walk and talk therapy. I was drawn to it for a number of reasons, not least because I love to walk myself. My own experience of regular walking has a number of facets. Perhaps you can relate to some of these benefits:
- It’s a quiet time to think. Blissful uninterrupted thought! No electronic devices alerting me to messages I’m expected to respond to, no children needing assistance and no knocks on the door or phone calls.
- It’s outdoors, in fresh air and natural light. A chance to get in touch with the weather, the seasons, and the changes in our local landscape.
- It energizes. Many a morning I’ve felt sluggish to start with, only to find after 20mins that I’m somehow walking faster or with more of a rhythm. By the time I get home, I’m significantly more motivated than if I hadn’t walked at all.
- Sometimes it’s social. A walk together provides a way of seeing a friend and exercizing at the same time. A win-win all round, which also provides a bit of accountability to either exercize or simply connect. A chance to ask that wonderful Mental Health promoting question “Are you OK?” 
- Sometimes it’s therapeutic. Whether I’m talking or thinking to myself on a solo walk or I’m with a friend and we’re talking and listening to each other; both have benefits. If I’m alone, I sense that I’m being heard in a spiritual sense and in the second case there is much value in simply being listened to in an accepting and non-judgemental manner (and doing the same for my friend).
A number of these listed benefits are also grounded in research. Thirty minutes of moderate exercize (ie: brisk walking or other) on most days of the week can be an adequate treatment alone for non-melancholic depression. I even read somewhere that just 15mins of exercize per day can increase your life expectancy by 3yrs! Interesting also that the environment in which we walk can have an impact. For example, a recent study comparing walks in nature and walks in urban settings found that the brain was affected differently. Nature walks, by comparison, significantly decreased ruination, anxiety and negative affect and increased working memory’s performance. This would explain the growing number of walk-talk therapists in New York’s Central Park!
It has got me thinking about different scenarios, and what might warrant a ‘walk and talk’ therapy session with a psychologist, versus a situation where a walk on one’s own or with a friend might simply be enough to lift our mood and help us to feel more OK. There’s no particular right or wrong answer here although there are some points I’d like to raise:
- Walking has a number of physical and psychological benefits all on it’s own. Taking the initiative yourself is not only going to make you feel more energised, it’s more likely to enhance your sense of control over your own well-being thereby raising one’s self-esteem with the feeling “I can do it”.
- Sitting with a psychologist also brings opportunities for the change we want to see in our lives. It’s fairly normal to get a bit stuck sometimes and this can also be a way of taking initiative.
- The two can work together well if a person is also struggling to get moving, reluctant to get out of the house or lacking in opportunities for fresh air and sunlight.
Other ways in which walking with a psychologist might be more beneficial than walking on one’s own or with a friend might be:
- If you’d prefer not to be alone or you find it difficult to find someone to walk with;
- If you find it difficult to talk very deeply about yourself with people you know. Confidentiality is a very important factor in these delicate moments of revealing one’s inner self;
- If you find that a session in an office is a little too formal or confronting and perhaps the relaxed ‘side by side’ approach is more appealing;
- Sometimes walking gets you talking and hopefully thinking out loud. In this case, a psychologist might be able to pick up some repetitive or unhelpful thoughts and challenge them, or guide you into more helpful ways of thinking;
- If you find it hard to stop and be still, take in your surroundings, and simply breathe in the fresh air then a psychologist can guide you in some simple mindfulness practices – giving your brain a lot more oxygen and a little mini-holiday – thereby showing you some techniques to practice that might enhance your own well-being.
- If you feel that you just need be heard. The non-judgemental and empathetic ear of somebody trained to listen can have more value than you might think.
Walking, as you know, is all about movement. The very act of putting one foot in front of the other symbolises a desire for movement or change; a hope that things won’t stay the same. The feeling of being stagnant or standing in the one place can make us feel like we’re going nowhere and this may frustrate us. Perhaps we don’t even realise that we are being stationary. Sometimes, there is so much going on in our head or our heart that it feels very busy or heavy and we just feel tired all the time. At first it will be hard to get going but, usually, when we physically start to move then we create hope for movement elsewhere in ourselves.
So if that’s the physical movement, what other kinds of movement might we be looking for that a psychologist could help us with? Metaphorically speaking:
Cognitive: Perhaps our worries or thoughts are all consuming and we need to get unstuck.
Behavioural: Often we imagine that doing something different or changing our environment or routine might be good for us. We’re probably right!
Emotional: The Latin derivative of the word emotion is ‘out’ + ‘move’. So…idealistically speaking…if we’re out moving about then we’re creating space for emotional change. Seeing a psychologist could get both your body and your emotions out and moving.
Directional: In some stages of life, it’s normal to be unsure about what to do or where to go in life. Sometimes just getting going ‘somewhere’ can kick off the process of movement and get us thinking about the bigger picture of our own lives.
Walking as a form of exercize is one way to create movement in our lives but there are also others. One very specific way of walking which has been described as having therapeutic or stress relieving benefits is to walk a Labyrinth. This is an ancient construct and pattern used for meditative walking. It is also used in the modern day and in recent years is gaining renewed interest and momentum. The contemplative journey of the labyrinth calls people to let go of their worries as they enter in, to receive a peace and calm as they pause at the centre, and to resolve to engage with the world in a new way as they walk out. Considering that the labyrinth is generally walked without talking, I’ll have to write a separate blog on that subject.
In the meantime, enjoy your walking OR your talking and if you decide you’d like to do both then suggest it to your therapist.