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Walking for our mental health

Walking therapy in nature

Walking the talk with walking therapy

Wellies? Walking boots? Mask, hat, keys, dog, waterproofs….

Many have rediscovered walking these last 12 months. Some of out of necessity, others rekindling a youthful love for it. Maybe you’re trying to get away from a 24 hour monotony at home? Kids playing up, 4 white walls, the constant keyboard banging. Could it be that as soon as Boris says ‘Stay home’, we all want to ‘Go outside?’ It’s part of our human psyche, is it not?

Give me someone who doesn’t return from a brisk walk in the fresh winter air murmuring as they walk through the front door. ‘Oh that feels better…’ as they slouch down for the next Netflix Original, cup of tea or pick up the iPhone again.

Walking is a godsend right now. It gives us time to think. Time to just be. Some have found new friendships or repaired an old relationship even had the opportunity to leave a toxic relationship.

As the Soulwalker, a walking therapist, I’m thoroughly sold when it comes to the benefits of connection through our most basic of movements. Especially when outside in nature. When clients come to meet me, they often don’t know what they want. All they do know is that they’re feeling out-of-sorts or suffering in someway. Maybe high anxiety, fear of under performing or imposter syndrome from working in big emotionally unconnected corporate businesses. Feeling a failure as a mum, drinking and shopping too much, lost in a transition, having no sexual intimacy with their partner. Doing anything to avoid being with themselves. In pain. Lonely. Disconnected.

Cue, walking therapy.

Our modern way of living stimulates us more than any other time in our history. Even a global pandemic doesn’t stop some of us. Our physiological systems have adapted to the speed, but not always in the right way. The human body is incredible however it is essential that we learn how to best integrate and use this technology rather that it be addictive and owning us. Many of us aren’t able to detach as we are addicted their bright lights and clever algorithms which so easily distract and numb us from the misalignments in our lives.

The question here is, what lies beneath?

At our very core, humans are love. Our very existence, our environment, the trauma we have endured has created many layers upon layers of patterns, behaviours and conditioning. We lose our way, and our journey through life is to remember who we really are. When we’re busy being busy, we are unable to quieten the mind, and essentially we’re avoiding who we are.

And to get there, we need to detach from the external and reconnect with the internal. To recognise how our lives have shaped us. Bring us into awareness and peal back the onion layers of hurt, pain, avoidance, anger, rage, upset and disappointment. First up, we have to decide that we want things to change. To be different. And getting quiet is one way, and in my opinion to start to peel those layers of onion.

How do we get quiet you might ask? Whatever way is your way and sometimes that means trying a few things out. Yes, meditation is an option. However for many, there isn’t a quiet room, it can involve using an app, or the very risk that you’ll be distracted by something, someone or any slight invitation to open those eyes!

Unless you’re physically not able to, or live somewhere which doesn’t feel too safe. Getting outside is free and is what we were born to do. Go into your local park, the promenade, or simply your garden and you’ll find a very different experience. Walking is one of my deepest loves and as Billy Connolly says ‘Finding what you love, and doing it for a job,’ which we all know is one ingredient for a happy life.

 Therapists, as I’m sure many of you picture, see us as those middle-aged women, often sitting on a worn out chair, at a certain angle, with a box of tissues, and a clock on the table, ticking away. When the hand hits 50 mins, out of the chair goes the client, back to the screen and life’s distractions. The in-room therapy of course serves its purpose but, as I once experienced, I felt like a trapped animal, I had to find another way.

The outdoors is my favourite playground. A hockey player and sporting youngster I was bought up on the beach sands of Weston super Mare, with frequent camping holidays and a life mainly involving my brothers and sisters. My biggest personal breakthroughs have come when walking. And I’m not alone. Many of you will have some of the best conversations when you’re out with the dog, or on a walk chatting to your best friend. Celebrities are no different. Kim Cattrall, star of Sex in the City, shares how walking helped her deal with the death of her brother. It’s quite simply, therapeutic.

A long intense walk such as the Camino do Santiago, strips you back. In the middle of the dry plains of Spain, the Meseta, often referenced to as ‘the mind section’, leaves you with nowhere to hide. No crutch to support you. It’s you, nature, wind, rain, the beating of the sun that teaches you. A reminder that you are just a small particle in this world, with no control over what nature chooses to throw at you. Left with just your mind, and the repetition of your footsteps, feelings surface.

It doesn’t have to be huge country crossings, or the wild mountains of Patagonia to stir this up. Right now, that’s not possible for many around the globe. An hour’s walk in a local park can evoke similar emotions. Remind you that you can indeed, free your mind.

Key Benefits to Walking Therapy

  1. Quietens our nervous system and balances our internal systems
  2. Creates space for unconscious exploration
  3. Repairs our brains and lowers our blood pressure, reduces inflammation and aids digestion
  4. Reduces depressive disorders, anxiety and stress through the release of endorphins
  5. Allows re-connection to nature and its magic
  6. Improves creativity and problem solving

Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, in a recent study offers;

The experience of walking can allow you to escape yourself and this non-ego focus is healthy. We should spend more time not thinking of ourselves.

So what can you expect when you Soulwalk with me?

When I walk with clients, we never walk quickly. It’s about conscious walking. Where you can hear your breathe, notice the speed your body wants to go, and instead slow down and listen to the birds, the wind, the waves, the leaves underfoot and even the planes above.

How we walk and how we are in nature is very telling. Can you slow down? Why do you walk ahead of others? Do you have gratitude for the bees and birds around you? Do you stamp all over the ferns?

We walk in all weather. That in itself reveals so much about our psyche. The ability to dress for appropriately for the weather and not neglect or under-nurture our bodies. To arrive wearing heels. To be okay with sitting on a fallen tree with your new white jeans on. Whatever shows up, is there to highlight what’s really going on. And it’s great material for us to work with. It’s who we’ve known ourselves to be in the world.

Walking is not a new phenomena right. It’s not just for old people. It’s not something which stops as you get older either. It keeps us young. It keeps us spirited. Connected. It has evolutionary origins from millions of years ago. However, it’s only the more recent research in the west that reveals how the brain and nervous system performs the mechanical magic of balancing, and running out internal systems. We know it’s good for our muscles and posture. It helps unblock and repairs organs. Slow or turn back ageing of our brains. Shane says,

Think of walking as something which repairs our brains, lowers our blood pressure, aids the passage of food through our intestines, reduces inflammation and allows us to be creative and better at problem-solving. We also know from studies that people who walk a lot are less prone to depressive disorders; that walking can enhance your memory and that older people who walk more are less lonely.

Chinese medicine has always understood the benefit of moving all four limbs. Hence their regular prescription of Tai Chi and Qi Gong. The regular movement, which also happens during walking is seen to strengthen your bones and reduce stress. Improve physical balance and inner harmony, and improve mental clarity and relaxes the muscles.

With the mind in motion, we get to be more creative. When walking we often allow nature to show us solutions. It might be synchronicity of a horse stopping to go to the toilet next to you. How does that relate to someone in your life? Finding something on the ground. What’s your reaction? Is that yours to pick up? Who does it belong to? Do you feel entitled? Are you looking over your shoulder to be told off.

Typically, working within regulations, we walk for 60–90 mins, in the big parks in London and allow nature to guide where and for how long. Through the trusted bond created, what’s for certain, is that clients find the space to unleash emotions, the calmness to slow down, nature to open up their hearts. We scream under trees. Hug plants. Stand with our feet in the long grass. Lie amongst the ferns. Sit on fallen trees. But some days we simply walk and talk. Whatever we feel comfortable doing.

Walking therapy is a fascinating teacher. And walking together enables the two of us to unravel the layers of unconsciousness. The behaviours and reactions engrained from childhood.

We know that all illness cannot be explained by medicine, wrote Ivan Ilyich in Limits to Medicine.

Medicine tell us as much about meaningful performance of healing, suffering and dying as chemical analysis tells us about the aesthetic value of property.

Human experience and insights are beyond certain realms. Our new field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology links the mind and body. The indissoluble unity of emotions and psychology in human development and throughout life in health and illness. So if emotions are being seen to have profound impacts on our body’s nervous system, the endocrine and hormonal systems, then this innovative research highlights the whole-body response. And so walking and therapy combined, can only have a positive effect on the whole body response.

Whether it’s with a therapist, with friends or on your own, let’s continue to walk. Our lives are so very sedentary and can only increase the risks of disease to our mind, body and spirits. Trust our own intuition. Start with one the trusted one foot in front of the other.

Soulwalking for Inner Peace – Guided and Self-Guided 7 day options. An introductory online course designed by Carmen, which takes you on a journey with tools and techniques to quieten the mind and find inner peace.

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