For years, whenever I’ve had something difficult to process, I’ve laced up my shoes and started walking. More often than not, I’d bring along my husband, a trusted friend, or dial up my brother, one of my closest friends. We’d walk and talk therapy-like sometimes for hours, weaving in and out of painful feelings and hard-to-reach insights that lurk just below the surface of conscious thought. Intuitively I knew (and felt) that walking while talking helped me get to things I couldn’t quite speak of while sitting down.
And then the pandemic hit.
The Pandemic Stimulates Creative New Ideas for Therapy
Beginning a year ago, I re-started my therapy practice, this time, operating fully virtual. Many times I’d take a phone session and head out to walk and talk to a client amidst the Florida scrub trail behind my house. The Florida scrub is an ecosystem of sandy soil. It’s home to low-lying saw palmettos, cacti, gopher tortoises, squirrels, armadillos, and birds to name a few species.
Walking and talking with clients from all over the world during the early months of the pandemic and quarantine helped me mitigate vicarious trauma from client’s stories. The pandemic provided extra challenges because largely, we all experienced the same traumas together.
Walk and talk sessions, even remotely, provide many benefits. My clients would reap the benefit of my own calm demeanor while I strolled under the Live Oaks. They’d hear the sounds of birds chirping, and could feel as if they were with me. Sometimes, we’d do the call as video and they could see what I was seeing.
I began wondering whether I could offer this walk and talk therapy in person once the world opened back up. Clients who Iive in Florida could join me here in the woods. We would walk among the shady pines and oaks and let the natural sounds of birds and wind help soothe the pain of what often is too hard to put into words. This concept gradually has become known among therapists as “Walk and Talk Therapy,” although it’s something many of us have known (and practiced) for a long time, informally or otherwise.
Walk and Talk Therapy: Ideal for Trauma Healing
It is well-known that trauma lives in the body (see Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score). Traumatic memory is stored in parts of the brain that are not connected to rational thought, logical sequencing, and language. Movement such as yoga, walking, running, because of eye movement, helps to release traumatic memory from frozen, pre-verbal spaces in the body. From there, language can access and describe what is felt to be true. Sometimes with words, sometimes with stories, or even simply feeling relief.
The left, right movement of walking allows the two hemispheres of the brain (one oriented toward language, the other toward felt sensation) to communicate with one another more easily. Thus, in trauma therapy, we can reach deeper levels of awareness simply by doing the therapy while walking! This concept forms the basis of a popular in-office trauma therapy technique called EMDR. Interestingly, the founder, a therapist named Francine Shaipro, discovered this technique while on a walk in the woods! She noticed the back and forth movement of her eyes while viewing the natural environment provided relief from troubling thoughts. Thus, the concept of EMDR as a therapy technique to be utilized in office settings was born.
Other Body-Oriented Techniques for Trauma
Walk and talk therapy and EMDR are not the only way to achieve this benefit. I often utilize Trauma Sensitive Yoga in therapy to assist clients in connecting to their body awareness prior to processing traumatic memory. Personally, I’ve experienced deep shifts in my consciousness during and after yoga. The movement followed by the talk, whether journalling or having someone to talk to afterwards, brings about relief. Writing or talking out feelings while moving the body and releasing trauma feels so good. It feels productive. Because it is.
Walk and Talk Therapy Boosts Serotonin Levels
Another well-known and often cited fact is that exercise releases Serotonin, the “happy hormone” in the brain. Many doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists (myself included) actually prescribe exercise as an anti-depressant strategy or anxiety-reducing habit. If you aren’t moving your body for at least 30 minutes a day, we can pretty much guarantee you are secreting less Serotonin than someone who is.
Walk and talk therapy is a great way to get a serotonin boost while processing trauma and problem-solving with an unbiased, supportive listener. You’d be starting a habit that you can continue for life, long beyond the ending of your therapy. Enlist a local friend or call a faraway relative or trusted friend, and enjoy the benefits of releasing trauma (even little traumas of daily life need to be released), processing feelings and uncovering the deeper significance of why certain events or issues in your life have you feeling stuck, angry, or worried.
Forest Bathing During Walk and Talk Therapy Sessions
The science of “Earthing” or “grounding” tells us that being among trees, standing barefoot on the natural earth, and breathing in the fresh air of so many plants, actually helps our bodies heal. Our physical bodies are made of the same elements of earth, oxygen, water, ions. When we are in nature, our body knows exactly what to do to realign itself with a natural, relaxed state. The positive stress ions discharge from the body and we absorb neutralizing, negative electrons straight from the Earth. This is much like having a massage or soaking in an epsom salt bath.
When we walk among the trees there is a physical sense of “ahhhh” that just feels better.
The sounds and sights of nature are also commonly used as psychological grounding. In this technique, we reorient ourselves psychologically to the present moment through awareness of our surroundings. Trauma survivors particularly need this technique. Traumatic memory often pulls us back in the body, to previous ego states where we had less power and autonomy. Noticing where I am right now helps us to remain in our most adult self. From here problems can be solved without the flooding of emotions connected to past trauma.
Walk and talk therapy provides opportunities to do both kinds of grounding.
This technique is a new concepts, but the basic shape of these ideas have been with us for many years as therapists and survivors have sought better ways to delve into the truth-telling that is a necessary part of recovery from trauma. Together we walk, and talk through past trauma. The goal? You’ll have a story you can one day tell without having triggering re-experiences of past pain.