Walking and talking are the main things that humans do. These skills distinguish us from other species and define our position in the ecosystem. The fact that we can do both at the same time is a tremendous boon. Even more fortuitously, it is now being recognised that doing both together is a good idea. Walking and talking is a therapy for mental health.
Talking therapy for mental health is well-established. Whether so labelled or not, for centuries people have known that to speak to a competent and empathetic person about what is troubling us can be a huge relief and an unburdening. Human beings are social creatures who talk to each other, and the practice of deconstructing false beliefs through reason and logic has its roots in ancient Stoic philosophy. Furthermore, since the twentieth century advent of cognitive behavioural therapies, it has been proven that working with a trained practitioner is an effective treatment for many psychological conditions.
Walking therapy for mental health is also well-established, if mostly recognised intrinsically rather than officially. As much as talking, walking is a fundamental human behaviour. We may protest, not really fancy it, or be wanting an ‘indoor sort of day’, but we almost all recognise that a bit of a walk is good for us. Increasingly, we acknowledge that it’s not just the physical movement which is good for our fitness, but something about the process which feels good for our ‘soul’ too. Whether we pop out for a breath of fresh air, to clear the air or to blow away the cobwebs, our metaphors for the effects of a walk reveal that we know it to be working not just on the body but on the mind.
Walking and Talking
Walking and talking therapy for mental health at the same time is not a new invention. Nothing could be more natural than taking a turn about the garden/block/park, arm in arm with a good pal, setting the world to rights. I know many people who call it a ‘walkandtalk’, as in, ‘shall we go for a walkandtalk on Saturday?’ I had a friend at school who swore I had worn a dent in her shoulder by resting my hand there perennially as we perambulated the school grounds, sharing gossip and teenage woes. But the zeitgeist is such that getting outside, away from screens and technology and into nature is being recognised as not just a nice idea, but a mental health strategy. If during that restorative and calming walk we also get to chat and share about what’s going on and how we are feeling, then surely the psychological benefits will be compounded. Thankfully, walking and talking therapy for mental health is flourishing, and the time is absolutely ripe.
Our mental well-being is, alongside physical well-being, perhaps our greatest and most perilous gift. We only really appreciate it when it’s gone. Like we only notice when our knees/back/head hurt, many of us only really pay attention to our mental health when it is out of whack; when we feel down, depressed, anxious or unable to cope. And then it’s really difficult to start looking for solutions and putting support structures in place, because we are feeling so low and unwell.
Thankfully, these days, the awareness of mental well-being, and the decreasing stigma around discussing our mental health mean that more of us are paying attention. Now, before we hit a problem. And when we look around and see stress, addiction, anxiety, obesity, depression widespread within the population, it is beginning to occur to more and more of us that part of the solution might lie outdoors in nature; in a walkandtalk, and maybe even in a specific walking and talking therapy.
What is walking and talking therapy?
Walking and talking therapy can be defined as having a therapy session while client and therapist walk together. It really is that simple.
Generally, the walk is secondary to the therapy; it is something that is happening alongside the main interaction of the therapy. Benefits of the physical exercise as well as the uplifting effects of the scenery are noted, but significance is also given to the recalibration of the traditional face-to-face CBT model. When client and therapist walk side by side, they are facing the world together. Awkward couch positioning or confrontational eye-contact are side-stepped and an additional metaphor is presented; the client is physically moving through the issues which are being discussed. There is a sense of freedom and openness which strengthens the impact of the talking therapy.
How does walking and talking therapy work?
Recently, I went walking and talking with a friend and together, over the course of a weekend, we tried to list 20 benefits for mental health of walking and talking therapy. Here are our ideas:
Gentle to moderate exercise triggers the body to release endorphins, which are natural ‘feel good’ chemicals which can lead to a buoyant mood and positive outlook.
Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress and ward off feelings of depression.
Regular exercise improves sleep, which in turn improves our resilience and decision-making.
Regular exercise helps to keep the body fit and maintain a healthy weight, which can have a positive impact of self-confidence.
Getting out and doing, being proactive, can have a positive effect on self-esteem because we feel we are functioning and in control of our lives.
Being outdoors removes us from the contextual cues which define our usual situation; possessions, work place, living conditions, and thus can create a sense of freedom.
Green spaces have been proven to speed up recovery from illness and reduce cortisol.
The peace and quiet of nature can reduce stress and lower anxiety and promote thinking.
Natural landscapes can be inspiring, especially if the scenery is beautiful or impressive.
Visiting somewhere new, or in a different season, can be refreshing, which can increase feelings of positivity.
Walking in wide open spaces can give rise to a belief in the possibility of change.
Seeing organic nature reminds us that life can be free from judgement, which can lead us to be less critical and more accepting.
Sensory stimuli can interrupt whirring thoughts, encouraging mindfulness.
Witnessing a natural landscape and ecosystem may remind us that we are part of a larger pattern, and not alone.
Feeling our steps on the ground and the breeze on our skin reminds us of our animal bodies and our connection to the earth and our planet home, increasing our sense of belonging.
It is harder to keep up pretences outside; the frank immediacy of the landscape guides us to be honest with ourselves, and with the therapist, which can only quicken recovery.
The metaphor of being on a journey strengthens our belief in the transformative power of the therapy; we have gone out and returned different; things will be different from now on.
The movement of the walk might free us up to speak things we would not speak indoors.
Silences in a conversation held whilst walking are less awkward than usual. The natural rhythm of the movement means topics can be picked up, dropped and re-started fluidly.
Aiming for a destination and setting the pace increases our sense of agency over our lives.
I’m sure there are many other benefits and the scientific research is flowing in thick and fast. The inspiring blog ‘Smile Being You’ lists some further articles which support our thesis, as well as giving some great tips for getting out your own well-being walk. Recent similar interventions such as this cycling club for homeless women are making differences to the lives of vulnerable people. The Brighton branch of the brilliant Action for Happiness regularly organises well-being walk meetups. The recognition of the value of walking and talking therapies for mental health is spreading, and I am honoured to be part of the journey.
Journey inside, outside with ipse wilderness
I am so convinced by the benefits of walking and talking therapy for mental health that with ‘ipse wilderness’ I am committed to melding the two concepts even more closely together. On our well-being wilderness walks, we not only walk and talk, we take our inspiration for the topic of our talking from the landscape through which we are walking.
On a journey around an island, we examine self-identity. On an undulating walk, we examine both our ups and downs. On a coastal pilgrimage, we seek to inhabit the feeling of liminality. This is more than a gimmick; this tying in of the landscape with the theme of the journey I believe solidifies that feeling of security, of being connected to the earth and part of a larger pattern.
But this concept also operates on the micro level. During each ipse wilderness walk, we take specific features of the landscape and make metaphorical links to the emotional landscape of the participants. So a set of stepping stones, a field boundary, a rock formation are described via their isomorphic connections so that they inspire specific reflections on for example, risk-taking, boundary setting and attitudes to challenges.
Thus not only are we benefitting from all those ways in which walking and talking therapy supports mental health, but we are deepening our sense of connection to the natural world, creating a container for the therapeutic work, and using nature as a mirror to the psyche. All whilst enjoying a damn good hearty ‘walkandtalk’.
Wordsworth’s invocation could well be re-written:
“Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your [therapist]."