The therapeutic benefits of walking in nature
I sit at my desk on a sunny day with lots of tasks to do, and yet I yearn to be outside. I know this intense, intuitive sense of what is best for me and it is to be in nature and in motion. Where does this yearning come from?
The body and the mind
I reflect on the hunter/gatherer within each of us, our forefathers who had to walk (on average 15 miles a day in the African savanna) and forage to survive. This primal instinct may still be in each of us, and I am certainly aware that to sit with my intense feelings, and do nothing, keeps the energy trapped inside, just a fraction below the surface of my awareness so that I can ignore it if I choose. This denial of my instinct puts a lid on my feelings, but it is not a recipe for peace of mind or happiness!
Noticing our surroundings and noticing ourselves
I decide to trust my instincts and take myself for a walk to the woods. I hold lightly in my thoughts, the experiences I have and the benefits to my mental health of walking, in order to reflect on this. I decide to examine research on the subject on my return home.
Instinctively, I know that I can understand my thoughts and feelings more clearly when I am outside and moving. When immersed in nature, I am more receptive to the natural world and I use my senses more. I notice the gentle breeze in the trees and on my skin and it brings me back in closer contact with my own sensory awareness. With the moment-to-moment changes, the light shifting, birds flying, and the breath of the wind, I enjoy the dynamics of the outside world. This becomes an act of mindfulness; using all of my senses to notice the world around me.
A walk can be more than it first appears. As walking is automatic and requires little thought or concentration to achieve, the part of the brain that deals with information and impulse control can relax, and this allows more creative ideas to percolate through. If you allow your mind to wander, it can reveal insights, help make connections and solve knotty problems that can otherwise spiral around on the inside without the space to be carefully considered and explored.
Deepening the connections to ourselves
As I walk through a pathway of trees, I am struck by the pathways that I will choose, the ideas that I will allow to take root, and the way that I will deal with change. I am reminded that change is always with us, like the ever-present passing of the seasons which happens almost imperceptibly each day. As I wander, my thoughts can wander too. My pace is steady, and I lose track of time and feel myself slowing down and tuning in more closely to my own inner world. I can let go of some of the tension that life, relationships, and work bring and quieten the chatter and distraction of my inner dialogue.
The parallel process of noticing what happens around us often facilitates an even deeper connection to ourselves. As our senses are activated through walking and being in nature, we listen to what is happening inside ourselves more clearly. We live in a world where there is a great deal of disconnection, particularly in these COVID-19 times, when we are often more isolated or distanced from others and where technology has an ever-growing presence in our lives. I like the fact that walking connects us to our bodies in a simple way.
The importance of a good walk as expressed by those who have inspired minds:
I like to reflect on those who have achieved great things to understand what makes them different and establish insights into their psyche that we can learn from. A cross-section of great minds who talk of the benefits of walking include the thoughts of the following:
‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’ - Fredrich Nietzsche
‘If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish’ - Charles Dickens
‘I like to have space to spread my mind out’ - Virginia Woolf
Walking is clearly an imperative for some! There are certainly some themes here about allowing a reconnection with your thoughts; providing space (both literal and metaphorical) to explore, and the importance of movement.
Mental health benefits of walking
Deep connections exist between the mind and the body. Memories are held within us and these often have deep roots. Trauma can lurk on the inside for years, creating feelings of anxiety which rumble just beneath the surface and yet impact on feelings and behaviour. For instance, researchers have noted that when individuals feel depressed that the body becomes conspicuous, heavy, and solid. This can feel as if the body and the sense of being alive is lost. The term ‘embodiment’ is useful to reflect on as this captures our feelings on the inside and then how these ‘felt’ experiences can alter our mood. Left unobserved, we can become trapped in our feelings and these further fuel unhelpful patterns of thinking. Changing how the body is in the world through walking can, in turn, impact on our mood. Research backs up the benefits of walking as illustrated by a study in 2018 of more than one million people in the USA which found that walking was linked with a 17% lower rate of mental health difficulties*.
All of us need to be aware of our mental health and it is a testing time to be in the world at present, with risk all around. Investing time tuning in to how you feel and what is happening in your body is important. A simple walk could be part of understanding and meeting your own mental health needs.
*Chekroud, S R (2018) ‘Association between physical exercise and mental health in 12 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross sectional study.’ Lancet Psychiatry, 5 (9) 739 -46