Walk and talk therapy - the healing power of nature
What is walk and talk therapy?
It is exactly as it sounds, walking whilst talking. The only difference being the person you are walking with is a therapist/counsellor. The benefits of being outdoors have become even more apparent during the covid pandemic. The fresh air, being out in nature, getting some exercise all helped so many of us cope far better with the limitations imposed on us through the various lockdowns.
Going for a walk was one of the few highlights of our day, if not the only one, whilst all other choices were no longer an option. Furthermore, meeting up with others outside was and still is the safest way to physically be with another person outside of our households whilst restrictions are still in place.
Bearing all this in mind, it is not surprising that walk and talk therapy has become more and more popular for many people seeking help at this time. Perhaps more importantly, this has made therapy accessible for those who have always realised their fear of constant eye contact has stopped them from seeking the help they need.
Moving my practice outdoors
I feel extremely blessed living right next to a beautiful lake and woodland which I have been making the most of since I moved to Farnborough in 2015. My daily walks were a part of my daily routine before the pandemic hit. Either meeting up with a friend or walking by myself, it became even more important to me to get out and enjoy the peace, tranquility and beauty of mother nature in all her glory.
I was aware of what a difference it made to my mental health making this a priority every day. It gave me sanctuary amongst all the panic, terror and uncertainty that engulfed all of us in those first few months adjusting as we all had to, to this new unimaginable world forced upon us so suddenly.
Though everything had changed to a very different new normal, everything on my walks remained the same, the birds still sang, the trees still swayed in the wind, the lake still glowed in the sunshine or was covered with mist or fog on a cold morning. This helped me feel grounded and connected with a reality that I could trust and rely upon to always be constant, simple and straightforward.
Reducing my stress due to decreasing my cortisol level and raising my dopamine `happy` hormone, enabled me to access feelings of contentment, hope and possibility much more so than staying motionless at home all day! Then one day last August it dawned on me after seeing something online about walk and talk therapy, how I could offer this to my clients as an alternative to Zoom or telephone.... I knew how online counselling does not suit everybody after all, I lost over half my clients when lockdown first happened because of this. Maybe these people could benefit in all the ways that I knew I was doing from being outdoors.
I realised that there are so many people who were now working from home so moving less and would perhaps see this as an opportunity to combine their physical health with their mental health. Also, for many who find themselves without the privacy at home to access online therapy, this could be a way to help so many people get the help they need!
So, excitedly, I attended some outdoor therapy workshops, read as much as I could find about it, sorted out my insurance and discussed it all with my supervisor. Finally, I timed various routes to the hour I provide, writing up a new contract and risk assessment, I felt as ready as I'd ever be to add it to my website and counselling directories.
Why is sitting motionless sometimes unhelpful?
I have had my client`s full permission to share with you just what a difference taking his therapy outdoors has made to him.
I had at this point worked with other clients who had found Zoom sessions beneficial and easy to connect with me on, building trust and feeling safe enough to share their feelings and get what they needed from our sessions. I had also been lucky enough to have had some walking clients, male and female who had recognised for themselves how walking outdoors would suit them far better than sat opposite their therapist.
As a counsellor, my aim is always to find the best way of working with my clients, my priority being always to put their needs, preferences and best interests first.
My male client told me he had never had counselling before and found it extremely difficult to tell anybody what he had held onto for many years. I could see the terror in his eyes across the screen from the start, I was very aware of how uncomfortable he was and how intimidated he felt, knowing there was an expectation for him to say something.
In that moment, feeling unsafe, he was triggered into everything that he was trying to escape from, the trauma that had haunted him since he was a teenager. His autonomic nervous system had been activated and he was unable to help himself or stop himself from in that moment of perceived danger, plunging into his freeze/shame response of feeling immobilised, into the amber and red zones of unsafety.
Unable to think clearly or rationally due to his prefrontal cortex going offline, he was left with just his emotional, irrational back brain telling him to fight or flee. Feeling powerless and overwhelmed in that moment, his shame/freeze took over. This is our bodies neurobiological way of trying to protect us from further harm but is not where therapy is able to take place. Clients need to be as much as is possible in the safety of the green zone.
What are the benefits of walking and talking?
Nature provides us with its own green zone of course being surrounded by mostly greenery! This is so symbolic to me of just how in my opinion outdoor therapy needs to be considered more as a possible choice, particularly for those not keen on online or telephone. This could be a way for many to access the help they need.
I am finding more and more people are enquiring about walk and talk therapy just because they feel able to access their feelings whilst being outdoors and walking rather than when sat opposite a therapist. This has got to be a positive thing, getting the help they need that they would not have been able to get if outdoor therapy had not been realised as another option all those years ago... the very true realisation that...
Nature itself is the best physician.
There are so many reasons why clients benefit from walking and talking, both physiological, psychological and of course all that vitamin D! I think the most significant reason is simply feeling more able to stay in the safety of the green zone far more easily than when sat motionless during office therapy. The combination of talking, movement and nature all facilitate the client having as close to perfect an environment in which to experience and benefit from therapy as is possible.
The difference being outdoors made
It was with that in mind that I suggested to this male client that we try a walk next time. He agreed to give it a try and wow, what a difference it made to his experience, process, understanding, awareness, belief and hope that change is possible. No longer feeling unsafe, stuck, immobilised, powerless, hopeless, ashamed, worthless and unable to speak, he was able to share with me all he had felt unable to voice to anybody before.
After a few walks together he was experiencing feeling safe, empowered, hopeful, excited, worthy, free of shame and finding his voice. This has now given him a future he never thought imaginable and never felt worthy of. Being outdoors removed his fear and inhibitions, removed the eye lock pressure and expectation to speak. It gave him the space, freedom and safety he needed to feel able to speak his truth.
He has shared with me how he feels he has got to this place far quicker with a lot less angst and stress than he would have done had we continued over Zoom. In fact he has confirmed to me that he doesn`t think he would have continued at all so would have very sadly remained stuck in his fear of online/face to face therapy, hence also very tragically stuck within his pain and self-loathing.
The possibility of change became even more real for him as we walked together through a snow storm for the first half an hour of one walk and then glorious sunshine for the rest of it! Isn`t this just how life is? Unpredictable, challenging and ever changing. Learning how to weather the storms, finding ways to make the changes we need to and cope with all life throws at us is most valuable and sometimes, we all need someone to help us do just that!