An Open-Air Approach

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One Step Forward

Walk talk therapy is exactly what it sounds like: it’s walking, talking, and it’s therapy. This holistic approach combines counseling, movement, and nature and incorporates my passion for working with both the mind and the body. This also brings me back to my roots as a former pilates and yoga instructor. Walking side by side in open-air can provide new opportunities for self-discovery.

Walk-and-talk therapy sessions are, in essence, walking meetings between client and therapist. While scientists have long known that a workout can temporarily boost serotonin levels and improve mood, the latest research shows that exercise can have a deeper and more lasting effect. One article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year found a correlation between the intensity of exercise and a reduction in depression. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that exercise increases the growth of neuronal brain cells, possibly elevating mood permanently. Advocates of this combined approach say that being active during the session helps clients to relax and open up, and some clients say they find it easier to talk while looking forward and walking, rather than staring the therapist in the eye. While many therapists recommend exercise, walk talk therapy puts it into action.

I come from a narrative therapy approach, regardless of the setting I am working in, and I offer the same treatment both in and out of the office. Often my understanding of clients is enhanced by being with them in the natural world. I gain a greater appreciation for clients by seeing them interact in different settings, or hearing observations about something outside.

Walk talk therapy is moving forward literally and figuratively. It helps clients get unstuck. Naturally, exercise creates endorphins, those feel-good hormones. So for someone who may be experiencing depression or grief, just being outside can help improve their emotional and mental state. Being outside changes someone’s frame of mind. You’re not in a confined space. You have the entire environment. The park becomes part of the therapy process. Toronto psychologist Dr. Kate Hays, author of “Working It Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy,” said the method has “a potential for much more openness and disclosure, capacity for insight, the ‘aha’ moments that we know are facilitated by physical activity.”

For many people, nature can be grounding. There is something about the environment that helps our nervous systems unwind. People who walk or run in natural environments report less anger and sadness directly after exercise than those who walk or run in “built” environments, finds a 2010 meta-analysis in BMC Public Health by Diana E. Bowler, PhD, of Bangor University in North Wales, and colleagues. In another series of studies reported in the June 2010 Journal of Environmental Psychology, participants said that being in nature made them feel more alive, beyond the effects of physical activity and social interaction in the outdoors, according to University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan, PhD, and colleagues. And studies beginning in the 1990s by psychologists Terry A. Hartig, PhD, Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, and others show that nature helps to quell anxiety and even heal the body. When we’re more open and more relaxed, it helps us access deeper parts of ourselves and our emotions — layers of ourselves that we often don’t have the opportunity to experience otherwise.

It’s not for everybody

There are some challenges. For one, keeping conversations confidential. I explain to all my patients before we begin our walks that they should be careful with anything they don’t want overheard. For some, getting therapy in an office is a better fit. Four walls create a boundary that provides more figurative and literal security for people.

Key reasons for combining exercise and therapy:

  • It encourages a patient to be more physically active for mental and physical reasons. Clients are more likely to exercise outside of sessions as well.
  • It helps a patient get “unstuck” when confronting difficult issues. It gets clients moving-both literally and figuratively.
  • It spurs creative, deeper ways of thinking often released by mood-improving physical activity
  • Walk Talk Therapy is conducted outdoors, being in nature can be meditative and grounding.
  • Research studies have shown that physical activity can enhance the mental and physical health of clients.  Physical activity has also been shown to reduce levels of depression and anxiety and can help to prevent depressive symptoms.
  • It is apparent that combining exercise and therapy accomplishes at least one important goal: helping people do two healthy things they might otherwise put off.

In all, Walk Talk Therapy allows both the client and the therapist to slow down, be mindful, be in the moment, and breathe. It’s about experiencing things in new and different ways.  Walk Talk Therapy allows clients to stay present and active in the process of change and healing.

For more information on WalkTalk Therapy Hanna Zipes’s website at hannazipes.com or e-mail at hannazipes@gmail.com

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