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Just Walk It Off: How Walking Can Improve Your Emotional Well-Being

A few years ago, a friend of mine went through a particularly rough patch – one of those stretches in which life unraveled in continuous layers. She’d taken multiple trips through the emotional wringer. I was happy to catch up with her recently at a dinner party, where she was looking and feeling recovered, even content and happy again. Lingering at the table with a few of us, she ended up sharing some of the strategies that got her through that time – practices she explained she still uses when serious stress takes hold [1]. “There were days,” she described, “when I would be so upset, so wound around a particular event and unable to let go that it was either continue wandering around the house slamming doors and making large, demonstrative arm movements as I played out the infuriating script running through my head – or just get outside [2] and go for a long ‘$%#& you’ walk to let the bad energy burn itself out.” By the time she got back, she explained, she was dealing with embers instead of an all-out inferno. In other words, things felt manageable again. Over and over, as simple as it was, those walks were one of the main things that got her through – recognizing when she needed the release and letting the steps work their magic.

While she didn’t venture all that far from home most times – if not the streets of her neighborhood [3] itself then maybe the beach or a nearby state park, others have clearly taken the concept to new lengths. With bestselling memoirs and movies covering the hiking quests of those who take to the trails [4] in varying shades of grief and disorientation, the apparently hip thing to do with life’s disillusionment is to walk it off.

As I’ve gone into recently, we’re made to walk [5] – obligated to, in fact. We can bask in the evolutionary continuum, quantify the health advantages [6] or feel inspired by those whose daily strolls [7] fueled their creativity and vision. On a more personal note, however, I wonder how much we turn to walking for more than exercise, more than utility. How much of our walking is emotionally-driven? How much of our walking, you could say, is about the desire to walk “away” from something?

Maybe it’s an argument with our partner or a frustrating exchange with a coworker, a difficult conversation with a son or daughter or yet another run-in with that least favorite neighbor. Aside from an actual person, maybe we’re just frazzled and frayed, blocked mentally or creatively [8] or perhaps overwhelmed by our thoughts [9] and need to get out from underneath them.

Our “walking away” is in the end more than metaphor. That Kierkegaard quote from a few weeks ago [7] still stays with me: “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

What is it about a walk that makes space, that clears the air, that moderates our worst moods and allows us to breathe? What about a simple walk gets us in our right mind again [10]?

I think we’ve all felt the release – from the vice grip [11] of anger or anxiety, confusion or grief. What’s the physiological picture behind this emotional alchemy? What biochemical powers do their work, and what ends can they serve that we haven’t even considered?

First, the big picture… Beyond the euphoric runner’s high, moderate physical activity (often represented as simple walking in studies) has been shown to “soothe” us neurologically. When subjected to stress, it seems, our neurons get fired up. While regular activity boosts our production of “young” excitable neurons largely concentrated in the hippocampus – an emotional and cognitive processing center, activity also supports the abundance of neurons responsible for releasing GABA [12], a calming neurotransmitter that dampens brain activity and can ease anxiety.

In the larger scheme of things, research suggests, the more active we are, the less we “feel” stress. Over time, it becomes the brain’s set organization, meaning even if haven’t exercised for a few days because of illness or vacation, we’re still running off the same neurologically beneficial model.

In the short-term, we also gain from the exertion with the flush of feel-good fuzzies [10] made possible by the enhanced secretion of various neurotransmitters as well as an increase in levels of opioids and endocannabinoids, leading some to label exercise as a psychoactive drug [13].

What’s more? The mood-moderating effects of exercise can set in within as little as five minutes [14] but can last for up to twelve hours [15]. As I’ve noted before, exercising in “green [2]” or “blue [16]” natural spaces offers considerably higher benefits, particularly for mood enhancement, than exercising indoors.

Beyond any biochemical measurement, walking is becoming incorporated into therapy and support models. With so-called “walk and talk therapy [17],” patients and therapists walk during their sessions, providing movement opportunity, which can be helpful for those whose agitation would make regular sedentary therapy conversation unduly stressful. The outdoor setting [18] additionally makes a walk and talk format more appealing for many people, who feel they can relax more outside in the larger, natural space.

Additionally, walking bereavement groups [19] have popped up in various corners of the U.S. and other countries. Within the groups, which are sometimes organized by hospice centers for family members who have lost a loved one or are other times less formally gathered. The benefits include the activity itself but also the social connection [20] and kinship around it. There’s an accountability and a trust in others’ identification with their shared grief experience that many have found socially supportive and ultimately healing.

Whether we’re processing deep grief, sifting through emotional disorientation, soothing daily stress or calming down for an unpleasant interaction, walking lets us off the leash of directed thinking and interaction. It open up mental fields to explore, which perhaps can help us see other perspectives and become aware of the angles of our reactions better than we can when we’re sitting in a ball on the couch obsessing over our own negative thoughts [21].

In that sense, a simple outdoor walk expands not just our field of vision but our field of thinking and feeling. Ferris Jabr, writer for The New Yorker, noted that walking also helps join [22] and even synchronize our psychological and physical energies: “Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state…. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.”

Within the awareness of how the emotional can drive the physical, we see the potential for the opposite dynamic. The act and environment of walking takes us to a more expansive place mentally [23]. Perhaps the physical exertion supports the emotional catharsis through full body and mind participation, providing a more potent and tangible release of tension. Walking “away” from a problem – or walking with it, we bring our troubles into a larger light and witness them in perspective [24] to the world and community around us. Within that hour’s getaway, perhaps we experience them as lighter and more diffuse even within the mix of our own human energy.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think of walking as therapy – either as a personal or clinical practice? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

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