Can walking make people open up?

Talking about difficult things are easier when hiking

Text and drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, Hiking.org

Out on the trails you walk, so you don’t have to talk, and because you don’t have to, often it is much easier to open up, just to let time pass, and let the shy words appear when they please… It’s the opposite of classic sit and talk therapy, where your feet are forced to stay in the same place, while the mind walks frantically, trying to get somewhere

Talking as therapy

Many people who have experienced traumatic, sad or stressful experiences in their past, try to seal these in, holding their breath and pretending that everything is o.k. after all.

But the long time effects of this are often that people withdraw into themselves. They give up on ambitions, work or even their families and wait for something to heal their wounds and clear their clouded minds.  Many try or are prescribed to different forms of classic therapy, those where you sit still on a chair, across from a therapist, or a group… and talk, talk and talk, while waiting for your lid to open up…

But it seldom does and the statistics of how much people open up and are helped by sitting and talking are not very comforting. Only a small fraction of people/clients/patients are helped by this, and often only for a short while… maybe a bit like watching TV.

The can opener of classic therapy

can-opener-and-can-you-need-to-open-up-illustration-by-frits-ahlefeldt
Walking is very different from the can-opener of classic therapy

In classic sit and talk therapy the therapist try to accomplish the “opening up of the mind” by using a whole Swiss army knife of techniques designed to trick, lure, trap and hold thoughts, at least long enough for them to be analyzed, evaluated and dissected by the educated and observing professionals, or a surrounding sitting group waiting for their turn.

But thoughts are not very happy to be treated like that, so they tend to stay away or mimic any kind of wanted appearance, just to be left alone.

Walking as an alternative way to open up

When you walk, especially outdoors, your mind gets into a flow, where you relax and the movement of your feet distracts your attention on the problems in ways that give you a chance to loosen the grip of control and watch your thoughts instead. You are doing something – walking, and you don’t have to do more than that.

And then the magical thing happens. New thoughts starts to appear, first shy and fast in small glimpses, like scared fish in a small stream, then more relaxed.  And as you just walk on and enjoy the landscape, the thoughts will stop minding your attention, and both words, feelings, images and ideas will start to appear and make themselves heard.

Using walking to build relationships

Why walking can have this effect on our thinking is not known, but for many it work, and as a bonus, when people walk together and start to share their thoughts, they build stronger and more honest relationships, and this knit people much better together and make them feel more secure and better connected.

A good example of how cultures have used this in thousand of years are the many pilgrimage walking traditions from all over the world, where people since ancient times has used walking along well defined trails, to get over difficult experiences and also as a pathway to reconnect to themselves / something higher.

Follow a clear trail with your feet and let your thoughts wander

To my experience especially two things can make all the difference for how well the trail support people to open up when walking. And by strange coincidence, the relationship between these two things is almost the exact opposite of classic sit and talk therapy, where the mind do all the work and the feet are locked by sitting.

When the feet walk and make steady progress along a clear defined trail, the mind decide that all is well, enjoy the landscape and relax… And when the mind are left wandering by itself, things often clear up, and that is why walking work so well, because then the thoughts starts to appear and come out in the open, all by themselves.

But to better create this change, there are a few things that can help a lot:

Three important things to help open up on a walk

1# Walk a well defined and tested trail

It is important that the trail is well-defined and clear so people won’t keep their mind occupied with reading maps and taking decisions about where to walk. ( Walking with groups it is a great thing to have an experienced trail-finder, that know the trail well, to walk first, so the rest of the group can just follow the trail finder, with no worries or confused detours )

Some very experienced people who use walking to open up (or to reflect or get ideas etc. ) actually often walk the same stretches, trails or rounds again and again, day after day, enjoying the changes of the season, weather etc.

2# Let the mind wander, don’t try to trap it

Sometimes therapists/coaches insist on taking their techniques from classic sitting therapy with them out on the trail… asking people the same Swiss army knife questions, bombarding everybody with their professional coach/therapist attitude along the trail. To me the difference seems a bit like the difference between letting thoughts ripe naturally along the trail instead of trying to control and push the “right” understanding… The last is seldom very successful, but just stressful.

3# walk for an hour or more at a time and take it easy

It takes time for the body and the mind to get into walking mood and the first few minutes of a walk are often confused with the mind asking skeptical questions about what all this work is good for, when it could be doing so much more important stuff.

Both logic and laziness would rather stay at home and think things out, but after a few minutes they often accept that they have to take a break and leave the stage of attention, while the trail, the feet and time do the work and create new understandings in new ways.

Taking a walk, an old medicine

Why walking is not used more today to create thrive is a bit strange, it’s a time-tested medicine, its free and available to (almost) everybody. Of course I could be a bit off here, but it almost seems to me that the less we walk, the less we thrive… and the less we open up.

The great thing is that, if there is something in the above that is right about the effects walking can have, then opening up and starting to heal, for those in need (everybody) could be… just a few steps away