“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” ~ Albert Einstein
“I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” ~ John Burroughs
What is it?
As the name suggests, I talk with clients whilst we walk outdoors rather than sitting down in the counselling office. We meet in a park, a nature reserve, a public garden or other public green space. Even though we meet outdoors, I still utilise evidence-based psychology and counselling approaches to support you on the path to healing and growth. It’s a different kind of wellness experience in that it engages both the body and the mind. The consensus amongst experts is that exercise and/or spending time outdoors can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing. However, a walk and talk session isn’t about exercising. The walking is secondary to the overall experience of participating in a therapy session. You choose the pace for the session and where and when to stop, rest, drink some water or just take in the scenery.
How is it different from traditional therapy?
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to therapy. Identifying the best course of treatment often involves testing out different methods and approaches before settling upon the most effective intervention for an individual. Some of my clients are more at ease in nature and feel more comfortable sharing difficult experiences and feelings as they walk side by side with me. When conversations begin to get more intense or vulnerable, sitting across from a therapist can feel more intense, confronting and intimate (especially for those with a trauma history). For some of my clients, less direct eye contact can make the conversation feel less threatening. Also, the outdoor environment may help them discharge their heightened feelings of fear or anxiety through movement and pace, rather than being confined to a chair.
Some therapists have suggested that physical movement can help some people get ‘unstuck’ when confronting difficult issues. Whereas sitting is passive and can be a deflated posture, walking is literally forward movement. People may feel that they are moving forward with their issues and can tackle issues more quickly and effectively. Teenagers and people with attention deficit disorders can have trouble sitting still in a traditional counselling setting and find that moving helps them to process upsetting thoughts and feelings (e.g., depression, anxiety and stress) more clearly.
Why try it?
I believe there is something about nature that helps our nervous systems calm down and unwind. Personally, when I’m feeling more open and relaxed, I feel I’m better able to access the deeper parts of myself and my emotions – the parts of me that might not otherwise see the light of day (literally). A strong and emerging body of eco-psychology/eco-therapy research suggests spending time in nature can have a positive impact on our mental health, including reduced stress, improved mood, greater sense of wellbeing and enhanced self-esteem (e.g., due to feeling a sense of accomplishment that we’re moving forward with our personal issues and/or taking action). Furthermore, numerous scientific studies have shown that walking in nature is known to support healthy brain function, especially for people with depression. For example, the part of the brain that is responsible for ruminative and negative thoughts has been shown to quieten when we connect with nature allowing people more space to process their problems. Walk and talk sessions may also promote creative problem solving spurred by mood-improving physical activity.
Turning our attention to the specifics of the natural environment (e.g., birdsong, leaves rustling, the feeling of the breeze or sunlight on our face) also helps us to develop mindfulness habits by focusing on the present moment and detaching from mentally cycling through worrisome thoughts. Walk and talk therapy has also proven to be a preferred option for clients whose home is not appropriate for telehealth sessions, e.g., they don’t have enough privacy to feel comfortable talking freely about their issues. Other potential benefits include better sleep, healthier circulation, improved concentration and working memory and recall.
Is it right for me?
Before we venture out of the counselling office, there are some issues to consider before deciding whether a walk and talk session is right for you. Walk and talk sessions do not suit everyone and many people prefer the safe, quiet environment of my counselling room. Outside we have less control over the privacy of our session. There’s the possibility that either of us will see someone we know. There’s also the chance that our conversation will be overheard at some point. For some clients, these privacy and confidentiality concerns don’t bother them or change their preference for a walk and talk session. However, for others, the additional risks around managing privacy and confidentiality outweigh the potential benefits. The first session is always held in my counselling office so we can discuss any of your concerns prior to having the first walk and talk session. For example, we’ll discuss how we’ll proceed if you see someone you know, what you feel comfortable with and capable of. During the first session we’ll also have a chat about your physical health and mental health in general and your goals for therapy. This first session will allow us to reach an informed decision about whether walk and talk sessions will meet your needs.
Finally, you can bring your four legged best friends with you (provided the agreed upon location allows for dogs).