Free Fix For What Troubles Us

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Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?


Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick

13 thoughts on “Free Fix For What Troubles Us

  1. This is why I felt like simply walking the planet a few years ago, after a deep depression. I lived in CA at the time, so I just walked everywhere I went for the most part. It helped. Now, though, I’ve moved back to the Midwest and it is simply too cold for me to walk outside right now. As a result, I’ve been feeling trapped, stagnant, and morose. There is real healing in walking. Thanks for writing about it.


    • I few months ago I read the best seller Wild:From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, an account of the author’s months long hike that seemed to almost magically ease her deep wounds stemming from grief over her mother’s death, conflicted feelings over her lost marriage, and her use of heroin. It became about moving forward and she realized her pain had settled into understanding. Sounds like the same impulse you had to walk the planet.

      I urge you to walk whatever the weather here in the midwest. I used to be miserable in the cold, particularly as a child. Thin hand-me-down jackets, polyester hats, mittens and boots that leaked all led me to believe that’s how it felt to be outside in the winter. Today I took a walk despite the 9 degree temps and who knows what wind chill. I have a down coat (okay, broken zipper but the snaps work), a long cotton/wool scarf perfect for wrapping around my face, good hat plus hood, insulated gloves, and sturdy Red Wing hiking boots. And lip balm! I was toasty warm, exulting in the beautiful snow around me and the piercingly blue sky. When I get back from a walk I usually stroll around the pond for a bit, reluctant to go back inside. Give it a try!


  2. This was such an interesting post. I used to think something was wrong with me for having frequent negative dreams, but now U know my body is just doing its job! The left right brain connection is so fascinating. It got me wondering. I wonder if learning would be strengthened if there was a deliberate effort to constantly switch back and forth between right and left brain thinking.


    • Or to incorporate whole brain thinking! So much one-hemisphere thinking is emphasized in our culture, and way way earlier than is necessary. Even toys “teach” the alphabet to toddlers. Free play is a perfect example of whole brain thinking. Logic is called upon as games are made up or as a fort is made out of branches, but at the same time creativity and imagination are fully engaged.


  3. That explains some of my wild dreams! I also naturally process when hiking, running, x-country skiing and even playing piano. Peter Levine helped me understand the normal freeze and unfreeze responses of animals and how we are wired for this, too, if we allow it to happen. Reading a great book you might enjoy: Healing Developmental Trauma. It explains five survival adaptation styles we may use to cope in our first 6 years that can cripple us as adults and introduces the Neuro-Affective Relational Model (NARM) for restoring connection. Written by two Ph.D’s – Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre.


  4. I ran across the mention of a 1942 book called An Anatomy Of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding. She goes through the diaries of famous writers, scientists and musicians, and looks at how good ideas come to them. A lot of them describe a strong connection between motion and creativity.


  5. I think this is happening even when we’re not conscious of the process, albeit maybe to a lesser degree- having noticed feeling clearer and more positiv after walking- bu I thought it was endorphin or circulation related. I have also noticed the correlation of stress with interrupted sleep and that it only happens when I haven’t walked between the occurrence of the stressor and bedtime! The processing of the stress does very little to make up for the lack of solid sleep. :). I think i’ll focus more on the walks and try these strategies. I’m thinking I can get even more out of these walks now! My dog is going to b thrilled!


  6. I love this, Laura. I am a huge fan of walking, so this is great news. I’m out there strolling through just about any kind of weather. I think it’s funny when someone (thoughtfully) stops to ask me if I want a ride, because usually I’m not really trying to get anywhere. I just love to walk. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts, long ago:

    You’ve given me so many books to look into. Thanks!


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