How to Heal Trauma by the Simple Act of Walking


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann (Park Street Press, 2006), available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Reprinted with permission. In the book, Hartmann explains how walking allows people to heal from emotional trauma. When we walk, we engage both sides of the body, simultaneously activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Hartmann explains that both hemispheres of the brain join forces to break up the brain patterning of a traumatic experience that has become "stuck" in the brain through the bilateral therapy of walking. Below, Hartmann explains how to use the therapeutic power of walking to "Walk Your Blues Away."

"All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking."
—Friedrich Nietzsche

There are five steps to correctly performing a Walking Your Blues Away session. They are:

  • Define the issue.
  • Bring up the story.
  • Walk with the issue.
  • Notice how the issue changes.
  • Anchor the new state.

I will go into detail on each of the steps for you now.

Define the issue

Before going for your walk, consider the issues that are still hanging around in your life that you feel are unresolved. This could range from past traumas, hurts, angers, or embarrassments to relationship issues with people you no longer have access to (including people who have died).

Don’t worry that an issue might be too complex or something that happened over a long time. Many issues are multidimensional. What happens is that when the core issue is resolved, it rapidly begins the process of unwinding or “cleaning up” the peripheral associated issues.

Similarly, if you pick an issue that you may think is, itself, part of something larger, you’ll notice after you’ve worked with it that the larger issue will also begin to resolve.

There’s no specific right or wrong issue to work with. If you can think of it, visualize it, and get a feeling from it, then you can walk and work with it.

Bring up the story

Notice your story about the issue; story in this context refers to such thought patterns as “She was cruel toward me” and “He had no right to hurt me like that” and “Why did she have to die?” and “I’d like to get this job, but I don’t know what to do to make it happen.” There is always an internal story, with you and the object of the story at the center, and it’s important to pull that story out so you can say and hear it explicitly. How would you describe the story—to yourself, in your most private and safe space—if you had to boil it down to a few words or a sentence or two? Once you have that, you have one of two tools to use in determining when your process has finished.

Another important tool is to notice the strength of the emotional charge associated with this event. Using a scale of 0 (truly don’t care) to 100 (the most intense you have ever felt), come up with a number to rank the emotional charge connected with this event.

Not only will this number be useful in your work with the process; it will also be an excellent tool for gaining historical perspective, as often after a memory is resolved it’s impossible to regain access to the original emotional charge (because it’s been resolved). We can forget very quickly how important a past event once seemed.

Walk with the issue

Walking is pretty simple, but there are a few commonsense rules. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Don’t bring along anything other than your ID, so you’re not distracted by a hanging purse or a carried book: you want to be able to walk easily and to swing your arms comfortably.

Pick a route that is at least a mile long, and ideally two miles. At the average walking speed of three miles per hour, a mile is a twenty-minute walk. For those who walk fast comfortably, a mile takes approximately fifteen minutes.

Make sure the route matches your level of health: don’t include hills or mountains if you have a heart condition and your doctor would warn you against overexertion. On the other hand, there’s no need to exclude climbs that may get you out of breath if you’re in good health and want to use your walk as aerobic exercise.

It’s not necessary to pick a rural, suburban, or urban route. Anywhere you walk there will be things to distract you, from squirrels to the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. The key is not in finding a distraction-free walking area—that’s pretty much impossible. Rather, the key is to continue to remind yourself to hold your picture and/or feeling in front of you while walking.

Of course, nobody has perfect concentration. Most of us, in fact, are pretty attention compromised—after twenty or thirty seconds of walking we find our attention zooming off in some other direction. That’s no problem—just keep reminding yourself to bring your attention back to the issue or goal, and again bring up the picture. The mind has a tremendous ability to pick up where it left off and continue processing things.

In reality, the total amount of “concentrated time” it takes your bilateral motion to resolve your issue or goal is probably just a matter of a few minutes—between five and ten minutes, in my experience. But to aggregate those few minutes, most people have to walk for a half hour or so, continuously reminding themselves to be present with the picture and feeling until all of the “remembering-to-do-it” moments add up to those five to ten total minutes.

One of the important keys to this process is to relax into it. It may take a few walks to get used to this manner of walking and not thinking—just like it took you a few tries to learn to ride a bicycle. To motivate yourself, though, think of the positive resolution that you’re trying to achieve rather than engaging in any sort of internal dialogue that chastises you for past actions.

We’re all wired to learn through trial and error. Learning how to quickly and easily do a Walk Your Blues Away session usually takes a few tries.

Remember: There is no failure. There is only feedback. Learn from the feedback and continue on.

Notice how the issue changes

The submodalities—the primarily visual and auditory characteristics of a memory picture, such as how bright a memory picture is, where it’s located, how clear it seems, whether it’s in color or black-and-white, whether or not there’s sound, whether it looks like a movie clip or a still picture, whether we see ourselves in the picture or see it as if we were watching from the outside—are the filing-system tags for the emotional brain. As the emotional value or the emotion attached to a picture/memory changes, the submodalities will change. When people walk with an unpleasant memory, it’s not uncommon for them to say that they see it beginning to disintegrate, or get dimmer, or lose its color, or move farther away (or even behind them). The dimming usually begins in a corner or in one part of the picture. As if it was an old photograph with a lit match held underneath it, part of the picture begins to distort and darken; then the change spreads across the entire picture, usually rather quickly.

Once this change has happened, people notice that the emotion they feel about the picture is now different. It’s still possible to remember the event, but the feeling about the event is changed. Often the story of “I was hurt and it still hurts,” for example, changes to something like, “I learned a good lesson from that, even if it was unpleasant.” Present-tense pain becomes past-tense experience.

When you notice the picture changing (or the feeling changing, if that’s all you could bring up), let the process proceed until you notice a perceptible shift in feeling and you no longer notice any changes taking place. Then ask yourself, “What’s my story about this memory now?” If the process is complete, you’ll discover that the story you’re now telling yourself will be considerably healthier, more resilient, and more useful than the previous story. When the story changes to one that provides a positive frame, you’re most likely finished with that memory for good.

Anchor the new state

When the picture is well formed and you notice that your self-told story about the event has changed, anchor this new reality by reviewing it carefully—observe the way the picture has changed, listen to yourself repeat the new internal story, and notice the feelings associated with the new state. Notice all the ways it’s changed. Think of other ways it may now be useful to you, even helpful. And, as you’re walking back home or to your starting point, think about how you’d describe it if you were to choose to tell somebody else about it. (It’s not at all necessary to tell anybody about it, but framing it in this way helps you clarify the new story.)

When you get home, consider writing something about your new experience, your new vision, your new story—an autobiographical narrative, like a diary entry, or something abstract, like a poem. If it’s so personal and private that you don’t want to write it down, just sit in a quiet and safe place and speak it out loud in private to yourself. These steps help anchor the new state, fixing it in its new place in your mind and heart, so it will be available to you as a resource—rather than a problem—in the future.

This is the third of a multi-part serialization of the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann, available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Copyright © 2006 by Thom Hartmann. For more information, visit the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company website or the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company Facebook page.

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