Books

Walking Your Blues Away Is a Simple, Effective Therapy

A simple walking technique can allow people to heal from emotional trauma.

Photo Credit: Rasica / Shutterstock

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.

"The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” —Thomas Jefferson

Seeing the correlations between bilateral therapies from the time of Franz Anton Mesmer (1700s) to today, and knowing that bilateral eye motion in REM sleep is associated with healing traumas, I began to wonder: How would a person heal from trauma if there wasn’t a mesmerist or energy therapist around and the trauma was too intense to be processed during REM sleep? How would humankind have handled trauma in an era without psychotherapists, hypnotists and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) practitioners?

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It was a sunny Vermont afternoon in the late spring of 2001 when I was first asking myself these questions. From my office window I could see some of the streets of Montpelier, and the people walking along those streets. I noticed that most people walked in a way referred to in Brain Gym as the “cross crawl”—the right arm swings forward with the forward swing of the left leg, then the left arm swings forward at the same time as the right leg. Back and forth, back and forth—right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg.

I realized with a start that this was bilateral, rhythmic motion! As people walk, they alternately engage the left and right hemispheres of the brain—the same aspects of the brain that the alternate-side eye movement and alternate-ear sound stimulation and alternate-side tapping therapies work to engage. Could it be? I wondered. Is it possible that the way our hunting/gathering ancestors relieved themselves of the burden of psychological trauma was by walking back to the village from the hunt, and that the walking itself stimulated the whole-brain psychological healing process?

Remembering that Francine Shapiro said she first discovered EMDR by having a difficult memory resolve itself while walking, I decided to try the same, but without moving my eyes from side to side. I wanted to find out if the simple rhythmic bilateral activity of walking was enough to stimulate the brain to psychological healing.

The next morning I went for a walk from my home into downtown Montpelier and through some of the city’s neighborhoods, a total of perhaps a half-hour’s walk, a bit more than a mile. While walking rhythmically, using the cross crawl of a normal walker, I brought up a memory of a recent minor trauma—an embarrassing incident that occurred in a local drugstore. When I gave my name to the pharmacist, the woman standing next to me apparently recognized it and said, “Hi!” I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or to one of the people behind me, and so I was temporarily frozen in one of those social moments in which you are unsure of what to do. I meet many people, but rarely do I remember their names after just a first meeting. I’d recently given several speeches at local churches and done book signings. I’d been on local TV, and my radio show was broadcast on a local station, so it was possible that we had never actually met.

The pharmacist handed me my prescription and I left, never having responded to her. As I was leaving, however, I saw that she was staring at the floor, as if she was embarrassed. I left thinking that it must have been me she was speaking to, and that my shyness had caused her embarrassment. She was probably thinking I was some sort of insufferably arrogant snob, when in fact I was just caught in one of those socially awkward moments that you wish you could have left behind in high school.

For days afterward I tried to figure out who the woman was so that I could apologize, although my wife told me it was no big deal and that I should forget it. But to me it was a big deal—I thought about the experience daily. Every time I thought about it I relived the feeling of social anguish at not being able to acknowledge her, and the compounded and continuing embarrassment of thinking there was a person walking around town toward whom I’d behaved disrespectfully.

As I walked now, I mentally held the memory of that time in front of me, as though I was carrying a basketball in front of my chest. I walked normally through town, maintaining the rhythm of my walk but making no effort to move my eyes from side to side.

After about three blocks, I noticed that the colors in the memory picture of the experience were beginning to blur and fade. And no matter how I tried to hold it in front of my chest, the location of the memory kept moving a few feet out and away from me, off to my left.

On the fourth block I suddenly heard my voice say silently to myself, “Hey, everybody’s a little shy at heart, and most people would realize that you’re not a snob but were just uncertain about how to react. And instead of thinking poorly of you, that woman is probably walking around feeling like an idiot because she spoke up and didn’t get a reply. It would be nice if you could make it straight with her and both of you could feel better, but you don’t have a clue who she is. So you may as well just let the whole thing go and resolve that the next time something similar happens, you’ll answer the person even if it does feel awkward.”

As my mind said this to me, the memory picture flattened out and lost most of its color. Suddenly I could see myself inside the picture instead of viewing the event from the outside. A feeling of relief washed over me, followed by a feeling of peace. I’d come to terms with the event and with myself.

This was not a form of self-therapy in which I engaged my cognition or familiar talk-therapy techniques. I hadn’t set out to come up with a better story to tell myself about the event, or to alter my thinking about it. I was just carrying it with me as I walked, waiting to see if or how it would change. And change it did!

Later in the week I was talking with a client who is a psychologist. He felt “stuck” in a personal relationship that was very painful. He told me of all the past wounds around the relationship, and of how difficult he was finding it to separate himself from the other person, even though he knew that had to be done.

He’d come to an intellectual understanding of how toxic his relationship was, but he hadn’t been able to translate that into an emotional resolution. As a result, he spent hours every day obsessively thinking about this disintegrating relationship, to the point where it was interfering with virtually every other aspect of his life.

I told the client about my discovery of this simple Walking Your Blues Away system and suggested that he try it, asking him to report back to me how many minutes or miles it took him to resolve things, if that happened. He called me two days later to say it had taken him exactly seventeen minutes of steady walking, and that he could now pronounce himself “cured.”

Emboldened by this success, I began recommending this system to all of my consulting clients. Because my practice is based almost entirely on doing short-term telephone consultations, mostly teaching NeuroLinguistic Programming techniques, with psychology-industry professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, teachers, and coaches, I fortunately had a group of people who could easily understand the concept I was suggesting. And while my consulting is positioned as teaching and problem solving, at least half of the professionals who contact me for consultation are looking for techniques and ideas to resolve problems in their own lives as much as for their clients’ lives and situations.

Every person I’ve shared this technique with, and who did it correctly (as opposed to listening to music while you walk or stopping to browse store windows, both of which interrupt the process), got resolution of his or her problem in less than a half hour. A few had to repeat the process for a few days in a row to wipe clear the final traces of emotional charge around an incident. It has not yet failed to work.

One of the mental health professionals who’d been in a class I taught on this technique about six months after 9/11 wrote to me about her personal use of it. Her husband travels frequently on business, and she’d been so severely traumatized by watching the video of the planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings over and over again that she was having regular nightmares and daily panic attacks whenever her husband was traveling by plane.

“I took the walk you suggested,” she emailed me.The walk did produce the hoped-for ‘flattening’ of the trauma of 9/11 and the resultant terror. Total time was about 20 minutes. I walked comfortably and observed nature around me, and drew in joy from the sights—and sounds—I encountered: a chipmunk staring back at me, the incredible call of an eagle overhead (I even spotted him!), the gentle ‘moo’ of the cows I passed.”

She added that she’d still get anxiety “twinges” sometimes when Bush administration officials went on TV to talk about how “in danger” we all are. But she had anchored the “healing” experience of the walk with the music she played in her headset when she took the initial walk to deal with her daily anxiety attacks. The result was that, as she reported, “There have been tiny zaps of recurrence of the fear. When they pop up I hum the music, and the fear leaves. I believe that the recurrences have more to do with the fact that my husband is again traveling extensively than being spurred by the original trauma, and he and I are developing strategies to cope [with that separation anxiety].”

Upon further questioning, I learned that the fear this woman was describing around her husband’s travels now have more to do with the normal and generalized concern for a loved one who is away—and the normal feelings of missing one’s lover and friend. They no longer were rooted in 9/11 anxiety at all. The walking experience had “healed” the 9/11 anxiety.

She added, “Thank you so very much for planting this [knowledge]! I’m now also using it in other such situations!”

Another professional in the mental health field for whom I’d done consulting work sent me a note that he was planning to try the Walking Your Blues Away technique after reading a rough first draft of this book.

“As you know,” wrote Bob, “I have a big PTSD issue over the treatment I received from my uncle after my father died, and his cheating and stealing from the estate over a million dollars, which left me financially insecure.”

He mentioned that he had done EMDR when his father died, and it helped him tremendously with the grieving process, “but the real trauma came when I couldn’t stop, but only delay, my uncle from ripping me off!” His uncle had not only failed to notify Bob of the impending death of his father, but had actively been taking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the family business as well.

“This has taken the life and energy out of me,” Bob wrote. “While the anger rants walking around the house and most of the nightmares about it have decreased from several times a week to very occasional, I can get worked up about it in a few seconds if I think about it.

“I just don’t have the energy or spirit to continue [living with] this level of PTSD. I’m literally worn out from worry and regrets about it. I’m hoping this walking process will help me to put the feelings that suck the life and energy out of me into the past, and allow me to go forward without the drain on my energy and motivation.”

A week later Bob wrote to me again, after having tried the technique.

“I found that I was able to keep the issue floating in my head about 10 to 12 minutes of the entire walk to various degrees,” he wrote. “I then ‘felt’ it under the surface as I looked at the new houses with for sale signs in front of them or people out in their yard in the evening. ... Compared to what happened when I worked on this problem when I first became aware of it with EMDR in 1993, the difference was pronounced.

“Time is an element of this healing, and the issue is no longer current and ongoing, as it was just beginning then. But I definitely noticed a certain distance in feeling from the problem when I thought about it after the walk several hours later. I did not want to think about it any more, and it didn’t seem important. I thought I’d get back to it Saturday, but didn’t. ... It really did reduce the energy around this issue. It now seems more a distant past memory than something currently simmering under the surface.

“The ‘energy’ for being upset about it is gone. For the first time I feel hope that I can finally get this behind me, and not let it influence my present. It will free me to go forward without carrying the weight of the past. That’s how I feel now.”

Noting that the walking technique had worked so well for him, a few weeks later Bob wrote that he was now looking forward to sharing it with his clients.

“My feeling is that I now have a tool I can use for myself and my clients,” he wrote, “that can be used whenever that buzzing in the head starts about some hurt done to me (or them). Following the instructions to the best of my ability has brought great relief.

“Thank you for passing this on to me. I love the techniques I’ve learned from you and they always seem more direct and easy and avoid the formality of therapy sessions. They are the ‘herb tea’ of therapy: easily administered, and of immense value. I would choose this over traditional therapy in a second.”

This is the second 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.

 

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show hostIndependent Media Institute writing fellow, and author of over 25 books in print. Two of Hartmann's major books on climate change - The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight and The Last Hours of Humanity - have been published in 17 languages on 5 continents. He also co-wrote and co-narrates the "Last Hours" documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio and Leila Connors.