Solvitur ambulando (“It is solved by walking”)
Why Walking Therapy?
When someone asks me, as a psychologist, “Why do you offer walking therapy?” Or “Why would you take therapy outdoors?” I generally respond “Why not do walking therapy? Why not get outside?”
I think of Walking Therapy as an innovative, evidence based practice. In general terms, we know being outdoors is good for our health. We know moving and being physically active is good for our health. We know prolonged sitting and being sedentary is bad for health (on average taking two years off our lives).
The world’s top companies create green, walkable campuses for their employees. Standing desks are recommended. Modern hospitals create healing gardens. Cultures around the world recognize the health benefits of nature — from the Shinrin-yoku or “Forest Bathing” of Japan and Korea to the Friluftslif or “Free Air Life” of Scandinavia.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded to open our windows, that one of the safest places to be is outside, and that, more than ever, we need a break from our screens.
My View of the Research on Nature and Walking Therapy
Early in my career, I led extended wilderness therapy expeditions with young people and commercial rafting trips with guests from around the world. This raised my consciousness about the beneficial effects of being immersed in natural settings, and away from the human-centric technological bubble most of us live in. As I began to study nature more closely in my psychology training, I learned the underlying principles at play.
I discovered a robust body of research that demonstrates the mental health benefits of nature connections: from green window views in hospitals, to plants in our living spaces, to time spent in spaces with trees and vegetation rather than bare concrete. We experience lowered heart rates and blood pressure and more physiological calming just by being in safe natural settings.
We add to these passive benefits by consciously moving, breathing, setting intentions and reflecting. The more time we partake of therapeutic nature activities, the more perspective we gain and the more we can truly change our minds for the better.
Of my own academic research related to walking therapy, three of my book chapters stand out:
In one of the first research-based text books on ecotherapy, Jordan and Hinds’ Ecotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, (2016) I set the groundwork in Chapter 1: “Theoretical and Empirical Foundations for Ecotherapy.” I defined ecotherapy as therapy activities (counseling, social work, self-help) combining (1) an ecological intent — such as thinking of humans as part of a larger system of life, (2) taking place in nature or using natural objects or activities; (3) focusing on ecological aspects of ourselves, our identity or behavior (such as our relationships, or our connections with nature); and (4) looking at our life from various perspectives and scales (ranging from personal life to planetary existence). Thus, a simple walk in the forest becomes ecotherapy when it is guided in this way.
I got deeper into the research on environmental psychology in “Improving Human Functioning: Ecotherapy and Environmental Health Approaches” co-authored with Angel Chen in Research Methods for Environmental Psychology (in Gifford, 2016). Angel and I detailed three programs that use the outdoors for health: Forestry Scotland’s Branching Out Program, a government sponsored 12-week outdoor therapy program for the public; the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Research Council‘s robust findings on wilderness therapy with adolescents in the US, and the groundbreaking studies of University of Illinois Landscape and Human health Laboratory that helped establish the first validated links between green spaces and improved mental health of city dwellers, and how outdoor recess helps children with conditions like ADHD.
More recently, I helped Nevin Harper and Will Dobud with their book, Outdoor Therapies (2021) that has chapters featuring a worldwide scope of mental health counseling and therapy done outdoors: in wilderness settings, on climbing and rafting adventures, with horses, while gardening, and doing “surf therapy” in the ocean, and Japanese-style Forest Therapy, etc. Again, Nevin and I set the stage with our chapter “An Introduction to Outdoor Therapies.”
So, my adventure with outdoor therapy has developed over many years, and continues today.
Public talks, videos, and writings
Here are some fun and accessible ways to understand nature and well-being:
Nature Based Stress Reduction: https://selfsustain.com/blog/nature-based-stress-reduction/
Nature and Mental Health in the 21st Century – Public Talk for the Technology Associations of Oregon (5 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BvdDlUJ27E
Nature and Mental Health: A series of videos designed for college students that provides a comprehensive introduction (in about 12 minutes).
Getting Beyond Therapy Stereotypes
Walking therapy does upset some counseling and therapy stereotypes: Seeing a “shrink” in a city office, thumbing through magazines in a waiting room, meeting in hushed spaces with white noise machines humming.
But we have to realize that many of these stereotypes are inaccurate. We have the image of Sigmund Freud with his couch, but Freud was also known to walk with clients around the Ringstrasse in Vienna and to spend whole summers in the Alps. For many years, mainstream behavioral therapists have been leaving the office with their clients to go out into the world to work on fears of flying, driving and elevators, or to overcome social anxiety. The first psychiatric hospitals were grand Victorian spaces of trees, gardens and greenery.
Of course, there will always be a place for a comfortable, quiet and nurturing indoor healing spaces. I will enjoy my quiet office with its comfortable furniture and window views when the pandemic subsides. A good portion of my work with people will remain indoors, and now through telehealth.
But, why not give my clients an option, if they want a break and a fresh perspective, to not sit, and not be on Zoom? Let’s move outdoors and get, as I say, “the sky over our head, our feet on the ground, and our eyes on path we are taking!”
— Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.
See also these resources
British Psychological Society (2020). Guidance: The use of talking therapy outdoors.
Cooley, et al. (2020) ‘Into the Wild’: A meta-synthesis of talking therapy in natural outdoor spaces. Clinical Psychology Review, 77.
Selhub & Logan (2014). Your Brain On Nature. Collins Publishers
Zhang (2021) We’re Just Rediscovering a 19th-Century Pandemic Strategy. The Atlantic.”