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Walking as Therapy: A Confessional Stroll with a Friend

Text by Nell Casey

I have not, I'll admit, ever really liked therapy. I felt impatient when my last therapist would ask, "How did that make you feel?" Sometimes I didn't feel anything because I was just thinking I had to reschedule my next appointment. (As Freud is rumored to have remarked, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.)

And yet I don't want life to pass me by unexamined. So when the time came for me to give up therapy -- thanks in part to the aforementioned fruitlessly questioning shrink, but mostly due to my own personal economic recession -- I decided to make a regular walking date with a friend as a therapeutic alternative.

Restoration Through Walking
I have two friends who alternately join me on my rambles; I trust both to hold my private life sacred and to tell me the truth. I may not be getting the objective opinion of a professional, but I haven't found myself missing my therapist's calculated distance, either.

In fact, this ritual has become one of my deepest pleasures: I am able to combine the catharsis of talking about my life (as well as my friends' lives -- a learning experience in itself, watching someone else's fate unfold alongside mine) with a three-mile jaunt around a beautiful park. These sessions cover the ups and downs of our marriages, parenting, careers. 

I get strong opinions and concrete advice, instead of "How does that make you feel?" Sometimes, when I'm venting, my friends will pile on, too -- which would be forbidden in a clinical setting but makes me feel less alone.

One of the hopes I'd brought to therapy was that I'd have someone who really knew me, so that when the inevitable crisis struck, I wouldn't have to scramble to fill someone in on my backstory. But close companionship offers a similar type of solace: a meaningful connection with someone who helps you make sense of your life.

The Benefits of Exercise
Research shows there are more tangible ways walking can lift the spirits. Exercise not only spurs endorphins, but it can also help stabilize your mood by raising the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. 

Going for a 12-minute walk may be the natural equivalent of taking Prozac, says John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain."

Exercise can also make you mentally sharper. "There is evidence that aerobic exercise increases levels of a protein called BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor]," explains Susan Evans, professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. "This is associated with neurogenesis, which is basically the creation of new neurons, primarily in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that lays down memory. So we think exercise increases the ability to think clearly." Perhaps this is why I finish my jaunts feeling not just physically but mentally charged.

I know better than to suggest therapy can be replaced. Yet I can say with conviction that until I can afford to go back, walking with my friends has been a balm. Problems that felt monumental when they were locked up in my mind feel suddenly smaller, and more surmountable, once I'm able to narrate them in our conversations.

Fittingly, in 2007, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, leading them to the bottom of a steep hill and outfitting them with a heavy backpack. Some participants stood with a friend; others viewed the hill alone. The results? Those who stood with their friends estimated the hill to be less steep than those who were on their own. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

Why am I not surprised?

How-To: Walking as "Therapy"

1. When you listen to someone else, really listen. That means resisting the urge to jump in with your own two cents. "Instead, bite your tongue, pinch your arm, or count to 10 in your head," says Jennine Estes, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. "You want to send the message to your friend that what she has to say matters."

2. Let your friend tell you what she needs. Does she want to vent, or is she asking for advice? If she pauses often or says she doesn't know what to do, Estes says, "it's a great place to ask if she'd like to brainstorm solutions." If she's yammering endlessly, she probably just needs to blow off steam.

3. Avoid "why" questions or "you should have" statements. They can come off as "critical or judgmental," Estes points out. "These are the no-no's to communication."

4. Hold your own. If your friend is constantly leading the conversation, then maybe it's your turn to pipe up. "Assertiveness doesn't mean being rude," Estes says. "It means being open, honest, and setting a boundary."

5. It's okay to just shut up and walk. Don't feel you have to fill every minute with meaningful conversation. Sometimes it's therapy enough to enjoy someone's company without saying a word.

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