Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Walking Therapy

I have mentioned how I notice birds’ nests when I am out walking in winter, and how that stimulates a flow of associations related to “the dream of the nest.” If, when you walk at different times of the year, you are looking around for different things such as birds or nests, or trying to identify specific things like trees, herbs, or flowers, the darting eye movement combined with the motion of walking has a potentially therapeutic effect.

It was an ordinary walk that gave rise to EMDR therapy: “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” Francine Shapiro, the originator of this therapy, took a long walk one day while working over some disturbing thoughts and personal problems. By the end of her walk, she felt a great sense of resolution—no longer troubled—and ascribed this to the eye motion that one is naturally engaged in while walking. (We can appreciate the benefit of eye movement when we consider how “rapid eye movement,” the REM phase of dreaming, is important for peoples’ ability to process the day’s events, as well as other issues they might have, and how people suffer when they are deprived of that REM phase.) Impressed with the therapeutic implications, Shapiro developed EMDR to help people process traumatic memories and other sorts of conflicts. In its early stages, the therapy involved having the patients follow the therapist’s finger movements with their eyes, to achieve bilateral stimulation of the brain. This has evolved into a more high tech system, where your eyes track a moving light, and audial and tactile stimulation are also utilized. Of course, there is a lot more to it than what I am describing here, and care is also taken to create a psychologically safe space for patients, so they can alternate between processing traumatic material and returning to the safety of a comfortable setting in the present moment.

Persons with major psychological problems should naturally seek professional therapy, whether it be EMDR or some other. However, for ordinary people with the ordinary load of daily problems to deal with, why not go take a long walk, like Francine Shapiro was doing when she made her initial discovery? To bring in more eye movement, you can make a point of looking for specific things, as mentioned earlier. (Getting a field guide to birds, butterflies, trees, or whatever will be helpful here.) Walking lightens one’s worries for a great number of reasons, so it can’t help but benefit you. At the very least, you will get a nice walk out of it.

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