8 ways walking can help depression and anxiety – the psychotherapist’s guide

By | May 19, 2019

Feeling stressed or anxious? Psychotherapist Jonathan Hoban, author of Walk with Your Wolf, reveals how walking can help you feel happier, calmer and less stressed

It’s a Wednesday morning and I’m walking through one of London’s green spaces. As the warmth of the sun hits my face, accompanied by a cold wind, I feel alive again and connected to my environment. And for now, even though I know I have an intense and busy few hours ahead, I couldn’t feel happier.

How I overcame burnout with walking

Years ago, when I was battling my own demons, I discovered that walking in nature, even within urban settings, was by far the most effective therapy for reducing my symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and adrenal fatigue – otherwise known as ‘burnout’ – and I began to reconnect with my wilder, primal, authentic self.

Likewise, when I started to take my clients out of the therapy room and outdoors, I noticed the same effect on them.

put down technology and reconnect with our environment

As primal beings we have basic requirements for living.  We need to move our bodies far more regularly throughout the day than most of us currently do, put down technology and reconnect with our environment.

We need a clear and coherent structure to each day to help us maintain better mental and physical health, and to set clear boundaries around our other lifestyle habits that could affect sleep and nutrition.

And if we don’t take responsibility for maintaining our most primitive requirements for living, we will soon recognise that our state of mind and personal clarity will suffer. In short, we will feel stressed, depressed and anxious and our lives will feel chaotic.

So let me show eight ways ‘walking therapy’ can work for you…

#1 Plan ahead

Walking is easy – but actually getting out there and doing it often isn’t. We are all guilty of putting other duties before ourselves or fitting too many tasks into an unrealistically short period of time, and this is what needs to change.

Making time for yourself requires ongoing discipline, commitment and strategic planning. Set aside time at the weekend to diarise your walks.

By doing this, you are already creating a personal boundary by ring-fencing time for you. After all, if you can’t find time to prioritise your own self-care, how can you possibly look after the needs of others?

Making time to walk each day is an investment in your mental health and well-being, so don’t take this lightly. And once you have made your plan for the week ahead, you will also instantly feel less stressed.

If you intend to walk all or part of the way to work, set your alarm for an hour earlier. It can be tempting to stay in bed for that extra bit of sleep, but if you commit to waking up earlier, you will feel less rushed, irritated and stressed, and instead more mindful and calm.

If you start the day well, you generally end it well. Planning ahead allows you to make better choices.

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#2 Pull on those walking shoes and stride out

On your first few walking sessions, really stride out and get a good pace going. Keeping your head up, taking confident steps, while swinging your arms with purpose to drive yourself forward will help you to feel more empowered and activate your core strength.

With every stride, visualise the stress leaving your body, being replaced with feelgood hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. This has been scientifically proven time and time again.

#3 Learn to check in with yourself

It’s important to check in with how you’re feeling from time to time. Noting and writing down feelings and thoughts that came to mind during your walk will help you to process them far more effectively, and provide you with clarity, insights and solutions to any dilemmas you may be facing.

Apps such as Headspace or Calm support this, so try one of their ‘body-scan meditations’ to help you.

Before and after each walk, why not also conduct your own research by rating your stress, anxiety and depression levels from one to ten.

Seeing a positive reduction in your symptoms will motivate you further to repeat the process every time you go for a walk, and will also help you to see that what you are doing is really working.

If you can afford to buy a fitness watch that measures other important data such as heart rate and blood pressure, so much the better.

It’s worth mentioning that Australian researcher Michael Wheeler and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia in Perth recently proved that just 30 minutes of walking shows a massive reduction in blood pressure.

So much so that it was comparable to the effects of taking blood-pressure-lowering medicine. But don’t take my word for it, keep a log and see for yourself.

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#4 Take regular walking breaks

If your work is sedentary, it is vital you take regular breaks. Humans were not designed to stay seated for long periods of time. If you don’t take breaks, you will feel the effects acutely through your body: aches and pains, lethargy, depression and stress.

And don’t just walk to the coffee machine please. Take 20 minutes outdoors in the heart of the city or in your local park. If you’re looking after children, take them for a quick walk outside and observe how they revel being in nature, even on the worst days.

Oxytocin, known as the ‘love drug’ because of its bonding effects, is released by the brain in abundance while walking with others or among nature due to the meditative effect of this activity on the brain. And the greater the release of oxytocin, the greater the reduction of cortisol (the stress hormone).

#5 Walking, working and creating

The idea that working until we drop somehow gets the best out of us is outdated. It’s a fact that walking makes you more creative.

Researchers at Stanford University have found that creative thinking improves while a person is walking, and the positive effects last much longer than the walk itself.

If you work in a team, try holding regular ‘walking meetings’. Get out there and brainstorm, then see what you come back with.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, both found that ‘walking meetings’ increased levels of productivity and creativity, and neither of them was particularly bad at business.

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#6 Walk through your lunch break

That’s right: ‘walk’, not ‘work’ through lunch. Health-and-safety legislation endorses a lunch break, so stop eating at your desk and take a brisk 30- to 45-minute walk instead. If you walk, your animal brain is stimulated; if you sit, it goes to sleep.

If you’re self-employed, the temptation to ‘work through’ to meet deadlines is huge. Give yourself permission to take regular breaks – the world will not end if you’re not at your desk every minute of the day.

Researchers at John Moores University in Liverpool discovered that sitting for hours without moving can slow the flow of blood to our brains. But strolling for just two minutes every half hour seems to actually increase blood flow.

So for those who convince themselves they don’t have enough time to walk during a working day, it’s time to start thinking otherwise.

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#7 Revving up and winding down

If you started your day with a vigorous, energising walk to work and you’re walking home from work, or you’ve factored in a walking session in the early evening, take the time to wind down.

Walk more slowly, observing what’s going on around you, using your senses to notice nature, immersing yourself in it and reconnecting with your wildness.

While you’re walking and contemplating, think about how the benefits of this exercise can impact on your whole life. Now you’re in the flow and feeling less stressed, could you imagine maintaining Walking Therapy long term to reduce stress, anxiety and depression permanently?

We can all use the excuse of not having enough time, but we create our own time, by being strategic and taking action.

#8 Make walking a part of your whole life

If you have time at weekends, factor in a walk that takes you out of your usual environment and into different locations. Some people enjoy blustery walks along the coastline, others prefer the tranquillity and solitude of woods and forests.

So-called ‘forest bathing’ (spending time in green spaces) is now extremely popular in Japan among other places.

Read more: 8 ways walking in the woods can make you happier

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So what’s not to like about walking for physical and mental well-being? With a bit of planning and preparation you will find that your life changes more dramatically than you could ever have imagined.

walk with your wolf

Walk With Your Wolf,Unlock Your Intuition, Confidence and Power by Jonathan Hoban is available to buy now for £14.99.

Jonathan Hoban Headshot

Jonathan Hoban is a professionally registered member of the British Association of Counselling Psychotherapy (MBACP).

He has specialised within the field of addiction, anxiety disorders, depression, anger management and trauma work, including treatment centres, where he has worked extensively over the last 10 years.

He has had great success working with corporate companies around the U.K, predominantly in the City of London.

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