Walking The Talk
How a Tree Became My Therapy Room
Aristotle is said to have walked around with his followers while they discussed philosophy. This could be where the expression 'walking the talk' comes from. In my early training days the tutor wanted us to walk the talk, meaning that we were expected live and breathe our ethical code and philosophy. Over the last year I've adapted my practice to a socially distanced approach. Apart from the usual offering of online sessions, I looked into outdoor therapy.
Known as eco-therapy, this already established approach comes with much evidence to support that it works. One such finding was that of the psychologist Francine Shapiro in the 1980's. Whilst out for a walk one day, she noticed that moving her eyes from side to side, as she looked at the trees, seemed to reduce her own distress. This is what neurologists call bilateral stimulation, where the right and left hemispheres of the brain are activated. Thus, facilitating the connections of new neural pathways between the right, emotional brain and the left, logical brain, helping the patient process deeply held emotions.
Shapiro's walk that day led to the pioneering of what is now known as eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy, EMDR. Bilateral stimulation was recreated in the therapy room using basic eye movements from side to side along with tapping the right and left knee of the patient. At the same time, the patient recalled memories and the therapist helped by using gentle inquiry as to what their experience was. By asking questions related to the five senses, the patient could begin to make sense of, and process post traumatic thoughts and feelings caught in the right brain. Left brain is needed to help make sense of things and other parts of the brain help orientate and conceptualise past traumas. This is delicate work and needs careful preparation with a qualified EMDR therapist.
I have been the recipient of EMDR therapy and can say it has worked. I vividly remember the therapist asking me to create a safe place installation in my mind using the bilateral stimulation and five senses inquiry techniques. I now have my safe place. A serene room where a bed is made with clean white linen and a long white muslin curtain gently billows at a door leading out to a garden. The smell of a freshly mown lawn and the sound of birds singing are present. A glass of mineral water is on the side table and the light is diffuse as the curtain lets in late summer sun. When I go there in my mind, I am am calm.
During the late summer months of 2020 I embarked on an outdoor therapy practice. Not everyone wants to meet online so I offered sessions outside. During the first few weeks sessions took place on a green, under a copper beech tree. This huge tree, thick with dark red foliage, provided soothing shade. In the rain, the majestic copper beech sheltered us, kept us dry. This place became my therapy room until the weather turned. My usual therapy room was, for the foreseeable future, closed because of the pandemic and I had to think again.
Eventually, I offered walks in place of sitting under a tree. It was too cold to sit still so a narrow lane with established trees either side became my new consulting room. A pleached avenue, if you will. Now, in my quest for knowledge, I had tried EMDR to see if it worked and like many, I have experienced some trauma, so I had good reason to try it. As I continued to see clients for walking sessions, I began to observe them making the kind of progress that EMDR can facilitate. The combination of my gentle inquiry, the sound of our footsteps crunching over wet gravel, the clear path ahead and the elements all worked well together.
The ease of our descent to the bottom of the lane seemed to match the way people would talk, laying out before them what they grappled with. Walking back up the hill, we laboured issues set out on the way down. As we reached the top of the lane, ideas began to formulate, realisations crystallise, new decisions became possible and a sense of calm enveloped. This walking therapy delivered some of the elements of EMDR in its natural state, in nature.
The Copper Beech
Simply moving the eyes from side to side, turning the head and looking around can release tension, sending messages of calm to the amygdala, in turn reducing cortisol levels and adrenal responses. The screen user whose fixed gaze and stiff neck engender the kind of tension akin to a deer caught in headlights, can benefit enormously from taking short breaks to do eye exercises or just look out of the window. If nothing else, looking into the distance relaxes the eye muscles. I know this from another life when I worked as an optician's assistant.
This outdoor working experience has stretched me. My interventions have changed, I cannot do therapy in the same way. My clients have seen me in a way they would never have seen me pre-covid, in my walking boots, woolly hat, huge coat and not very tall! This little lady marching up and down a muddy lane, who is now two stone lighter and has legs the summer will look forward to seeing. The pandemic has knocked the therapy frame sideways. Psychotherapy and psychotherapists can be never be the same again. I like the change. That old notion of a psychotherapist has gone. I feel liberated.
I continue to offer therapy sessions online and outdoors until it is safe to open up my consulting room again. It is my intention to keep all three modalities. Find out more and see the pictures at www.maidstonetherapy.co.uk