Walking and EMDR: Grounding and empowering one step at a time
The research behind the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing modality was inspired by a walk in the park in 1987. Now, trauma victims use bilateral stimulation to ground themselves and reprocess their distressing memories, whether in a therapy session or out on a trail.
When Ginger Schweikert moved back to Columbia in 2020, she took to the trails she traveled as a child. Amid the stress brought on by COVID-19 pandemic, it kept her sane.
“There’s nothing else that I can do when I’m walking,” Schweikert said. “So, I only have one thing to focus on. And that’s just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Taking one step after another, especially in nature, was therapeutic. But as she returned to those childhood places, the ones she’d explore with brother’s Boy Scout troop, she noticed that Columbia lacked a comprehensive resource for hiking. So, she made one herself, a guide called “Columbia Trails: Over 300 Miles of Hiking, Biking and Horsing Around in Mid-Missouri.” It came out in April.
“I find for me, personally, if it goes a week and I don't get out there … I feel like I can tell,” Schweikert said. “I don't feel quite right. I gotta get out there.”
And that’s not just wishful thinking. Our nervous systems are wired to calm down through bilateral stimulation. Walking, tapping, eye movement – they present a stimulus to both sides of our body and both sides of our brain. And somehow, that grounds us – especially in nature.
A magical modality
Carmen Buis is a therapist in Columbia. She uses eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, in her practice. She says it’s primarily used for trauma patients but can also be used to help decrease anxiety and depression.
“It's like this magical modality that's really adaptable,” Buis said, “because it's your own brain processing trauma in the way that you need it to be processed.”
This is especially key for those who experienced trauma as children. In order to survive and move forward, the brain tends to push traumatic memories down. But the pain is still stored away in the brain and body, even as adults.
So, therapists like Buis act as facilitators for the brain. Patients recall difficult memories while moving their eyes back and forth to different targets. The eye movement grounds patients during their session, which can typically last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.
“And then the reprocessing part is like trying to find some sort of positive or neutral belief that they can get behind like, ‘Maybe I did do the best that I could during that situation’ or, ‘Maybe I am okay, now’” Buis said.
According to the EMDR Institute, EMDR therapy was developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro. She discovered the technique by simply walking in a park. As she moved her eyes around, she felt her unpleasant emotions decrease.
One step after another
Schweikert enjoys her nature walks in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, especially in the summer. She said the trail is well maintained, and the caves and shade make for great relief during the stifling Missouri heat.
“People who walk in a woodland or in a forest regularly, they have lower levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline,” said Annabel Streets, an author in the UK who wrote “52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” It came out last year.
It was inspired by the research she did on walking while she was recovering from a back injury brought on by sitting too long in a certain kitchen chair.
“Whatever was wrong with me, walking seemed to just be there,” Streets said. “And the great thing about it is: it's free. It's so convenient. You just step out of your house, and off you go.”
Streets started incorporating more of it into her day, never sitting for more than 45 to 50 minutes. One fun fact she discovered during her research is that walking on your toes lifts your mood.
“And who knew that? So, If I wake up in the morning and I feel a bit flat, I’ll go for a walk, and I'll include a little bit of fairy feet tippy toe when no one's looking,” Streets said through a laugh.
Across the pond, Schweikert picked up Streets’s book to inspire her own adventures here in mid-Missouri.
It might feel silly or just too good to be true to put so much hope in a walk. But building a personal habit of walking could go a long way. Streets said even a 12-minute walk changes 500 of our body’s metabolites for the better. And Schweikert said it can be emotionally empowering to do things like navigate a trial or cross a creek without getting your feet wet.
“Especially for women – empowering us in our bodies is really important because so many social messages and a lot of trauma that women experience is often bodily trauma,” Schweikert said. “So getting back into our present moment, back into our body, where we are, as we are, can be healing.”
So, whether the walk is a grounding technique or a simple fairy-feet mood lifter, it’s an aid for the body that works with the mind.
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