Have you been told you "really should" walk, but you can't seem to make it happen?
What stops you from walking?
It's normal to feel hesitant or unsure about starting something new.
In this article I share strategies to help you get out the door, what to do when you're feeling uncomfortable or feeling anxious about what lies beyond your front door..
How to reduce anxiety about walking.
You can become comfortable with walking and develop a strong habit, but be patient with yourself.
If this is difficult for you, it can take time to feel this comfort.
Below you will find some tips to first help you get comfortable enough to walk and then ways you can play with discomfort on your walk.
But first chose the simplest walk to get started on.
I have this normal, routine walk in the morning that I think I could actually walk with my eyes closed, even stopping subconsciously before crossing the road, because I have done this walk literally thousands of times. My brain knows where we are going, so it's really comfortable with this route. It's like, yep, I've got this, I know what we're doing. This frees me up to do other things whilst walking, like chat on the phone, listen to podcasts, practice mindfulness, let my mind wonder and dip into creativity. It's amazing what you can do on a walk once you get out the door.
Six tips to prepare to walk
There are certain things you can do to prepare for walking to reduce your anxiety and increase your level of comfort and safety.
1. Check the weather. Look at the weather and the weather app. If it's pouring rain, but it's going to stop shortly and you can wait, wait. If this is your only chance to walk, walk, with your raincoat and your most waterproof shoes, accepting that you may need to change when you come home. If it's freezing cold, you could have a hot shower first to warm yourself up, or put your fleecy pants on.
2. Check out your walking route. One reason I walk the path I do is because, touch wood, although there's frequently people walking dogs, there's normally no unleashed dogs. I feel safe there. it's lit, it's populated.
3. Choose a time that works for you. If you like walking with lots of people time your walk for a popular walking time. School drop off and pick up time can work, or earlier when people are walking their dogs. If you don't like walking where there are lots of people, avoid those times. It will take a little trial and error to find the best time.
4. Be sensible. Don't walk paths that are isolated and screened from the public if you are walking by yourself. Don't walk in the dark. I knew someone who would go running in the dark because that was their preference, I prefer the light and stay aware of potential hazards.
5. Be flexible. If it's dark, wait till it's light, or do your walk before it's dark. So the time you walk can vary as the seasons change.
6. Walking by yourself is the most flexible and convenient way to consolidate a daily habit, but if that is too much, tee up to walk with a friend/neighbour.
Next, I list a few obstacles that may be getting in your way, and some strategies for becoming more comfortable with walking.
Potential Obstacles your Mind provides to Walking
Social Anxiety - what if I see people I know and they want to talk to me? I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't feel like talking to anyone. I don't know what to say. I just want to be left alone.
Generalised Anxiety - Where should I walk? When should I walk? What if I meet a dog? What if I fall over? What if someone comes to visit and I'm not at home? What if someone attacks me? What if my feet hurt? What if I get too hot, too cold, too wet, too sweaty? What if.....?
Energy levels - I dont have the spoons to talk or interact with anyone today. I can either choose to use my energy to shower and get dressed 'properly', or I can walk. And if I walk without showering or putting on a bra, I don't want anyone to see me.
Self-Image - what will people think of me? People will judge me. I've put on weight. I'm injured and can't walk how I usually walk - I look stupid. I have a disability and look different from other people and people will stare at me. I have daggy clothes and everyone in my neighbourhood is wearing name brand exercise clothes.
Identity - I'm not someone who usually does exercise, if I go for a walk people will wonder what on earth I am doing.
Depression. If I walk, I have to walk by myself and people will think I don't have any friends. It's boring and pointless. I'll never be (fit/skinny) enough.
Can you recognise yourself in any of these?
Your mental health, your mindset, the way you talk to yourself, your physical fitness and the way you see yourself, are some of the real challenges that people face when wanting to walk. I address all these challenges and more when helping clients create and sustain a walking habit, but in this blog let's drill down a little into anxiety and being uncomfortable.
What to do when you're feeling uncomfortable
Notice what you are experiencing, thinking and feeling.
Now this sounds simple, but it does require practice, especially when you're not feeling stressed. Practicing awareness is the key.
Here's an example of how I did this the other day.
I turned right instead of left at the end of my street.
When my mind realised this and flagged that something was different, I noticed my inside lurched. And this little voice said, 'hmm, what are you doing? What are you doing? This isn't what we know, this isn't safe.' When I noticed this I sat back and observed,
Wow, that's interesting. I'm noticing a lurching in my body. I'm noticing a resistance in my brain. This is the physicality of the emotion, know as interoception, You can feel it. It's a physicality of anxiety 'Are you sure? Are we gonna be okay? What, what if, what if?' My practice on my walk is to listen to that and notice it and keep going.
Sometimes changing direction isn't your choice. The way I normally walk is actually blocked off by construction at the moment. Meaning I needed to change my route. When I first observed this, the voices started up, 'oh, can't do that. Can't go there. Where else can we go? Will this way be okay?'. I observed my mind chattering away to me. I then tuned in to the part of me that observes what is going on and that sounded a bit like this, 'hmm, I notice you're sounding quite anxious there. It's okay. We've got this.'
Managing your discomfort, anxiety or any difficult emotion is a process - Sitting with anxiety, tuning into it, identifying the sensation. That's how to treat your emotions. Tune into them, experience them. Experience them and keep going.
There's a caveat here on the keeping going. If you have identified a definite threat, rabid dog, swooping magpie, threatening individual, cross the road, turn around and go home. Very, very, very, very rarely happens that I do that. But if you are reacting to change or social anxiety and there's not physical harm involved, the process is to keep walking, tune into it, work through it.
Three ways to use walking to practice tolerating discomfort and anxiety
Once you're feeling comfortable about the idea of walking, have chosen your route and done it a few times, you can play with testing your comfort levels. You can provoke your anxiety and use your walking time to practice managing discomfort and anxiety using mindfulness.
Here are three ways to do this:
1. choose to walk a different way, eg turn left instead of right.
2.choose to wear uncomfortable clothing. This can range from putting on an ankle sock and a knee sock, putting up with a scratchy label, not wearing a rain coat.
3. choose to walk on the other side of the street.
As you're doing this tune into your experiences.
What if you can't walk out the door?
For many people just getting out the door is really difficult. The prolonged experience of COVID lockdowns exacerbated this already anxious feeling for many and created it afresh in others.
I can work with you wherever you are.
Together we develop a graduated exposure program with appropriately scaffold steps, that can take you to the point where you are out the door and engaging in a walk that is meaningful to you.
Regardless of your level of anxious and discomfort: whether it stops you from walking altogether, whether you're a little anxious, but you can recognize that and manage it, or whether you would like to play with using walking as a vehicle (no pun intended) for managing discomfort or anxiety, I can work with you.
If anxiety is something you struggle with and it gets in the way of walking, make a booking and I can work with you to help you with your walking journey. Or if you prefer an online self-paced program, the Walking is Awesome self-paced program opening soon.
* These articles are provided by Kim Ross, Psychologist for general information and education . They are not designed to be used for therapy.. If you are experiencing stress please contact your GP or mental health professional.
Kim Ross is an Online Psychologist and Founder of Positive Young Minds and Private Practice Sustainability.