When you’re under a lot of stress, even having to tackle everyday chores and responsibilities can feel like too much. Managing stress is an important skill to learn regardless of what’s going on in your life, but it’s important to find healthy ways to diffuse your stress when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
One of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to tackle your anxiety is to literally walk it off. In fact, walking is therapeutic in many ways. When you move your body, it doesn’t just feel good—you can actually improve your self-esteem, mood and even your sleep quality.1In older people, staying active can even improve cognitive function, memory, attention, and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.2
Always check with your doctor before starting any new fitness programme, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while or have underlying health conditions. If you get the all-clear, consider incorporating walking into your regular physical exercise regime and enjoy the benefits of stepping your worries away.
You can simply lace up your trainers and go for a brisk 30-minute walk to reap some pretty amazing benefits. Thirty minutes a day can reduce your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers.3 But you might also want to try to incorporate more mindfulness into your walking regime to help target that anxiety even more directly.
Walking meditation is a very purposeful form of walking which is basically meditation with movement. It’s less about exercise than it is about focusing very intently on the way your body is moving, and it can be done indoors or outdoors as long as you have a quiet, safe space that allows you to walk back and forth for 10-15 paces.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn’s walking meditation4 involves these steps:
- Very slowly walk 10-15 steps, then pause and breathe, noticing your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Turn and walk back in the opposite direction and repeat. You should be walking slowly, but otherwise normally.
- As you are moving through your steps, focus on the way your first foot lifts and moves forward, the way your weight shifts and how the other foot and leg respond to complete the walking movement.
- In addition to focusing your attention on your movements, try to notice other sensations that you normally take for granted when you’re walking. This can include your breath moving in and out of your body, the way your head is balanced on your neck and shoulders, and the sensation of your joints and muscles working to propel you forward.
- It’s okay if your mind wanders – that’s normal! Just gently bring your focus back to your movements and the sensations you feel as you take each step.
- Try doing this for 10 minutes a day for at least a week and see if it helps to provide a sense of calm and a recalibration of your emotional balance.
Mindful walking requires less instruction, but the same attention to sensations, sights and sounds. The idea is to go for a walk and concentrate less on your worries or to-do list, and more on your surroundings.
Look at what’s around you, paying attention to small things you might otherwise not even notice. It could be the pattern on a brick building, the bark on a tree, the way the grass blows in the breeze, the sound of your shoes crunching through leaves or splashing through puddles, or the heat of the sun on your face. Be attentive to the sights, sounds and sensations you see and feel around you, always scanning for the next thing to notice and appreciate. This kind of walking helps you stay in the present moment, which is the goal of any mindfulness-based exercise.
Remember, feeling overwhelmed every now and again can be normal, but if anxiety in you or a loved one is severely impacting daily functioning, or if you’re afraid for the safety of the anxious person, don’t hesitate to speak to your doctor about intervention. Anxiety is very treatable and very common. There’s no reason to be ashamed if you’re experiencing it, and there’s certainly no need to continue suffering from it.