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Spring Township counselors offer therapy outdoors

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic cancelled so many indoor activities , Cori White and Kari Eyer had been contemplating a new way to offer counseling through their practice, Our Whole Living Counseling LLC in Spring Township.

White and Eyer both liked to be active and wanted to offer a different environment from sitting in an office talking about problems. They wanted a place with less pressure and that felt more natural for clients.

They had planned to launch walk-and-talk counseling in the spring of 2020. Then, the virus took hold and everything was shut down.

As businesses reopened, the counselors returned to the concept. It allows for relative safety of open air and social distance. In July, White took to the outdoors with some clients. So far three people participate individually. She said more people are interested but can't arrange child care.

"The concept and theory I use remains mostly the same, but out in nature we are able to access the changing of the seasons to talk about change," White said.

Coping strategies

A walk down a trail can offer real-world opportunities to put coping strategies into practice in a way an office session can't, White and Eyer said. The movement of walking also helps relieve anxieties. 

A closed trail or a rain shower can become a metaphor and a real experience for dealing with the unexpected.

"Being out of the office shifts the power dynamic," White said. 

White said a therapy room is an artificial situation, sitting face-to-face with a counselor. Walking outside with someone is more natural, and that can have therapeutic benefits.

When someone walks next to a counselor through a park or trail, they say the counselor seems less like an expert and authority figure.

"Why that is good is that the more comfortable the client is with the counselor, the more therapeutic work can be done," White said.

Easing anxiety

Eyer said people can have anxiety around authority figures and that anxiety gets in the way of them accessing their thoughts and feelings.

"If we are  sitting in the place of authority (such as a therapist's office) they may not be as honest with us about what is actually happening with them," Eyer said. 

Just the movement, walking, itself can ease anxiety. Walking the path together, Eyer and White said, they can help a client be more comfortable with themselves.

"When we are out in nature, it is a vehicle to employ mindfulness, to be present in the current moment," Eyer said. 

She gave an example of sitting on her back porch with her child noticing how leaves have changed and considering how they've changed, too. Walk-and-talk counseling can help clients incorporate strategies they've wanted to do such as practicing mindfulness or being more active to reduce stress. 

An option

Walk-and-talk is not something they prescribe but an option clients can choose.

Clients often want to get to know the counselors before trying walk-and-talk, White said.

While there is research on the effect of the natural environment on a person's well-being and incorporating nature into mind-body practices, there has not been a lot of quantitative research on how successful therapy outside is.

"It's an emerging branch of the field," said White, who specializes in working with families.

Eyer's specialty is trauma.

A researcher in 2019 identified 135 counselors in the United States that offered walk-and-talk counseling. 

Researcher Denise Crowe Clark interviewed clients who had participated in walk-and-talk counseling. She concluded walk-and-talk therapy "may be a viable alternative for clinicians to add to their therapeutic repertoire, particularly for clients who may struggle with the intensity of sitting face-to-face in a traditional office setting."

"Walk-and-talk may also be a way to normalize the experience of therapy for some and reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental and emotional issues," she wrote.

One of the walk-and-talk participants described the experience this way:

"I think it just made it stick. You know, you can talk, and talk, and talk about something, but when you’re walking and talking ... I felt like, for me at least, it made my ideas a little better, and my commitment to go out and do the things we talked about stick.

"I would go out and do it because it’s baked into my muscle memory. And when I would go out, and I’d have images in my mind of where we were walking when we were talking about something, and how things smelled, or the sound of the train going by, or the bird or something, and that those would be kind of like very positive triggers for me to remember the point of the therapy and what I wanted to get out of it."

Eyer and White noted Berks County with its beautiful parks and trails is well suited for this emerging branch of therapy.

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