Health and Wellness

Ease Stress and Anxiety in Your Life by Taking a Mindful Walk

With input from my three year old son.

DESPITE WALKING being life’s first and perhaps most monumental milestone, we overlook the importance of walking. It’s time we change that. It’s time we slow down. It’s time we walk, instead of run, through life.

The Rat Race of Everyday Life

There’s a saying in our contemporary culture in which it’s go go go, almost all the time, non-stop, with little time for leisure, contemplation, and being present in the moment. We call it the rat race of everyday life, and we accept it largely without question.

We live in a world with distractions galore, where stimulation exists around every corner and most every wall, in which the world is at our fingertips with the simple click of a button or swipe of the screen. It’s all so instant, so rapid with the internet and the 24 hour news cycle, with email, text messages, and social media. Of notifications and red flags on handheld computers we call phones. A constant bombardment of bits and data, of binary codes of 0s and 1s. And a good chunk of us, unknowingly, have become conditioned or transformed into information addicts. Read “I Used to Be a Human Being,” by Andrew Sullivan. For others, a fraction really, not even full blown information addicts, but the recipients of information, too much information, and we’re constantly trying to process all of this information because, well, that’s what a major function of our brain does — processes information.

We’re physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, emotionally exhausted—which is precisely why we need to slow down.

And do I have the activity for you. Something so human to us all. It’s called walking.

How I Became an Accidental Walker

Recently, I became an accidental walker. Not the zombiefied, flesh eating, undead sort you see on AMC’s The Walking Dead. I’ve never actually seen that show. I don’t do blood, guts, and gore. The vivid imagination that lives under my scalp would take a topic such as cold skinned cannibals and run with it entirely too far off in the distance.

I became an accidental walker because of a strange skin/pore condition which has recently caused me to itch severely when I sweat. To clarify, when I say “I itch severely,” I don’t mean in the sense that, “Oh, I have a little itch. Let me scratch.” I mean it to be dreadful and downright painful to the point, about two months ago, when it was 39 degrees, after running approximately seven-tenths of a mile, I had to remove my shirt and dig my fingernails into my chest, neck, and sides for relief. I thought I was having an allergic reaction of some sort it was so bad.

I looked like Smokey from the movie Friday when he gets high on angel dust and starts undressing, running down the street, scratching, and ends up in Deebo’s pigeon coop. For reference, fast forward to 0:52 in the YouTube clip below.

I had recently switched from Zyrtec to Flonase for seasonal allergies after a flare-up (subsequent to raking 19 bags of leaves in one day. Note to self: Never do that again), and thought I was reacting to something in the medicine. No such luck. I discontinued use of Flonase, and still, two months later, am experiencing the itch. That’s what I call it: the itch. It’s something I’ve had a mild version of over the past few years, but never this extreme.

I found a message board where others describe exactly what I am going through. If you’re interested in reading about people itching like flea-ridden madmen, visit “Severe itching all over body when temperature rises.”

As a runner, sweating happens, obviously. As a sweater, and by sweater, I mean someone who sweats profusely when he exercises, which is me, this condition has proved nearly unbearable when trying to run. Hence, how I became an accidental walker.

How an Odd Skin Condition Became a Blessing in Disguise

Make the best of things. It’s a philosophy I try to adhere to for a variety of reasons. It exercises the dichotomy of control. Because of the itch, I switched up my exercise regimen from running to walking. Keep in mind, I used to run 4-7 miles a day, every day, sometimes twice that, so this is a bit of a transition. It’s been almost three months since I ran more than two miles.

Movement is important in dealing with anxiety. Running exhausts the wild horse, whereas meditation tames the wild horse. They are the hammer and nail in my anti-anxiety toolkit.

With that, I’ve been walking my three year old son Henry to pre-school almost every day for the past month. There have only been a handful of days in all of January—I think maybe two days actually—when we didn’t walk, and that was because of rain. It’s not a short walk, but not a long walk either. The perfect distance for someone his age. It takes just at 27 minutes one way.

The result has created an unexpected, unique bonding experience that I look forward to every morning, not just on weekends or special occasions. It’s our new daily ritual, father and son. Since establishing this routine, he’ll even ask me now to go for a long walk after school or on the weekends, and so we have—a nice 4.5 mile hike just the other day.

How long this activity will last, who’s to say; but I plan to soak it up for as long as I can until he tells me he doesn’t want to do it any longer, which could be any day, because, well, he’s three.

Henry tells me all sorts of things on these treks that, otherwise, I’m not sure he would. It’s true one-on-one time. He has my undivided attention. He has such a vivid imagination and I love it—an innate storyteller. He’s hilarious too in the way he answers questions or ponders aloud. I asked him what his plans were for pre-school once we got there, and he paused, and said with a curious turn of the head, “Play with trucks. Maybe some cars. We’ll see. I’ll probably make some art, too.”

Last week, while we were walking, I asked for my son’s input on why he enjoys walking. This is what he said (in bold).

sketch of young boy eating colorful ice cream by jeffrey pillow
Sketch of my son Henry eating ice cream, by Jeffrey Pillow. All rights reserved

Three Benefits of Walking, with input from my three year old son

Walking makes you feel good

Try it. Take a leisurely stroll. Leave your thoughts and worries behind. A nice long walk does wonders.

Fact. Walking puts the brain in a meditative state.
Fact. Walking reduces stress hormones and alleviates mild depression.
Fact. Walking increases energy levels.
Fact. Walking kicks anxiety in the groin.
Bonus. Walking in nature—the woods—increases the positives of everything listed above.
Trivia. Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, routinely walked 20 miles per day, often at early morning hours such as two a.m.

Need more health-related reasons, read “12 Benefits of Walking.”

The air feels clean in your nose

Last week, there was a gentle mist of rain that began around four a.m., and had stopped by the time we set out on foot.

“What’s that smell?” my son asked as I placed my key in the front door and turned to lock.

“Rain,” I said.

“It smells good,” he said.

If there is a more wonderful smell than the outdoors after a gentle rain, I don’t know what it is. Perhaps Tang orange drink mix? The earthy scent has a name. It’s called petrichor. And it can reduce stress by up to 60% according to random new age websites, LinkedIn blog posts, and Twitter statuses on the Internet, so take the percentage with a grain of salt. I can’t find an NIH study, and if I can’t find an NIH study, it’s not real to me. Either way, rain smells good. And when I smell rain, I feel good, scientific evidence, controlled studies, or not.

So the next time it rains, shortly after it stops, go for a walk. At the very least, sit on your front porch and breathe in with your eyes closed, then out, and repeat.

An aside is the cold January morning air crisp in one’s nose. It’s generally in the low to mid thirties when we leave. My son likes to breathe in deeply with his nose and push the air out through his mouth. It creates magic.

“Look, Daddy. Smoke! See it? It’s like magic.”

As we grow older, we sometimes overlook the little things in life. Small children can return us to a younger state when we, too, blew smoke like dragons from our lungs into the cold winter air.

You get to see worms

My son has always had a fascination with worms. He used to eat them, as if they were spaghetti, as if he were the protagonist in the children’s book How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell, except Henry likes them raw. No ketchup, mustard, horse radish, or cast iron skillet required.

Worms aside, it’s not uncommon for the two of us, based on the area where we live, to see ducks, deer, rabbits, and geese on a short walk from our house to school. I’ve had some run-ins with psychotic Canadian geese in the past, but never on a morning walk. They seem less aggressive at this time of day for some reason. Perhaps they’ve had their morning coffee and have yet to crash from caffeine decline.

I love ducks. This I’ve come to understand. Ducks are my favorite outdoor animal by far. Makes sense, I guess. Daffy Duck, who coincidentally or not, shows all signs of severe anxiety, was my favorite cartoon character growing up. Ducks, not Daffy but the regular ones, are such serene creatures. Sometimes, even on the walk back by myself, I’ll just stand for a moment at the edge of the lake and watch the ducks. It takes everything within me not to talk to them and thus totally wig out other early morning walkers, of which there aren’t many, but should be, because, eh, walking, yeah.

Full disclosure: I sometimes quack at the ducks. I have a secret talent that allows me to make certain noises such as this with my voice, as well as the ability to mimic certain cartoon characters (Bullwinkle the Moose, Krusty the Clown, Donald Duck, and Yogi Bear), and beatbox with the best of Brooklyn. Henry’s been working on his beatboxing as well and is showing prodigal signs that are hard to ignore. Random facts.

How to Walk Mindfully: Step by Step (Pun Intended)

Walking is easy. Walking mindfully, not so much. Our minds are pre-occupied by an invading army of anxiety and stress, of responsibilities, tasks, financial insecurities, this, that. Luckily for you, I have a secret recipe for dealing with this sort of thing. Here’s my step by step guide on how to walk mindfully.

Set aside time to stress and have idle thoughts when you walk

It wouldn’t do much good to walk with my son to pre-school every morning if the entire time we walked all I thought about was everything I had to do at work in forty five minutes. Remember that when you walk, even if it’s by yourself. Walking should be enjoyable, but there’s nothing enjoyable about stressing yourself out while you’re walking.

So, what do you do? Set aside time to stress when you walk. No more than ten minutes per hour. That’s the absolute maximum.

That means if you’re going for a fifteen minute walk, schedule it like so:

Five minutes of mindfulness and/or gratitude
Five minutes of worry, work- or personal-related stress
Five minutes of mindfulness and/or gratitude

If it’s a thirty minute walk, schedule it like this:

Ten minutes of mindfulness and/or gratitude
Five to ten minutes of worry, work- or personal-related stress
Ten minutes of mindfulness and/or gratitude

For a forty five minute walk, divide it accordingly, but, as I said, never more than ten minutes of stressful thinking or worry per hour. You’re not suppressing it. You’re scheduling it. If left to its own vices, it’ll play its usual endless loop of worry non-stop. And the reason to not start or end your walk with stressful thinking and worry is pretty cut and dry: you don’t want to frame a positive activity with a negative.

Add a touch of gratitude

Never start or end your walk with worried thinking. Start and end every walk with a thought of gratitude.

I’m thankful for the beautiful weather
I’m thankful for my spouse, my children
I’m grateful I live in a place where I am safe/free to walk
Thank you for the birds I hear, the clean air I breathe
The blue sky above is beautiful, and for that, I am grateful

Enhance your senses

When you walk, listen to the world around you. Enhance your senses. Feel the weight of the world underneath your feet with every step you take. When you breathe, feel the air sucked in from outside of your body into your body, and out. Listen for the birds as they talk with one another. If you see wildlife, take it in. Hear the water trickling over rocks in a creek. Find love in a long walk.

Despite what the news or social media wants you to believe, (click here for why you shouldn’t buy what they are selling) the world we live in is beautiful and worth taking in. To quote jazz extraordinaire Louis Armstrong:

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

Now get to stepping.

Photo: Jeffrey Pillow. “Snail on a trail.” Licensed under CC-BY-SA