3 Ways to Walk Off Anxiety: Walking Meditations, Brisk Walks, and Walking in Nature

3 Ways to Walk Off Anxiety: Walking Meditations, Brisk Walks, and Walking in Nature

No matter how good it’s supposed to be for relieving anxiety, if it’s something I’ve never done before, overcoming my resistance to the unfamiliar can be anxiety-inducing in and of itself.

That’s the beauty of walking for anxiety.

I’m already a good 75 percent of the way there (i.e., the walking part), the remaining 25 percent being whatever tweak is necessary to make my walking anxiety-reducing. (Thus, my similar affinity for breathing exercises for anxiety.)

I hope you’ll join me in walking off anxiety via walking meditations, brisk walks, and walking in nature.

1) Walking meditations

My plan was to try all the different types of walking meditations and share my experiences with you. What I wasn’t prepared for were the sheer number of walking meditation techniques, including variations on each.

Thankfully, Giovanni Dienstmann’s Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation helped me narrow down the options. I chose four that most appealed to me. Here are the basics of those, as well as my experience doing them, including my anxiety levels before, during, and after.

Theravada Buddhist walking meditation

The basics

  • Walk at a slow pace back-and-forth on a straight, 30- to 40-foot path
  • Hold your hands comfortably in front of you or behind your back
  • Focus on the movement of your legs and feet; to help you do this, you may want to silently note one of the following as you step:
    • “Lifting, lifting, lifting…moving, moving, moving…lowering, lowering, lowering”
    • “Stepping left, stepping right, stepping left, stepping right”
    • Counting of your steps, as in “1…1,2…1,2,3…” until you reach 10 then count backwards from there, as in “10…10,9…10,9,8…”
  • Keep your eyes unfocused on the ground, about six feet in front of you
  • Make a full stop at the end of the path, turn around, stop, and walk again
  • When you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back to the sensations in your legs and feet

Watch video demonstrations by:

Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu (demo starts at the 3:50 mark)
Mindah-Lee Kum (demo starts at 1:02)

How I did it

I cleared a path in my living room, which required moving a couple of chairs and the cat from his patch of sunlight on the floor. I set my timer for 10 minutes, which subsequently had to be reset to move the cord of an iron and straighten a rug as I knew they would distract me.

I didn’t use any of the silent notations and I kept my arms loose at my sides.

What I loved about it

The stopping.

I thought this might be the most uncomfortable part of Theravada walking meditation, but in those full stops – at the end of a pass and after turning around – I felt that euphoric feeling I only sometimes get after several minutes into sitting meditation. Only I didn’t have to wait for it. I felt it settling in during my first full stop and it only intensified as I went. Best of all, I’m still feeling a bit of it now as I write this, several minutes later.

What I didn’t love about it

Walking on the carpet.

It’s been way too long since I’ve shampooed so my eyes were constantly distracted by dirt spots, making it tough to keep my focus consistently six feet in front of me.

Anxiety levels

  • Anxiety level before: 3
  • Anxiety level during: 2
  • Anxiety level after: 1

Zen walking meditation, or kinhin

The basics

  • Walk a circular clockwise pattern around a room
  • Hold your hands above your belly button in one of two positions (the first of which I found the most comfortable):
  • Left hand flat on your solar plexus, right hand on top of it, your thumbs interlaced

OR

2) “Curl the thumb of your left hand in and wrap your fingers around it. Place it just above your belly button. Wrap your right hand around it, resting your right thumb in the crevice formed between your left thumb and index finger. This is called shashu.” ~Giovanni Dienstmann, Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation

  • Keep your eyes unfocused on the ground
  • Walk at a steady pace, synchronizing your breathing with your steps; try completing a full breath cycle before starting a new step
  • Focus on the soles of your feet as they grip the ground

Watch a Zen walking meditation video.

How I did it

I cleared a path in my living room; the room is much longer than it is wide, so my circle was pretty small.

Again, I set my timer for 10 minutes. The first time around I did it wrong, having misunderstood the written instructions. It definitely felt wrong in the moment but I assumed it was a meditation practice that just wasn’t for me. To be sure, I tracked down a video and saw that what I’d been doing wrong was the exact thing that felt so bad – stopping after every step to complete a full breathing cycle, which was incredibly anxiety-inducing. (As you can see in the video linked to above, your breath and steps should be synchronized, not separated.)

What I loved about it

The way I felt afterward.

During the meditation, I didn’t feel much at all, but as soon as I stopped, a euphoric feeling swept over me. I was immediately compelled to sit down, then lie down, and meditate some more.

What I didn’t love about it

The size of my circle.

It was so small that making the turn distracted from where my mind should have been – on my breath and soles of my feet. I also lost my balance more than once.

Anxiety levels

  • Anxiety level before: 7
  • Anxiety level during: 6
  • Anxiety level after: 4

Yoga walking meditation 4-4-4-4

The basics

Complete a full breathing cycle over 16 steps:

  • Breathe in for four steps
  • Hold breath in for four steps
  • Breathe out for four steps
  • Hold breath out for four steps

How I did it

I cleared the same long, straight path in my living room that I used for the Theravada Buddhist walking meditation. I unfocused my eyes on the floor 6 feet in front of me and walked at a normal pace, arms at my sides.

What I loved about it

Nothing.

What I didn’t love about it

I catch myself unconsciously counting my steps all the time, so I expected to like this meditation. But consciously counting my steps in this way – with each footstep tied to a step in my breathing cycle – was difficult.

I kept my count but I also kept losing focus on which part of the breath cycle I was in. I knew whether I was breathing in or out; it was during the holds that I lost track.

You’d think it would be obvious – you’re either holding on a breath you just took in or you’re holding on a breath you just let out – but inexplicably, they often felt the same to me.

In hopes of making it easier, halfway through I made an adjustment.

On every fourth step, instead of counting four, I replaced it with a word indicating which cycle I was in:

  • When breathing in – “1, 2, 3, in”
  • When holding the breath – “1, 2, 3, hold”
  • When breathing out – “1, 2, 3, out”
  • When holding the breath out – “1, 2, 3, empty”

This helped a little but wasn’t foolproof and the whole struggle was actually a little anxiety-inducing. Maybe this means it’s exactly the meditation I should be doing – to improve my focus – but I’m not inclined to try it again. Of course, none of this is to say you won’t love it; try it and see (and if it works for you, please share about it in the comments).

Anxiety levels

  • Anxiety level before: 3
  • Anxiety level during: 4
  • Anxiety level after: 5

Thich Nhat Hanh walking meditation

I’ve been a fan/follower of Thich Nhat Hanh’s since my fiancé and I took turns reading chapters from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness before our morning meditations a couple of years back (an excerpt of which was my inspiration for How a Buddhist Monk Says We Should Do the Dishes). So, of all the walking meditations on my list, this was the one I was most excited to try.

For this meditation, I went straight to the source – the website of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, his Buddhist meditation center in southern France:

“We walk just for walking…. Look around and see how vast life is, the trees, the white clouds, the limitless sky. Listen to the birds. Feel the fresh breeze. Life is all around and we are alive and healthy and capable of walking in peace.”

The basics

  • Walk, pretty much anywhere
  • Take in your surroundings – what you see, hear, feel
  • Silently say one of the following verses (known as gathas) the first part on your in-breath, the second part on your out-breath:
    • I have arrived…I am home
    • In the here…In the now
    • I am solid…I am free
    • In the ultimate…I dwell

How I did it

On the beach.

I spent some time in the water first – then in the sun reading and people-watching – then set the timer on my phone for 5 minutes and walked down the beach in one direction. When the timer went off I turned around and walked back. My gatha: I am solid…I am free.

What I loved about it

The way the gatha connected to the wet sand – solid but free to move under the weight of my feet.

What I didn’t love about it

Dodging children, as Santa Monica Beach was crowded that day.

I tried taking the kids in as part of the whole experience but swerving to unsuccessfully avoid a splashing of water threw me off a little. Still, I was plenty blissed-out by the time I plopped back down on my blanket.

Anxiety levels

  • Anxiety level before: 2
  • Anxiety level during: 3
  • Anxiety level after: 1

Read more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation at PlumVillage.org.

Before or after your walking meditation, try this simple approach to sitting meditation.

2) Brisk walks

My social anxiety keeps me from it most of the time, but a brisk walk around my neighborhood tends to do wonders for my anxious thoughts.

There’s a good reason for that.

“Exercise is a natural outlet for your body when it is in the fight-or-flight mode of arousal,” says Dr. Edmund J. Bourne in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.1

“A majority of my clients who have undertaken a regular exercise program are less vulnerable to panic attacks and, if they do have them, find them to be less severe. Regular exercise also diminishes the tendency to experience anticipatory anxiety toward phobic situations.”2

Of all the exercise you can do to reduce generalized anxiety or proneness to panic, Dr. Bourne says aerobic exercise is the most effective for many people.

Done right, walking qualifies.

“To make walking aerobic,” says Dr. Bourne, “aim for doing it for about one hour at a brisk enough pace to cover three miles. A twenty- or thirty-minute walk is generally not enough to obtain aerobic-level conditioning.”3

3) Nature walks

We already know walking in nature feels good. But the impact of those feel-good experiences on our state of mind is now supported by a couple of recent studies.

In a 2015 Stanford University study of how nature changes people’s minds, 38 test subjects were divided into two groups.

As reported by The New York Times, prior to the experiment, both groups:

  • Completed a questionnaire to determine their normal brooding level (i.e., morbid rumination on negative things you just can’t stop dwelling on)
  • Had their subgenual prefront cortex scanned, as brooding is associated with increased activity in that part of the brain

Individuals in both groups walked alone and without music, but:

  • Group 1 walked for 90 minutes through Stanford’s lush, quiet campus
  • Group 2 walked for 90 minutes close to a loud, busy highway

After their walk, members of each group got another brain scan and completed another questionnaire.

The results?

“As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.

“But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk. They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.

These findings from the Stanford study seem to be supported by a 2018 study by neuroscientist Andrea Michelli.

As reported by Country Living, Michelli used the Urban Mind app to:

  • Track users’ movements
  • Randomly prompt users to answer questions about:
    • Where they were
    • What they were seeing
    • How they were feeling

The results?

“The positive effects of a single exposure to nature – for example, a walk, run, or stint in the garden – can last for seven hours after an individual has experienced it….” And “individuals at greater risk of developing mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, benefit more from getting outdoors than others.”

Final Thoughts

For any additional inspiration you need to try walking off your anxiety, I’ll leave you with this excerpt from a Walking for Anxiety thread on HealingWell.com:

The first day I decided to walk for my anxiety it was pacing the porch with my body vibrating and shaking felt like I was walking off some sort of seizure…

“The next day I decided to walk around the yard five times, my chest was tight, I couldn’t get a full breath and I had left sided shoulder and arm pain. I was told I am not dying and this is anxiety, so I figured I would just walk

“So off I go, I can’t breathe, I keep walking, faster and faster, I don’t care what happens I am going to finish my five laps, I mean moving your feet is logical isn’t it, you must get somewhere if you move!

“I finish my first lap, and on and on finally by lap 5…I can breathe, I’m ALIVE, my chest pain is gone, and I am floating on my feet, I surrendered and found freedom during my backyard trek and I’m still alive what a PLEASANT SHOCK!

I walk everyday now.”

Get the facts about women and anxiety.

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  1. Bourne PhD, Edmund J. (2015) The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, p. 111, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  2. Bourne, p. 111.
  3. Bourne, p. 117.

I'm a writer living in Los Angeles with my fiance Andy, our cat Spanky, and our guinea pig Monty. I'm also the founder of Plenty Woman, an inspirational, informative website that helps women manage anxiety.



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