Living in a beautiful climate, such as San Diego, I’ve been taking advantage of the therapeutic benefits of walk and talk therapy sessions. So often we think psychotherapy is just sitting in a dark room. We picture two chairs facing each other (or sitting in front of two separate computer screens). But what if therapy included feeling sunshine, fresh air, movement, or an ocean breeze? Can you imagine the scent of native plants, the sounds of birds, practicing nature-based mindfulness, and more?

A small yellow bird sits on a branch of Cleveland Sage, a plant native to the San Diego area, and often found during walk and talk therapy sessions. The sweet scent of Cleveland sage flowers and leaves brings calm.

What are the benefits of nature-based outdoor sessions or walk and talk therapy?

In addition to all the benefits of a “normal” talk therapy session with me, which integrates elements of Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Solutions Focused therapy, psychodynamic, liberation and social justice frameworks, you will be outside! Going outside on its own elevates mood, opens possibilities, soothes the nervous system, and is enjoyable. Many clients feel accomplished and efficient at checking off therapy and a little exercise or outside time in one hour.

If you are not sure you want to be walking, we can also find a peaceful place to sit. Being outside lets us take advantage of the natural world to practice mindfulness. Being near the ocean or the running water of a creek also has added benefits.

What are the benefits specifically of movement?

Many of us, including me, find that moving helps with a feeling of being stuck or stagnant. I find that I am more creative in coming up with strategies and metaphors for my clients when I am walking. This is true whether I’m walking on my own doing a phone session, or if we are walking together. Many of my clients have more breakthroughs walking, or simply are more able to see things in a different way.

Movement is one of the best ways to process and discharge trauma*. The trauma response in the body activates the fight or flight response. Simply saying words or thinking thoughts does not clear the stress hormones from the nervous system as well as moving. It makes sense… if your body is pumping adrenaline, epinephrine, cortisol and other stress hormones to help you run away or fight off a threat, putting that energy into a brisk walk can discharge and release it. (* by trauma I mean both major traumatic events as well as smaller activating events.)

In addition, walking at a semi-brisk rate or up a slight incline can make us take deeper breaths from our diaphragm. Engaging the breath from the diaphragm or abdomen, as opposed to shallow breaths in the chest, is another way to switch your autonomic nervous system from the sympathetic (stress response) to the parasympathetic (or more relaxed state.)

Want one more benefit? Self generated optic flow and lateralized movements when walking lowers stress and calms the brain circuits. EMDR (a popular therapy for therapy) uses lateral eye movements to the same effect.

sitting or walking near the ocean is helpful for your mental health and boosts the effectiveness of therapy - try an outdoor therapy session

Where in San Diego County do you offer walk and talk therapy?

Most recently I have been enjoying a quieter portion of the Tecolote canyon trail that is not far from my old office location in the Clairemont neighborhood. It has plenty of off-street parking and most of my clients find it easily after I send a location pin. This trail is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs and has a little bit of elevation change. The trail is primarily shaded and still considered moderately easy by hikers. There are multiple trail options from this trailhead, and I let my clients pick the direction we go that day.

Another spot that works well, especially for new parents with strollers or those with less mobility, is along Mission Bay. We meet at the Mission Bay Beach Club, right off the 5 freeway at Clairemont Drive. The path along the bay is all paved and curves around the water. We usually have a pleasant breeze coming off the water. The drawback of this location is that there are more people around, especially on the weekend days with good weather.

I am open to adding more options! Typically I prefer to scout them out before having my clients meet me there. Do you have a suggestion in the central San Diego area that would be good for a walk and talk therapy session? Let me know!

What are the drawbacks or risks of outdoor therapy?

The number one tradeoff for outdoor sessions is privacy. Being located in the central San Diego region, there will inevitably be other people around. It is possible someone walking by may hear a part of our conversation or that you may want to pause until they pass. In addition, you will be seen in public with me and there is a small possibility we will see someone who knows I am a therapist. They may or may not be able to tell it is a therapy session or if we are two acquaintances on a walk together.

Other risks include the possibility of twisting an ankle, getting a bug bite, and all of the things that could happen outside.

Who is a good fit for walk and talk therapy or outdoor nature sessions?

You might like outdoor sessions if you have ever felt sitting and looking at another person while talking about vulnerable topics is awkward. You might like it if you would prefer to be in person vs telehealth.

Existing or returning clients of mine can schedule an outdoor session by simply texting or emailing me. I will also send you an additional consent form for outdoor sessions in the client portal that lists all of the risks and benefits. For first time clients, I like to do at least one video intake session first, to make sure it is an ideal fit.

walking or sitting by the ocean soothes the nervous system and gives us metaphors for mindfulness

When is outdoor therapy not a good idea?

Please just let me know how you are feeling the day of the appointment. If it is raining, extremely hot, or otherwise unsuitable weather, we will switch to telehealth. If you would like to do a session incorporating clinical hypnosis, it is better to be somewhere more private and sedentary. When you would like to open up about a particularly vulnerable topic, you might decide that day that more privacy would make it easier.

If I commit to an outdoor session, am I stuck doing it?

Nope. Depending on what type of appointment is right before yours or right after, I might not have time to make it back to a computer in time to switch to a video session if you tell me last minute. But I can switch to a phone session right up until the time of the appointment easily.

How long have you been offering walk and talk therapy?

I started offering outdoor sessions in my private practice during the pandemic. Many of my clients liked the opportunity to be together but weren’t ready for the risks associated with being indoors. After giving up my office rental, others continued to appreciate the option to meet in person.

However, I’ve been practicing walk and talk therapy since 2000. When working in a residential setting, I found that many of my sessions during the daily walk in a nearby park in South San Diego were more productive than seated sessions.

Walk and talk sessions aren’t for everyone – but maybe they are for you?

Send me a text (619-289-7818), email (abby@burdtherapy) or use the contact form to schedule!

Image credits:

  1. Photo by Vijayalakshmi Nidugondi on Unsplash
  2. Photo by Daniel Gimbel on Unsplash
  3. Photo by MontyLov on Unsplash