Can a nature hike help in your healing process?
Absolutely, as both the act of walking and connecting with green space can bring about spiritual, mental and physical changes. In this podcast we talk with Helen Keeling-Neal, mental health professional and widow, about our own personal “walk in the woods” experiences, how these have provided release and much needed answers and go-forward directions.
Tom 4:49 Yeah, unfortunately, a lot of us hide our grief beneath a lot of busyness. Life quickly comes upon us, and we go into survival mode. And I think it’s really important for the healing process to take that time to be with yourself. We had one widower brother who recounts how he went up into the woods, soon after his wife had passed. And the first thing he did was stood outside the cabin, and screamed and screamed at the top of his lungs, and got that anger out. And he did that a few times as part of the healing process.
Tom 8:42 Not dealing with the grief takes a toll on our body. The analogy that I love is, it’s like holding a beach ball, one of those inflatable beach balls, and trying to push it down into the water. And as you’re trying to hold back grief and similarly hold the beach ball down under the water. It takes a lot of energy and it ultimately takes a toll on your body. And that’s from The Body Keeps Score book.
Helen 10:47 The physical act of walking. We know that physical activity is very helpful for us, and it helps us stay in our frontal cortex. And it is bilateral, and bilateral movement is EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It can be done by walking, this was how EMDR was discovered, so that helps us process emotionally and then decide how to better go forward beyond the trauma. Walking is all bilateral.
Helen 14:48 If there’s anything that elevates a walk in the woods and of being in nature, it’s connecting with someone else while doing it. Especially someone who has an understanding, whether that’s through experience or knowledge of what you’ve been through, because it just brings this additional level of support and companionship within that.
Helen 25:50 My advice – Be in the woods. It can be in a park, it can be standing under the one tree in your neighborhood, and just reaching out and touching the bark. But it’s connecting with that Divine Sense of a land in a world that is bigger than us. It can be walking through some gardens or just walking on the trail and looking up and noticing how blue the sky is. And it is that sense of life is worth living. No matter the loss, it’s worth living, and it’s worth living well and that you can find joy and gratitude, even through the darkest times, even after the most profound, darkest painful times. It’s available and you can connect to that via a walk in the woods.
Tom Pisello 0:10
We have a return guest. My favorite is Helen Keeling-Neal. She is a licensed mental health counselor, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She’s a nationally certified counselor with a private practice here in my hometown of Winter Park, Florida. And as well, Helen’s on the board here with us at Growth through Grief, to address everything dealing with mental health and everything concerning the Mind. Welcome back, Helen.
Today, we’re here to talk about a little bit of a different topic. And it’s one that I like to call A Walk in the Woods. I had a life changing experience on a spiritual treat retreat with some pastor friends of mine. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be religious or spiritual, but it just happened to be at the end of this retreat. We were asked to take a walk in the woods and work on some of the things that we had talked about over the weekend individually, and then work on those with God. In this case, share with us your own experience with a walk in the woods and why it can be so important to the grief journey and healing process.
Being out in nature has so many benefits. From my personal experience,I like to be out in the woods, I like to go out by myself. I do the Japanese way, either forest bathing and walking in the woods, and I walk with a particular gentleman, his name is Paa, he’s originally from Africa, and he lives in North Carolina and he will create intuitive trails in the woods. He’ll take a group or I go out by myself with him on these intuitive trails, where we really tune into that higher power, or universal truth, or the land, or the essence of the trees, and just really get really connected with nature. In a spiritually connective and emotionally connective sense that is deeper than I can do sitting in my office or even meditating in my garden.
It’s this complete break, from phones, from electronics from people, from buildings, where in a way, we get back to a sense of the soul, and the soul’s connection with the land and the earth. I find it extremely cleansing for me to do individually. I’ve had some powerful walks where I’ve had some that we meditate along the way I’ve had some inspiration come to me. I’ve had a lot of release of feelings, worries and fears and experiences that go far beyond that, that have felt like I’ve walked this land before in previous lives. That cognitive experience of “this is very familiar”. It smells like a wooly mammoth. Those kinds of experiences. Very powerful for me. It’s very much a part of my regular spiritual practice. I try and go quarterly. To do this. I’m getting ready to do another one in March. I can’t wait.
There are different kinds of walks. I’ll do walks locally as well, where I just tune in and do my own little mini walks by myself. But these specific ones where I go into a forest, are a little more extensive and just really are about me releasing anything that sort of built up, and releasing that stress and getting out of that frantic environment which we all tend to live in.
Yeah, unfortunately, a lot of us hide our grief beneath a lot of busyness. Life quickly comes upon us, and we go into survival mode. And I think it’s really important for the healing process to take that time to be with yourself.
We had one widower brother who recounts i how he went up into the woods, soon after his wife had passed. And the first thing he did was stood outside the cabin, and screamed and screamed at the top of his lungs, and got that anger out. And he did that a few times as part of the healing process.
And then after that, would take long walks and just spent a lot of time by themselves, which many of us don’t get a chance to do with friends and family coming by. They need healing, they need comfort themselves. They’re trying to comfort you. And we have the children to care for, you with your younger kids was a big challenge. We don’t have a lot of time to spend with ourselves. Many of us had to go back to work right away because of financial pressures.
Talk about the importance of just getting away and being by yourself and that part of mental health and healing.
I think it can be very difficult to be alone. We often get back to busyness because it does help to sublimate our feelings, especially those of us who may be the emotional caretaking kind, to take care of everybody else’s needs, or take care of making money. It’s a way to avoid the grief.
But there’s something so pure about the kind of release that your friend did where he just yelled and screamed and hollered outside his cabin, and his walk was so important.
Like the last walk I did, I did a walk one of my own walks, and then I took someone else on a walk. And it was someone who had lost a marriage through divorce. And this man we went at night which in retrospect, I wasn’t thinking about the bears, I would think about the bears in the future. Because maybe not the safest thing to do, but we were fine. There were no bears on our walk.
So we went up into the woods and it was at night. And I walked him through a process of release, with meditations at different spots. And at one point we came to this rock. And it was an opportunity to show that pain of loss that he was feeling and he just, he just put his head up and howled, like he was releasing and lamenting, like a wolf. Just this agonizing pain. And as you know, up until that point, he was silently walking and connecting with nature and connecting with his feelings. And then he sobbed, and sobbed and sobbed. And then he screamed and yelled and yelled out all the anger. And he just got to get this anguish out. I think that’s the best word for it, the combination of the sad and the MAD of grief and loss, is anguish.
And to get that out at night in the woods without having to feel embarrassed or ashamed or to not having a hold back, it’s an opportunity to get it out and let the light in. Because grief is so heavy. We have to make space for the lightness. And the only way to do that is to let it out. If we pack it down, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier.
Not dealing with the grief, it takes a toll on our body. The analogy that I love is, it’s like holding a beach ball, one of those inflatable beach balls, and trying to push it down into the water. And as you’re trying to hold back grief and similarly hold the beach ball down under the water. It takes a lot of energy and it ultimately takes a toll on your body. And that’s from The Body Keeps Score book.
Helen, one of the things that I did pretty early on in the healing process was, I would take little walks through a park that was right across from my house. And this isn’t a big park, but it has beautiful, 400 year old cypress trees in it. And the first thing I did was practice a little gratitude. And I started to recognize that even through this whole loss, there was still so much beauty around me in life, and I began to pay attention to the little things. The leaves and the way the light reflected off of them, and refracted off of the water, The trees and how they bend and sing in the breeze, and just a lot of little things that I tried to notice. I tried to be present.
And it was very centering for me to take those meditative meditative walks. I added growth mindset podcasts and audio Bible study passages to those walks. I would start every day with a walk in the woods, a walk of gratitude, of recognition as to the beauty around me. Bathed in the word, and then words of other healers, and advisors, which got my mind in the right place, both spiritually and into a growth mindset.
Talk about how nature helps us to do that, getting us present and connected.
I love what you did right away. What you were doing, because you’ve got the trifecta of healing going there. The physical act of walking. We know that physical activity is very helpful for us, and it helps us stay in our frontal cortex. And it is bilateral, and bilateral movement is EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It can be done by walking, this was how EMDR was discovered, so that helps us process emotionally and then decide how to better go forward beyond the trauma. Walking is all bilateral.
So with the walking, you’re processing emotions, and then you brought in the spiritual component with the Bible verses, and you had other inspirational podcasts that you were listening to, all the while you’re keeping your frontal cortex online, in an observatory stance. So you’re looking to find beautiful and pretty, and noticing your surroundings as you go. And that’s just a great form for healing right there. So that’s amazing.
What we do know, there’s a lot of research. So I looked at some research before we started this podcast, because I was thinking, what specifically does nature do. We feel the benefits intuitively, but here’s the list that has been researched to come up with an empirically evidence list of what being in nature does.
This is mostly green space research and we’re looking into blue spaces like ocean water bodies as well. There’s physiological and psychological benefits, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders, increased empathy, and cooperation. And then the physiological cognitive benefits, there was research on green spaces near schools. And what the research showed was that it increased cognitive development for children. And then there was research on green spaces that were viewable from children’s homes. The research showed it promoted self-control behaviors. So I just thought that was fascinating.
We come from primitive times – the land, there’s a connective piece, there’s an innate piece that connects us with nature, that helps us get back to, in a way, our most authentic selves before there was any of the electronic or the industrial age, or any of that came into fruition. So really, we’re connecting with the land, we’re connecting with a really ancient genetic part of ourselves.
Yeah, I agree. And that’s something that I think you lose, and it gets suppressed when you are on your phone all the time, or in front of a computer.
Now, one of the things that both you and I did was, we took these assisted walks with people who had developed healing programs around “a walk in the woods”. I was already walking regularly before, as a habit everyday, but now I’m on a retreat and I’m going through a program.
Talk about why that can be so important, to have someone guide your walk in the woods with an even higher purpose.
If there’s anything that elevates a walk in the woods and of being in nature, it’s connecting with someone else while doing it. Especially someone who has an understanding, whether that’s through experience or knowledge of what you’ve been through, because it just brings this additional level of support and companionship within that.
And then if you’re going with a guide, who’s a spiritual guide, who, has an ability to help facilitate you into going a little bit deeper into what you’re feeling and expressing, encouraging you to express it, either to them or to a group of people, that’s a release with empathetic support. I think that this is the best release because you are with somebody who can witness that pain, and witness the release of that pain and can say, I hear you, I get it. We’re right here for you. Let’s hold together. That kind of moment.
That was one of the best things with my late mentor. Dan lived in Boulder, Colorado, and beautiful hikes are just right outside of your door, up in the foothills. And we used to take those healing walks all the time, both of us just talking for hours on the hikes. And we would just talk about life and the things we were dealing with, and our happiness and our joy. And I miss those walks.
The retreat walk I mentioned earlier, it was facilitated up to the point where we took the walk in the woods, and the walk in the woods itself was alone. I worked out a structure to take that walk, being the engineer that I am, everything’s got to be a system. So I’m like, All right, I’ve listened to everything that was going on. But I think if I went through a certain process, there was an end goal in mind, and I’ll get to the end goal.
So the first thing I did was, I wrote down all of the baggage I was holding on to and the baggage was a lack of forgiveness: the forgiveness that I might not have formally given to those who I believed hurt me. And forgiveness and admission of my own sins and my own shortcomings, and asking for forgiveness for that. So the first thing was getting it all out there. All those past things that had hurt me, all of the people who had wounded me, intentionally or not intentionally, whatever it might have been. It was all about getting that out there. And forgiveness was definitely the first part of the theme.
Second was giving thanks for everything in my life and expressing gratitude.
Third, was “alright, I’ve got a lot of things that I’m really happy about in my life that bring me joy. But I’ve also got these questions”. Questions about, am I on the right path, or relationships or parenting? There was a long list of those as well. And those I posed, I posed to God.
And then I listened in silence, and just walked trying to clear my mind as much as possible. Helen, I’ve got to admit, because I’m a control enthusiast, I really wanted an answer right away. I hadn’t ever done anything like this before. And so I was like, “Well, I went through all of this work ahead of time. And I asked the questions. All right. Listen, I know I’ve heard stories of that voice, and it’s gonna come to me”. And it didn’t come to me right away.
But in the walk, kind of like you were with your friend, the divorce friend, and you went, I arrived at a rock. This rock had this little bit of light shining on it. And I stood there. And I had a journal with me, in the journal was where I wrote down the long list of sins that I had, that I needed to be forgiven for, forgiveness of others, and all the other things that I went through before. And with the light shining on me on the rock, words started coming to me, and I started writing and it was a beautiful poem that is on the website and will be part of the book about words that were gifted to me, and it basically confirmed one of my big questions, about the direction I was now taking my new life, my continued life: “Was I moving in the right direction that you want me to be on? Am I living with the purpose that you want me to? And am I taking the lessons from everything that I’ve been through and applying them in the right way to become a better version 2.0, in that purpose?”.
And it was confirmed to me right then and there, through those words that literally just free-flowed through me and So that was a really important part in my process, was getting that confirmation. And that was probably the biggest question I had, because I was changing a lot of my life to make sure that I had time to do this new purpose, and I wanted to make sure it was the right direction. And it was fantastic to get that confirmation.
Talk a little bit about some of your experiences, your walks and the answers you received?
I love that you got your answer, and I love that it came in a way that wasn’t the way you anticipated or wanted it to be. That sometimes it’s that still small voice inside, that comes out and flows out in a way that it did for you.
I’ve had some pretty interesting walks that may be a little bit outside of the realm of releasing the grief and more in the realm of the spiritual world and experiences like that. But I’ll tell you a little bit about the latest one I did.
I’m 12 years post losing David. Originally, the walks that I did would be more about internally processing and releasing the grief and letting light in and becoming grateful, and wanting information on what direction to go. The biggest one for me was to go and get my master’s degree and become a counselor. So that was a big moment for me when I had that answer. And that the now’s the time to go for it.
But more recently, it’s been around the spiritual components. So the last walk I did with Paa, I went to this new place. It’s on a piece of land called Sweet James and actually has been developed into a retreat place. Now it’s really very nice, with tree houses and yurts that you can go and stay. And Paa’s job is to tend this land, and he does this in leather sandals with a machete. And he machetes trails intuitively through these acres of land and these forests. And he was very excited to take me on this walk because there was a new trail that he wanted to take me on. And his take is, the land tells him where to go. So this is a very spiritual kind of walk.
And when we walk, we walk in silence on the way out to where we’re going wherever it is, we’re going to and when we enter the forest, we enter it with respect, and it’s about entering this environment that is a very spiritual environment. And we don’t take anything without permission from the forest. And it’s done with great reverence and respect to the land.
When I do these walks, there are things that I have questions about, where I’ll have it written, that I need some answers on. So in this particular walk, we walk and we go down, it’s quite difficult because it’s steep banks to go down. And then we’re walking and it’s in silence, and I’m slipping and falling, like gashes from the thorns and things like that. But I’m loving it, because I’m so connected with the land, and we go down to what clearly had been at one point, a riverbed, but it’s dried up. All over the place are these giant quartz crystal boulders, covered in moss and dirt, but these big quartz boulders. I’ve never seen anything like. And then he just encourages me to find the first place that I want to meditate in. And so I go and I find this first place, and I start my meditation and I’m instantly transported back to this sort of really ancient dwelling. It was like I was so connected spiritually with that land, I was seeing either myself before or the indigenous people that live there. And so he had me meditate in three different spots. And each time was more and more powerful, and more and more connected. And what happened to me as a result of that, is that sense of connection with humanity. Myself, humanity, the world, the universe, so to speak, this massive spiritual experience of feeling universal love, and being a part of this universe. So love. So when I come out of there, I am filled up. And I feel like I’m literally connected with every person on the planet no matter who, in a sense of a loving sort of spiritual way, a godly kind of way. It’s amazing.
Helen, what is the one thing that you’d like to leave our widower brothers with our warriors … What would you like to leave them with today with regard to a walk in the woods.
My advice – Be in the woods. It can be in a park, it can be standing under the one tree in your neighborhood, and just reaching out and touching the bark. But it’s connecting with that Divine Sense of a land in a world that is bigger than us. It can be walking through some gardens or just walking on the trail and looking up and noticing how blue the sky is. And it is that sense of life is worth living. No matter the loss, it’s worth living, and it’s worth living well and that you can find joy and gratitude, even through the darkest times, even after the most profound, darkest painful times. It’s available and you can connect to that via the walk in the woods.
The sense of unplugging, stripping away the worry of the world. Putting one foot in front of the other through that green environment. And I think coming with questions, I think both you and I had questions of various kinds during all of our walks. And every single time I’ve gone on one of these walks Helen I’ve had these Divine answers that have come out of the walk, and not always expected answers and presented in unexpected ways. And sometimes they had not even presented in the walk in the woods but will occur moments or days later. But they’ve always come, and I think that’s one of the most powerful aspects of it.
So definitely get out in nature. Definitely take a walk in the woods and if you can find a retreat or spiritual guide like Helen and I have both had the honor of participating with all the better
Helen thank you so much for such an interesting conversation and as always, great advice.
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About The Host
Growth Evangelist / Growth through Grief Founder
Tom Pisello is a widower and the father of two daughters. Tom lost his wife Judy in 2017 after her ten year battle with cancer.
Tom founded the Growth through Grief site, resources and ministry to help share his personal experiences to grow through the grieving process, and to share with others to help in his own and other’s healing process. Through this process, Tom gained his sobriety, lost 60 pounds, gained a growth mindset and rekindled lost faith, now sharing these hard-earned lessons and the lessons of other widowers and experts with you.
Prior to creating Growth through Grief, Tom was a successful serial-entrepreneur, analyst, speaker, and author of the business books Evolved Selling and The Frugalnomics Survival Guide. He was well known as “The ROI Guy”, founder of Alinean and Interpose, a Managing VP of analyst firm Gartner, Chief Evangelist for Mediafly and founder of the Evolved Selling Institute and host to the popular sales and marketing podcast – Evolved Selling
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