by Tom Cloyd - 22 min. read - (reviewed 2023-01-19:2203 PDT)
Challenge walking is a self-managed procedure for confronting and resolving some of the negative feelings and experiences which occur in our lives. In this procedure you will deliberately trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings, using one or more phrases which you have found are distressing to you. You will do this after first initiating a brisk walk, so as to activate major skeletal muscles, your heart, and your diaphragm (which causes you to breath). In other words, you will first walk with considerable energy, increasing your active experience of physical strength (and thus your sense of safety), and then confront your brain with an emotional challenge. This challenge, arising in the dis-confirming context1 of felt safety, will be fairly quickly resolved by your brain, as this is the way it normally resolves emotional challenges, during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep.2
I discovered challenge walking in the course of my own therapy3, found that it worked, and continued to use it for a number of months. I then began using it with clients, and found that it worked with them as well.
I was an active runner and cyclist at the time. I had engaged a therapist to help me resolve some of the feelings that had arisen in the context of the loss of an intimate relationship. Since psychotherapy is a process which encourages you to open yourself to places in your mind which you normally avoid, I was having more contact than usual with my own mental dark places. In contrast to what these places felt like were the generally lively, positive, energizing experiences I usually had on my four mile runs, or when cycling at a good speed for an hour.
One day, noticing that I was particularly distressed by some reoccurring thought (now so unimportant I cannot recall it), I wondered what would happen if I deliberately provoked that thought while exercising. It didn’t seem likely that I could feel both good and bad at the same time. Tired of feeling bad, I went out for a brisk walk.
Once my walk was underway, I deliberately returned to my earlier distressing thought. It didn’t seem so distressing. I tried coming at it a variety of ways, and ended up basically verbally assaulting myself in every way I could imagine, trying to provoke the distress. Within a short time, absolutely nothing worked - I just could not provoke the distress.
Returning home, I began trying to make sense of this experience. Most obviously, a thought, in the form of a simple phrase, initially provoked distress and then quickly lost that power. Testing the phrase again, once home, the effect appeared permanent. (Testing it some days later, the effect indeed was permanent.) This process has a name: desensitization. We start out sensitive to something, and end up NOT sensitive. This is the core process in all psychotherapy for psychological trauma which actually cures the problem.
Now let me tell you a fascinating true story.
During the time I was experimenting with challenge walking, I was also engaged in private practice psychotherapy in two different cities - Spokane and Grand Coulee, Washington. They are not quite 2 hours driving time apart. Each week, I would spend 3 days in Grand Coulee, then return home to Spokane. One night when I was in Grand Coulee, I got a call from a young person I had been seeing in my Spokane practice. This young person would periodically become extremely emotionally agitated, and would then engage in extreme actions - basically “acting out” their distress. They’d driven their car into a fixed object a couple of times, punched holes in walls, and had gotten into fights. Most typically they’d do something that was self-destructive. The provoking issue was emotional abandonment - they had PTSD originating in childhood.
They called me because they’d just had a fight with their intimate and were feeling extreme emotional distress. They were afraid they were about to do something destructive that they’d later regret, as had happened on numerous previous occasions. I had three options, it seemed: Get us together for some crisis-management (not really possible due to my being in Grand Coulee); refer them to a local Emergency Room (a real pot-luck choice, especially in the evening, and one my client would almost surely refuse); or try to deal with it over the phone. For various reasons, none of these alternatives seemed appealing.
It was then that the fourth alternative came to mind: challenge walking. This young person and I had developed a very good relationship. They respected and trusted me, and that was essential if this option were to be used. I described to them what I wanted them to do: Put their cell phone in their pocket, immediately head outdoors for a very brisk walk. After five minutes of walking, begin actively recalling all the things their intimate had said to them which had set off their severe emotional distress. They were to keep walking fast, and continue saying to themselves what their intimate had said, until the words no longer hurt. I explained that it was impossible for them to be walking strongly and at the same have those memories get them all stirred up for very long. “Just try it, OK?” I said. They were strongly motivated not to do something crazy, they trusted me, and so they agreed. And ten minutes after they left their apartment, they were to call me.
I got the call. “I don’t believe it,” they said. “It’s gone. The bad feelings are gone. I’m OK.” While I did expect this effect, at the same time you don’t have the fish until it’s in your boat. This one was landed well and truly. I had them walk back to their apartment and call me again. They were fine. This sort of transition had never before happened to them - to become severely emotionally distressed, and then quickly transition out of it. I told them to call me at any point in the next 3 days if the feelings came back. There was no call. At our next session, what their intimate had said still did not arouse distress to any degree.
Three things should be noted about this incident: challenge walking worked; the effect was permanent; and they did it themselves (with some serious coaching from me). The whole experience was very empowering for both of us. Had I any doubts about the procedure to this point, they were put to rest with the conclusion of this incident.
Like any intervention procedure, challenge walking has to be done correctly to work. It is not a magic bullet, unless fired in the right way at the right time. People who do not much understand the nature and dynamics of negative emotional learning are generally not well equipped to use challenge walking without some coaching.
All learning is about mental associations. As an example, let’s look at how we learn about apples.
In the beginning, we merely absorb a perception: a red object we can barely pick up with our little hands. It has a smell. Our mother cuts off a piece and we taste it and like the taste. Two days later we encounter another such object, but this time we have memories of the first time we encountered such a thing. Those memories are triggered by our perception of this second apple because our brain is always seeking to make sense of incoming perceptions, and “making sense” has to do with associating a present perception with stored past perceptions. This is an involuntary, fundamental operation in our brains, from an early age.
Over time, we can accumulate quite a lot of information about apples. One day, we’re 22 and we encounter the first apples of the fall harvest, at a roadside fruit stand. “It’s apple pie time - I’m going to make a pie” we say to ourselves. We’ve come a long way from that first encounter with a big red object, and it’s all been about accumulating information and associating it with perceptions. In this case, there seem to be only good feelings associated with all this learning.
We do the same thing with everything we learn. We can learn to recognize numbers, and operations we can do with those numbers, and what this whole domain of learning is called. And we can learn that almost everyone else in class finds this domain easier than we do. In mathematics, we always seem to be last, and we feel bad about that. Mathematics makes us feel bad. We avoid learning anymore about it - because of the emotional associations we have with this subject.
Years later, we’re required to take a statistics class in college, and the fearfulness of being shamed seriously impedes our progress in the class. We don’t study because we just know we’ll fail. We do poorly on the first test, confirming our fears. If we’re smart, at this point we’ll seek help to resolve this negative emotional association we have with mathematics.
In the worst case, negative emotional learning is a memory of psychological trauma, and specifically one which is bad enough that we have yet to fully process it. “Processing” involves an automatic process in our brains, usually accomplished soon after a memory enters into long term memory. In this process, the memory is reduced to essentials, and one of the aspects which is dropped from it is the ability to recreate the feelings, positive or negative, which were part of the original experience the memory narrative tells us about. This process is called “memory reconsolidation”. If it doesn’t happen, we have a persistent negative emotional memory (negative because it appears that positive memories never fail to be reconsolidated by our brain!).
In psychology, we have learned that under certain circumstances, a negative emotional memory which has not been reconsolidated can be deliberately, consciously processed - we can actually provoke the reconsolidation process while we are awake and alert. This is the basis of all psychotherapy that actually permanently cures psychological trauma.
The circumstance required is simple: One must be in a safe situation where something fearful comes to be expected, and then it doesn’t happen. The juxtaposition of safety and fear results in a permanent resolution of the fear expectation, when it’s based on some memory of a past event. It sounds simple, because it is. The effectiveness of this process has been validated in multiple animal species.4
I’ve used and taught the following self-managed memory reconsolidation procedure for a number of years. I generally do it only with reasonably experienced clients, ones who have a firm grip on the basics of the emotional dynamics (“affect-production”) of their brain. The two core ideas which need first to be understood are (a) that negative affect production aspects of a memory can usually be eliminated or reduced, regardless of how long they have been a source of distress on one’s life, and (b) that artful confrontation involving the sources of the negative affect production is the way to bring about this change.
Walking stimulates both the large muscles of the lower body and the large muscles of your upper body’s shoulder girdle. It also creates a positive feedback loop in the brain: we are all animals, and animals find physical activity invigorating. We humans often don’t get enough such activity, so we’ll often respond positively to “normalizing” ourselves by “getting physical”, especially if we do it outside, where we can see and feel more natural things than are usually available to us inside.
Finally, walking brisking for a very few minutes brings us into contact with the raw power in our bodies, providing us with a crucial real-time antidote to any negative affects our brain might be producing. After a very few minutes of exercise, we feel more vigorous and more powerful. This will be most helpful, as it sets the stage for creative, constructive confrontation with our personal demons - those repetitive, destructive negative thoughts we can have all too easily.
In summary what you do in this process is this:
This procedure is a fairly easy process, and seems to work almost always, if done right. This is because your negative feelings are due to your brain’s evaluations of something it’s perceiving.5 These evaluations, if not actually thoughts6, can easily be translated into thoughts, and thus into words. This translation can be achieved by confronting your brain with simple negative statements, then noting which ones provoke a clear negative affective response. When there is no basis in one’s present situation for the negative evaluations/thoughts/feelings, your brain is actually free to give them up, under the right circumstances.7
Here’s how to do it, in detail.
Notice that you have a repetitive problem with negative feelings, usually when triggered by certain thoughts, feelings (yes, feelings can trigger other feelings), places, people, or activities. Decide to act to change this part of your life.
I have prepared an extensive list of simple statements which says things about you that you might both believe and find triggering of uncomfortable or even disabling feelings. I strongly you suggest that you use this list to find your perception/evaluation/thought problems.
These problems will reduce to a very few simple statements, such as “I’m totally alone”, or “No one can see me” or “I cannot help myself”. You will find that you clearly react to these statements, and that reaction is your clue that you’ve found the right triggering thoughts to use for your challenge walk. I suggest you write down the exact wording of the phrases, on a slip of paper or a card you can take with you on your walk.
These statements will be found in the Appendix to this article, below.
(Special note: In my next revision, of this article I will detail some suggestions for alternatives to walking. Walking is just a way to activate a sense of physical competence, strength, and safety. Any moderate aerobic activity that one can do without thinking should have the same effect, in truth.)
Walk as if you were late for an appointment and you really wanted to get where you’re going. Don’t cheat yourself on this time - it’s a time when you’re building your sense of positive personal power. It also takes just a little time for your body to respond to physical demands made of it, and for your brain to notice what’s happening, at a fundamental level. During this time, your circulatory system is adjusting to increased demand, your heart and lungs are becoming more active, your whole body is “powering up”. That sense of power is vital to this procedure.
Bring to mind one of the negative phrases you’ve previously identified, and open yourself to the feelings they produce. (Focus on one at a time, and finish with it before taking up any others.) Also, think of situations where you get negatively stimulated and have these thoughts. You want to provoke your negative-feelings as actively as you can. Head right into the center of the storm, as it were. The better you do this, the quicker you’ll be finished.
When our brain encounters a certain kind of cognitive dissonance - two thoughts which simply don’t agree with each other - it tends to adopt the one which is most appealing, most rewarding. It’s a very subjective judgment, of course, but it does get made, if the choice is clear. By making things very simple, with powerful, positive-feeling brisk walking, coupled with powerful, well-targeted brief negative statements, we have set up such a very clear choice for your brain.
What we’re doing is exactly like exposing certain insects to light. They don’t like light, and they will run away if exposed to it. Your brain doesn’t like thoughts which provoke negative feelings. It won’t turn away from reality-based negative thoughts, and it shouldn’t. But it can and will turn away, often permanently, from negative thoughts for which there IS no current basis in reality.
This will happen because of the “response extinction” process that is well known to exist in the brain. Put simply, a brain response can purposively be stopped by wearing it out. The brain loses interest, and we move on to other things. This can be made to happen even more surely, powerfully, and quickly, if we do it in the context of ANOTHER brain response which is ongoing and positive. That’s why you’re walking!
So, while continuing to provoke powerful feelings of well-being by walking briskly, you also continue to provoke your “demon-thoughts”. Your body stimulates good feelings, and one part of your brain stimulates the bad feelings. The core of your brain directs traffic, and settles accounts.
Here are the two possible outcomes of the challenge you’ve engineered for your mind:
This typically happens rather quickly (typically in tens of seconds). You’ll be walking, and assaulting or insulting yourself with your simple, triggering self-belief statements, and these statements will simply slowly cease to have any effect. Your first indication of this may be that you find your mind wandering - a good sign! This extinction of your negative response will be permanent - a perfect outcome - at which point the statement will simply not elicit much reaction at all.
This is not a typical response, but it does happen. It appears to be caused by any of several problems (and they CAN co-occur):
A. You’re focusing on the wrong thoughts. Do that and you’ll get poor results or none at all. If this happens, return to the task of clarifying what thoughts are causing the problem.
B. The act of walking vigorously is simply too distracting, and interferes with your ability to access the distressing thought or memory, which may be too subtle and diffuse to compete. If you can access it when not walking, but not when walking, then you need to use a memory transformation method that is less distracting. Alternatively, perhaps you can make the walking (or other vigorous physical activity) less distracting by practicing for a few days first, or doing it in an environment where you are quite free to focus on your internal state while walking.
C. You’re encountering a problem inherent in your parasympathetic nervous system, whose function it is to calm one’s responses and activities. There is good evidence that such hard-wired problems can develop in people who are exposed to chronic unmediated aversive stress in early childhood. We cannot yet fix this problem, but we CAN manage it fairly well.10 If this is the likely cause of the ongoing bad feelings, then a focus on learning good stress management is where you must next go.
If you find that you have problem C, you’ll may still find that using challenge walking will result in your feeling very much better, and often for days - after you bring your challenge walking to an end. The only downside to this will simply be that the problem will eventually reemerge, and you’ll have to repeat the procedure in the future.11
We do not choose what happens to us, or the effects of these events. We CAN choose what to do about the consequences, however, and this challenge walking procedure is a powerful response we can use when we discover that we are being victimized by our own feelings. It’s a procedure we can manage entirely by ourselves, and which is available to us almost anywhere, at any time. It’s well worth learning.
You may already have an awareness of your negative self-beliefs which will be more useful than anything you find in the list. However, even then, finding a simple, clear statement of your negative self-beliefs will usually help you to focus better on the heart of the problem. I have found that often people don’t have clear, well-chosen words for their negative self-beliefs, and do indeed benefit from use of this list. In addition, the list may prompt you to become aware of additional negative self-beliefs of which you are not aware. 8
Space is provided for you to add any self-beliefs not on the list which come to mind as a result of reading the list. Note that because some statements can be interpreted in more than one way (example “I am bad”), I have placed them in more than one category.
Immediately below is the list. If you think using this list is appropriate for you, get started. It’s a clear step you can take in the direction of self-determination and greater self-control.
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. Routledge.
Schmidt, S. J. (2006). Processing attachment issues - the attachment needs ladder. In The Developmental needs meeting strategy: A model for healing adults with childhood attachment wounds. San Antonio, Texas: DNMS Institute.
Shapiro, F. (2001). List of generic negative and positive cognitions. In Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, 2nd ed., p. 430. New York: Guilford.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012, p. 30. ^
van der Kolk, 2014, p. 260. ^
This would have been in about the year 2000. ^
see Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012, for a full discussion of this. ^
…just as we’ll apply brakes when driving when we see a curve ahead - because when we evaluate the effect of driving through the curve we anticipate needing to drive more slowly if we’re not to go off the road. ^
Thoughts are generally considered to be a conscious phenomenon in the brain, yet there is absolutely no doubt that most evaluations which occur in the brain are NOT conscious. Thus, one can easily come to feel fear without every having been aware of having any fear-provoking thought. ^
This “irrationality” is important. It has been found repeatedly that the brain will NOT give up negative feelings which have a basis in reality. This is one reason that we cannot hypnotize people into becoming murderers, or into attempting to fly off the tops of buildings. ^
What if it’s not, for you? Any vigorous physical activity which you find energizes you should work as a substitute. If no such activity is possible for you, then it may be difficult to provoke the body sense of power that is essential for this procedure. However, there are other approaches to resolving negative emotional memory which are known to work quite well. You should seek one of these out.13 ^ ^2
Ideally, you would be able to simply walk out of your home, or apartment, and down the street. For some individuals, this may not work, however. It should be possible to use a shopping mall, or the track at almost any middle school or high school or university, if you can gain access to these places. All of these have the advantage of either being outdoors or having other people present - both positive influences on many peoples’ mental states. As a last resort, a treadmill at home or in an exercise facility could work just fine - or one might jog lightly in place, at home, or even skip rope. All you need to create a sense of physical vigor in your body before provoking the negative feelings. ^
van der Kolk, 2014, pp. 263ff, discusses an adapted form of yoga that appears to be effective in improving parasympathetic nervous system function. ^
I have personally found this to be the case, in my work with my own emotional challenges. ^
The content in this structured list is a reworking of material from Schmidt (2006) and Shapiro, F. (2001), supplemented by my own clinical observation of client’s negative self-beliefs. ^
For an excellent discussion of one of the best alternatives, see Chapter 15 (pp. 248ff) of van der Kolk, 2014. ^
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