Keep your feet on the ground when walking through a storm, says Carolyn Scott Kortge, an award-winning journalist, cancer survivor, and author of The Spirited Walker and Healing Walks for Hard Times. Backed by research, her inspiring message is clear: Walking can heal. In this article, she describes how healing walks got her through some of the most difficult times.
When the alarm went off at 5 a.m., I was waiting for it. Fear had roused me already. Slowly, I pulled up into a reluctant hunch at the edge of the bed. The countdown had begun. Two hours to surgery. Two hours to prepare. Two hours to worry and fret.
Instinctively, my shoulders pulled forward. I wrapped my arms across my chest and lingered amid my fears.
How would my body feel to me the next time I woke up? How would it look? How would it be changed by the breast cancer diagnosis that had spilled a chilling terror into my days?
A swirl of “what-ifs” and “whys” gripped my mind. I knew what I had to do next. Still, it took a deep breath and a dose of determination to get me out the door for a walk. It wasn’t simply habit that moved me. It was willful effort—an intentional pursuit of stability.
“Keep your feet on the ground,” we tell ourselves when hard times shake the foundations that support us. “One step at a time,” caring friends suggest when disappointment, disaster, or disease plunge life into turmoil. It’s sound advice and familiar. References to walking are so deeply embedded in our language they have become clichés.
The words have power because they reflect our experience. We know how it feels to get knocked off balance, and what it means to get back on our feet. The phrases remind us that movement is both external and internal. Move the body and you move the spirit.
Often, people find that the physical act of walking mirrors the internal movement that accompanies healing. Walking wakes up the profound healing powers of the human spirit and carries it into each cell, literally, with chemicals that change the way you feel.
When spirits droop and footsteps falter, the physical steps of a neighborhood stroll offer an antidote to despair. Each step launches a chain reaction of healing that’s both physical and mental. But each step requires an act of faith. No way around it, the first step is the hardest. The first step declares your intention to heal. With each walk, you begin to move ahead in a life that has been shaken.
Taking control of something as basic as a walk may seem insignificant when you are facing an enormous personal challenge. But research suggests that even small acts of control can help you recover from the feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies trauma. Sustained helplessness upsets the body’s endocrine system by suppressing immune functions and elevating production of stress hormones. The ability to find even a small area of control triggers healing, both in the spirit and in the chemicals that regulate the body.
In the early countdown hours before my scheduled breast cancer surgery, I wanted to feel myself moving on a path where I felt safe. At a time when so many issues in my life seemed out of my control, walking reaffirmed the choices I still had. I walked as a personal statement of faith, a physical demonstration of my intention to keep moving. Keep taking steps. Keep living here and now.
Excerpted from Healing Walks for Hard Times: An 8-Week Program, by Carolyn Scott Kortge. Published by Trumpeter Books. Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Scott Kortge.