Walking Your Blues Away

Trauma is nothing new to the human race. We are certainly familiar with trauma in the modern world, from acts of war and terrorism to crime, child abuse, and the pain our dysfunctional, standards-driven schools cause so many of our children.

And many of us don’t handle trauma well: suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans ages fifteen to twenty-four.¹ In the last decade over 51 million prescriptions were written in the United States just for the SSRI family of antidepressants (including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft), with sales topping $3.6 billion for the six most popular SSRIs, and the numbers have more than doubled since then.²

Sociologists may argue about whether early human societies were comfortable and egalitarian, like many of the modern day hunter-gatherer peo­ples living in the world’s remaining rain forests, or whether our forebears instead lived in violent dominator cultures ruled by the members who were physically strongest (the fantasy of philosophers and scientists from Rousseau in the seventeenth century to Freud in the twentieth century). However, sociologists and anthropologists and other social thinkers do not disagree that trauma has always been part of human life.

So how has humankind historically dealt with trauma for the past two hundred thousand years, before the advent of psychotherapy? Humans experienced mental and emotional wounds in ancient times just as we do today. Family members became sick and died; friends and family were lost to battles with other tribes and with wild animals; after the introduction of agriculture, famine and plagues were periodically visited upon us.

In times past, if four of us set out as a hunting party every few days, odds are that over time at least one person in our party would get eaten by a predator or die in an accident. When that happened right in front of the other three of us, how would we deal with the psychological trauma that resulted from witnessing such an event? We would be in a state of trauma-induced shock. How would we cope with that? How would we deal with the trauma from a near escape from death?

The answer that occurs to most people is that we’d engage in some sort of ritual when we returned to the village, a ritual that usually involved drumming and dancing, two forms of bilateral activity known to induce trance. But this ceremony may have been more to help the people back in the village, such as the family of our lost companion, to work through their grief.

The human body is a self-healing organism. When you cut your finger, it heals. If you break your leg, it heals. Even if part of you is cut out in surgery, the surgeon’s wound heals. We heal from bacterial and viral invasions, from injuries, and from all variety of traumas. The mechanisms for healing are built into us. Five million years of evolution, or the grace of God, or both, have made our bodies automatic healing machines. So why wouldn’t the same be true of our minds and emotions?

All of the traumas that we experience in life leave their wounds; if humankind hadn’t had ways of healing from those emotional and psychological blows, over time society would have become progressively less functional. Instead, history shows us that people usually recover from even the most severe psychological wounds, often learning great lessons or gaining important insights in the recovery process.

The famous Kauai longitudinal study of children raised in stressful, disadvantaged conditions found that a higher percentage of the children grew up "highly resilient" than did a middle-class comparison group.³ The generation that survived the Great Depression and the Nazi Holocaust in Europe went on to create important social institutions, build nations, and offer comfort and hope to humankind. Elie Wiesel’s experience specifically comes to mind; although he would never have wished on another the horrific experience of being in one of Hitler’s death camps, through his writing of that experience he has given a particularly inspiring model of resilience and healing to the world.

The reality is that although adversity breaks some people, it strengthens others. And when people heal from adversity, the old cliché of "what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" usually rings true.

But, just as with the production of scar tissue in the healing of a wound to the skin — a process involving millions of cells producing very specific com­pounds in response to the trauma in the tissue — there must be an inborn mechanism for healing the mind and the emotions. And just as healing from a cut can be speeded up by keeping the wound clean and dry or can be slowed down by letting the wound get wet or dirty or irritated, this emotional healing is also a process that can be either stimulated or thwarted by our interventions.

A Built In Healing Mechanism

I’ve identified a specific healing mechanism and process that nature has built into the human mind and body that enables us to process trauma in a way that is quick, functional, and permanent. Just like the skin’s mechanism for forming scabs and scars and eventually even making the scars vanish, this mechanism is simple, fundamental, and elegant.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere "thinking" functions with right-hemisphere and brain-stem "feeling" functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

This steady movement of nerve impulses across the hemispheres of the brain is stimulated in the bilateral-movement processes of a variety of modern forms of psychotherapy, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), and Thought Field Therapy (TFT). In its purest form, however, I’ve discovered that the natural and rhythmic left-right-left-right process of walking, while performing a simple mental exercise, can also stimulate this same internal integration process.

This, I posit, is the way humans have healed themselves from trauma for the hundreds of thousands of years of human history, and it is only because so few of us walk anymore that we have to resort to office-based psychotherapeutic processes to produce the same result.

And that result is impressive. When we stimulate the nervous system in this bilateral manner while calling to mind a persistent emotional distress, the emotional "charge" associated with that memory quickly and permanently dissipates. This isn’t a process of producing amnesia or forgetting; instead, it’s a way of reframing the past, a way of re-understanding, of putting into context that which has been so "unnerving" for us.

When we perform this bilateral process correctly, the pictures of painful past events in our memory transform from stark, scary, sound-filled color movies into black-and-white still pictures that are flattened out and lose their sound. The internal dialogue we have about the events — the "tag line" that we tell ourselves, and actually hear in our own heads in our own voices — changes, usually from something like "That was a painful experience that still scares me" or "I was victimized in that relationship" to a more productive synopsis, such as "Yes, that happened to me, but it’s well in the past now and I’ve learned some good lessons from the experience. I can let go of it."

Inciting the movement of nerve impulses across the brain hemispheres helps people to come to terms with their past. They stop being frightened by their imagined futures and feel comfortable and empowered in the present. Walking while holding a traumatic memory in mind in a particular way can produce this result in a very short time.

This is not new. Rhythmic bilateral activity as a healing agent has been known to aboriginal peoples for millennia, and in the past few hundred years the secret of using bilaterality to heal emotional and psychological wounds — particularly those that produced psychosomatic physical results — was most famously discovered by Franz Anton Mesmer in the 1700s (called "mesmerism"), refined by Dr. James Braid in the early 1800s (and renamed "hypnosis" by Braid), and brought into widespread and mainstream use in the late 1800s by Sigmund Freud.

However, in an odd historical event in the late 1890s, the growing power of yellow journalism (sensationalized "news" by publishers such as William Randolph Hearst) merged with European anti-Semitism, and the synergy of those forces compelled Freud to abandon these techniques. Freud spent the rest of his life searching in vain for a replacement for hypnosis that actually worked, experimenting with cocaine, developing his early concepts of penis envy and the Oedipal complex, and finally promulgating his largely unsuccessful "talk-therapy" systems. When Freud committed suicide in 1939 he still hadn’t found anything that worked as well as the beloved bilateral therapies he’d been forced to abandon by the amazingly synchronous and unusual events of the 1890s.

From the 1890s until the past few decades, hypnosis and the bilateral therapies on which it is based were for the most part ignored or shunned by medical and mental health professionals, in large part because of the uproar of the 1890s. Only with the development of NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) in the 1970s, and the 1987 development of Eye Motion Desensitization and Reintegration by Francine Shapiro, did bilateral therapies begin to make a comeback.

There is now a whole spectrum of variations on these systems for integrating brain function and thus encouraging healing from psychological and emotional trauma. They all involve stimulating one hemisphere of the brain, then the other, then back to the first, then back again, and repeating this bilateral stimulation over and over. You can accomplish this same kind of stimulation using the simple process of walking, as outlined in the book Walking Your Blues Away. This bilateral stimulation gives you access to healing powers, creative states, and emotional and psychological resilience beyond what you may have ever thought possible.


  1. From the American Psychiatric Association at www.psych.org
  2. Lori Lebovich, "No Sex Please: We’re Medicated," published online at Salon.com, July 1997
  3. E.E. Werner and R.S. Smith, Vulnerable by Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Introduction from Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann. Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions, Bear & Co., Rochester, VT 05767. www.ParkStPress.com. Copyright © 2006 by Thom Hartmann.