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Sick of feeling stressed and short on time during your lunchtime walks? Cultivating a sense of awe might help, as Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi has been finding out.

Since the pandemic, loads of us have developed a serious walking habit. We might not be hiking round the Lakes every weekend, but we’re used to breaking up our days with morning, lunchtime and evening strolls through local green spaces or urban areas. If you’re anything like me, however, you’ll be so fixed on getting those 10,000 steps in – at a healthy pace – that you might not necessarily feel a massive mental relief from having gone on a walk in the first place.

If that’s you, then it’s time to have a go at the latest wellbeing trend: awe walking.  

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Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘awe’ is a word that I tend to associate with Disney and childlike magic. It’s seeing Fantasia for the first time. It’s watching a family member give birth (not sure I was awe-struck watching my sister… more just speechless). It could be schlepping to the top of Machu Picchu and realising how insignificant you are in comparison to all that nature. But actually, awe can be much more everyday than those rare occurrences.

During lockdown, I did a load of awe walking without realising that it was awe walking. At the start of 2020, I’d come back from a period of travelling and found that everywhere I walked in my little corner of the East End, I found beauty. The frosted weeds along my local canal towpath, the swathes of daffodils that grew in clumps, the slow sunrise through thick cloud – I was amazed by all of it. And that continued throughout the lockdowns. Every day, I went out and found something new to focus on. I’ve never been so interested or entertained by the changing of seasons.

Fast-forward two years and I’m still walking but thanks to work and life pressures, I’m walking against the clock and listening to the news as I do so. If I’m working from home, I’ll head out for a 20-minute power walk before starting work, listening to the Today programme. If I’m at the office, I usually pop out in the middle of the day to listen to another news podcast. My walks are a chance to listen to more doom and gloom… and I’ve not really discovered anything cool in recent weeks. 

So I’ve decided to actively give awe walking another go. 

What is awe?

Imagine this scenario: you’ve got 15 minutes before your next meeting, so you head out for a 10-minute stroll around the block. You leave the office, get the steps in and soon are back (slightly breathless) at your desk. You feel better, but hurried. If only you had more time.

Well, the 2021 ‘Awe Study’ by scientists at Northbay Hospital and UC Berkeley found that practicing awe can make us feel a sense of timelessness. Not only that, but awe can reduce stress, loneliness, pain and depression. That study (as reported by Psychology Today) took 128 healthcare workers and 221 community members during the pandemic and asked them to perform a simple exercise designed to help them experience awe for 10-15 seconds, three-to-five times a day.

Awe can reduce stress, loneliness, pain and depression, according to the Awe Study.

After 21 days, participants reported significant improvements in stress, loneliness, depression and anxiety. They also reported increases in emotional wellbeing and mindfulness.

That intervention wasn’t something hugely technical – it was a simple technique we can all practice:

The A.W.E method

Attention: focus entirely on something you appreciate, value or find amazing.

Wait: slow down, pause.

Exhale and expand: amplify whatever sensations you’re feeling. 

“Research on awe and its links with mental health and wellbeing is growing,” explains Dr Carly Wood, lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Essex and consultant at the Columbia Hike Society. 

“Awe is suggested to be a distinct and powerful emotion that has two defining features: perceptual vastness (the sense that the individual has experienced something immense in size, complexity etc) and an altered perception of the world. These two features are intertwined and events that expand an individual’s usual frame of reference are likely to promote greater feelings of awe.” 

What is awe walking?

Dr Wood says that “an awe walk is the practice of immersing yourself in your walking environment to experience feelings of awe”.

While a number of environments could inspire feelings of awe, she recommends that natural environments in particular are ideal for experiencing it “as the physical features of many natural environments are suggested to be fascinating and thus captivate the senses”. “Evidence suggests that awe walking can distract us from life stressors, reduce rumination, decrease negative, and improve positive feelings.”

On a walk, that might mean:

  1. Finding a tree whose leaves are slowly turning from green to red. 
  2. Walking up to the tree and focusing your attention on those leaves.
  3. Looking at all the different colours – green, vermilion, orange.
  4. Stopping to look, feel, smell and listen.
  5. Breath in that space.
  6. Notice how you’re feeling – calm, happy, maybe even a little sad at the fleeting nature of autumn. Focus on those feelings.  

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Of course, if you don’t live near green or blue space, you can still go on an awe walk. The key, Dr Wood says, is in finding an environment that’s vast and can provide an altered perception of the world. You might walk through the centre of a city, for example, looking up at the tops of the buildings – leaving you feeling really small in a vast landscape.  

Does awe walking actually work?

Awe walking for stress relief

I decide to put the AWE Method to the test on a mid-afternoon stroll around my local park. It’s 4pm and I’m stuck in a Twitter hell-hole of people chatting about the Tory party conference. My attention is shot and I’m seriously lacking inspiration to get through the rest of the day.

Reaching the park gates, I take out my headphones and start walking on the grass over to a line of trees. I’ve not noticed before just how huge these trees are – their branches span from one side of the path to the other, creating a ceiling of amber and green leaves. The trunks are massive too; I go to hug the first and it’s so wide that my arms are flat out beside me rather than round the trunk. 

I stand, listening to the rustle around me, looking at the leaves and the markings on the bark, concentrating on how long that tree must have stood there for. It really is awesome to think that I am leaning against something that has seen wars, monarchs, disasters and golden eras come and go.

I start to yawn big, old bone-shaking yawns. Normally, I struggle to get a yawn out but as I walk down the path to the other end of the park, I can’t stop. Yawning is a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system is kicking in and I do feel a lot calmer.

Awe walking is a really simple way to slow down the mind while getting outdoors and appreciating what’s on your doorstep. Some might argue that it’s just a catchy phrase for ‘stop and stare’ – something people have been doing in nature since day dot.  

Dr Wood says that you only need 15 minutes walking outdoors to “invoke feelings of awe, promote positive emotion, and improve wellbeing”. But remember, you have to concentrate: “Walking through a natural environment without paying attention and immersing yourself in your surroundings (eg being on a device) is unlikely to lead to feelings of awe.” 

Images: Getty

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