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Walking our Way out of Anxiety

The Age of Anxiety, a six-part poem by the British American poet W. H. Auden was first published in 1947,  spurred by failures of government, economic distress, and a sense of impotence in a frightening world. Many would say the term equally applies today with an endless barrage of news both local and international of violence, extremism, and economic distress. Anxiety spirals and spills out into our health, productivity, and relationships.

How Do We Manage?

While some solve the problem by choosing never to listen to the news it seeps into us despite our best efforts and others prefer to know the worst and attempt to face it. Just as news feeds are swamped by distressing stories there are many others that exhort us to manage our anxiety. This includes advice on diet, vigorous exercise, meditation, and challenging negative thinking. They are all valid but for some people exercise that produces endorphins or sitting still and meditating are not possible or effective and may even add to their sense of frustration and despair.

An Old and Different Approach

For those who can’t move freely or find sitting still a recipe for increasing rumination, the century old activity of labyrinth walking may provide a different relief. Unlike the maze with its threats of dead ends and becoming lost, the labyrinth  provides a ‘sure path in unpredictable times’ with a single-entry point in and out and an unobstructed path to and from its centre. It is a way to ‘quieten the mind, enhance creativity, boost insights,’ and integrate mind and body.

How Old is the Labyrinth?

The labyrinth motif appears in European and North African rock carvings, paintings, coins, and tiles  from 4,000 years ago and during the Middle Ages were a feature in 25% of cathedrals, many of which were built on the site of ancient labyrinths. There are two classic designs, the Cretan which is believed to be derived from Greek mythology in the form of seven concentric paths around the centre and the Chartres pattern of eleven circuits. The latter were popular in the Middle Ages as a safer and easier option than making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Unlike the maze, which is a puzzle to be solved, the labyrinth represents life itself with its peculiar twists and turns, moments of clarity and openness, and others that take us to the very centre as well as times where we are unable to see where we are going.

Why Walk the Labyrinth?

Walking the labyrinth is an opportunity to be both physically active and contemplative, to consider the path one is on as your feet move and experience the twists and turns and unexpected events that characterise life. While many have been constructed in public parks they are also to be found in prisons and hospitals where they provide a different experience to conventional treatment or therapy.

Is Labyrinth Walking Always Solitary?

While traditionally labyrinth walking is solitary, it seems an ideal place to speak with family and friends about difficult issues. Parents will often talk about their best conversations occurring in the car where they are not confronting their child but sitting beside. Walking close to another person as both experience the twists and turns of the path together, discover the centre, and find their way out seems an ideal place and time to speak of matters that may otherwise be too confronting. Perhaps labyrinth walking could also become another way for practitioners to support their clients to engage in productive dialogue where both word and image, body and mind are fully engaged, and anxiety minimised.


Miller, N Labyrinth walking: An ancient activity that could help ease anxiety BBC Essential List,  May 10, 2024

Pattakos, A. Life and the Labyrinth of Meaning Psychology Today, November 11, 2021

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