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In Jogging Therapy, You Can’t Run From Your Feelings

Psychotherapist Sepideh Saremi founded Run Walk Talk, a combination of “talk therapy with mindful movement” popular among entrepreneurs in Silicon Beach.

In Jogging Therapy, You Can’t Run From Your Feelings
[Photo: Flickr user SupportPDX]

Signing off on liability of injury is not traditionally expected prior to a therapy session, yet here I was, agreeing not to sue should I physically harm myself. I am lacing up my sneakers in the Redondo Beach, California, office of psychotherapist Sepideh Saremi, founder of Run Walk Talk, a combination of “talk therapy with mindful movement,” which has gained a steady following in Silicon Beach.

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The office looks much like what one would expect of a licensed clinical social worker: an airy space filled with a mid-century couch and an end table topped with a tissue box. But there are a few other things in there as well: most noticeably, foam rollers, hand-sized Fiji bottles, hair ties, and Crunch bars. This isn’t just a therapist’s office; it’s a mini gym of sorts. That’s because following a quick hello in this space, I will go for a run with Saremi by the nearby pier.

“I always joke that my my real office is the beach,” laughs Saremi, 33, clad in black athleisure wear and running shoes.

The fit professional guides me outside her office to a busy boulevard, where she asserts she will be running on my right, lest any danger from oncoming traffic bleed onto the sidewalk. From the start, she identifies herself as the protector and orchestrator of our next 50 minutes together. We begin a light trot together to the beach, just two blocks away, with Saremi silently checking my pace. Against a backdrop of crashing waves, we glide together as a way to resolve issues, she likes to remind new patients such as myself, not as a way to burn calories.

“This isn’t your workout, and it’s not my workout either,” Saremi asserts. “We’re coming together to engage in this therapy relationship so that you can learn things about yourself and then change your life. We’re not training for a marathon.”

Working In Tandem

When my breathing becomes more strained after just 10 minutes of jogging during a discussion on work-life balance, Saremi suggests we walk instead. I am new to this–and to Saremi–and so divulging personal information seems foreign at first. But because I’m looking ahead and not straight at her, it almost feels like I’m talking to a phone operator, or a voice in my head.

Saremi hears this often: Not seeing is somehow freeing. “Eye contact is something that can inhibit people from talking about themselves,” she says of her side-by-side method. Admitting “I’m insecure,” for example, can be painfully hard face to face. “[In traditional formats], patients can get self-conscious about what the person they’re talking to is thinking about them. It can bring up shame, and they’re more focused on how they’re being judged than on themselves.”

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There’s also the symbolic gesture of having someone right beside you, on the same path. Together you break a sweat, slow down, and then refuel as you progress toward the finish line. It feels more like teamwork than a give-take relationship.

“You’re literally moving forward–together,” says Saremi with a compassionate tone. “That is a powerful experience for people to have when they feel really stuck in their lives.”

[Photo: Flickr user Ronnie Macdonald]

Moving To A Niche Beat

“I call myself a lower-‘r’ runner,” says Saremi. “I don’t run races.”

Saremi began to run in 2008 following a family crisis. She found the routine therapeutic and turned to it as a means of self-soothing. After she received a master’s degree in social work from UCLA in 2012, Saremi began to experiment with exercise as a way to help her patients. At the time, she worked at a mental health agency in Los Angeles, helping Iranian refugees who had experienced trauma prior to their U.S. arrival.

“It wasn’t uncommon for people to have been political prisoners, and some had been tortured or raped,” recounts Saremi. “Just really horrendous stuff.”

Saremi noticed her patients were being treated in less than inspiring environments. The beige-colored, cinder-block therapy rooms, she says, “didn’t look that different from an interrogation room.” And so, in an attempt to improve their surroundings, the new therapist took her patients out on walks around the neighborhood. The change of scenery, she recalls, was instantly transformative.

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“It was amazing how people were able to open up in a very different way,” says Saremi. “By being outside and moving while we were talking, they were able to talk about things that were really difficult to talk about when they were sitting down.”

There were other patients who were house-bound–often in part due to their mental illness–who Saremi would convince to go on a leisurely walk. “Some of these people wouldn’t really leave their house otherwise,” she says.

The experience prodded Saremi to investigate exercise’s impact on mental health. Could physical activity, she wondered, help the therapy process? Plenty of studies confirmed its potential. A study from UC Davis Health System, for example, claims that people who work out have better mental fitness because intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters responsible for chemical messaging within the brain. Another study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that exercise produces acute mental health benefits in those suffering from depression, while a Dutch study concludes that regular exercise is associated with lower neuroticism, anxiety, and depression.

“I was amazed to see that there’s all this evidence for running as a really potent way to reduce mental health symptoms and restore wellness,” says Saremi. “But it wasn’t something that was really being used in the [field].”

[Photo: Paul via Unsplash]

Pacing The Next Steps

In 2014, Saremi received her running coach certification from the Road Runners Club of America and began to incorporate fitness at a private practice in Beverly Hills. During that first year, in which she saw roughly 25 clients a week, roughly one-third would walk or run with her. Once that percentage increased, Saremi branched out into her own practice, launching Run Talk Walk in early 2017. Her space specializes in physical fitness, but it’s by no means required.

“It’s really a philosophy of treatment, it’s about being responsive to your own needs and meeting those needs, whatever they may be,” she explains. “So sometimes you may need to walk, sometimes you may want to run, and sometimes you want to sit.”

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In general, Saremi moves at what she calls a “conversation pace,” in that both partners should only go as fast as both can tolerate while talking to one another. “The focus of the work is therapy, and then we fold in the movement,” she says.

Sepideh Saremi

Saremi observes a patient’s fitness behavior during a session, which can be quite telling. She says she has two main groups of people who seek her services: overachievers and entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs, the majority of them male and in the tech space, tend to be “type A, very driven, very hard on themselves, and often hard on other people,” she says. That work ethic, though helpful in their careers, often serves as an impediment in their relationships. During Run Talk Walk sessions, they often try to outrun Saremi and engage in competitive behavior. Saremi, who previously worked in various media content roles in startups from 2006 to 2010, quickly flags the behavior.

“I’m not soft, I have some edge,” she says.

Many of the overachievers, meanwhile, suffered some sort of mental health crisis or substance abuse issue that has resulted in serious impairments. Saremi works on helping these patients reconnect to those strong, capable parts while at the same time, make room for the vulnerability of what they experienced. Saremi gets a glimpse into their inner workings through their running habits.

“If there’s somebody who’s comparing themselves to me, or who feels really insecure about other people looking at them while they are running, or who is apologizing about their pace–those are all things that are clinically rich and important things to notice,” she says.

I experience this firsthand during the last quarter of our session, in which we discuss setting boundaries for overall wellness. Basically, I tell her, I feel a little overwhelmed of late, but I’m averse to declining professional or social requests. Simultaneously, my lungs feel overworked, but I worry about slowing down her stride or seeming physically weak. Finally, at my breaking point, I declare, “Okay, no more running. I need to walk.” Saremi applauds me for already putting her words into action. “No one’s holding a gun to your head telling you to run,” she acknowledges, slowing her pace.

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Some clients, says Saremi, witness a change in their relationship to exercise. Many come to her office with the notion that exercise is something you do only when you feel good and motivated. But after several sessions, they see how fitness can aid them during their darker hours. As for female clients, who often harbor body image issues, Saremi attempts to alter their perception.

“We talk a lot about our body as something more than just being looked at or being beautiful, but as something that can give us a lot of joy and and make us feel good when we use it for movement,” she says.

There are some clients, however, that Saremi will not run with, including those with eating disorders, or those who have previously demonstrated self-harm. (“They could run into the streets,” she explains.) Less than a year since opening her practice, she now conducts about 14 to 18 sessions a week. Since running can be physically exhausting, Saremi caps the more rigorous sessions to three or four a day. But only 25% of her clientele are runners, while 50% prefer walking, and the remaining 25% opt to stay on the sofa.

To keep up with her runners who are more fit, Saremi takes an Equinox running class. She is considering branching out into yoga in the near future.  Saremi also has plans to bring her practice to patients nationwide.

To that end, Saremi is working on perfecting a training model for Run Walk Talk. Therapists have reached out in hopes of adapting her techniques and learning how to combat a host of issues, such as how to best collect diagnostic information (she already has three trainees). At the same time, Saremi wants to devote herself to her main goal: research. In time, she hopes, she can partner with a university to compile research in an effort to create a certification training model.

“I’m really passionate about getting this into community mental health, because it is a relatively easy intervention, and it’s healthy for a therapist and for the client,” says Saremi.

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When we finish our run, we go back to Saremi’s office. There, I’m handed a water bottle and offered a snack before joining her on twin yoga mats for a stretching session. It’s meant as a way for Saremi to check in with patients and summarize the hour, but it feels like a well-deserved treat.

“You get a little bit of low-key face-to-face time, and practice self-care–something that doesn’t come naturally to many of my patients,” she later says. “Stretching can be a nice ritual to help people ease out of the session and back into the rest of their day . . . and I want my patients to get in the habit of taking care of their bodies.”