She’s helping her clients one kilometre at a time.
We’ve all heard the expression – you can’t run away from your problems. But this therapist believes you might be able to run through them.
Thirty-three year old Sepideh Saremi of Los Angeles, California, is helping her patients realise this through her practice “Run Walk Talk”, launched back in 2012, which focuses on using running and walking as therapeutic alternatives to the traditional “sit n’ speak” method that so many are familiar with.
“The way that I work really focuses on the relationship that (my patient and I) are forming. I think running is a really amazing way to form a closer relationship,” Saremi said. “It’s very non-threatening, very comfortable for people, and it’s much easier to do than going in, and sitting on a couch in a room with somebody that you just met and being expected to just talk to them.”
As one of the pioneers for this fairly new approach in modern day therapy, Saremi says that she was inspired to launch her program while in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she researched and found evidence that running was a help for issues like depression and anxiety.
“The evidence is really good for this as a mental health intervention but I didn’t see it in the work anywhere,” Saremi said. “Nobody was doing this kind of work so that kind of planted the seed for me about doing this kind of work in the future.”
Following graduation, she worked at a community mental health centre with the local Iranian refugee population for a few years. Saremi, who was born to Iranian parents in Germany and immigrated to the US when she was 7, said she started brainstorming different ways to conduct therapy for these refugees, many of whom were uncomfortable with the idea of expressing their feelings.
“With that population, the idea of therapy is foreign,” Saremi said. “We don’t really talk about our feelings so lots of my clients had that mindset, and also being a young woman, it was hard for many of the men, because the gender roles are different where they are from.”
She started conducting more of her sessions outside with her clients when she made home visits.
At the same time, Saremi had been building on her own passion for getting active. After realising how out-of-shape she was in her mid-20s, she started walking, and then jumping rope, and then running 5K almost every day.
“I used running all throughout grad school to deal with stress. You’re dealing a lot with other people’s problems, especially in social work where you’re dealing with really stressful social systems that often don’t work,” Saremi said. “So the running was a way for me to just be really centred.”
She wanted others to reap these benefits as well, which is why, in 2012, she left her job and opened up her own private practice Run Walk Talk. These days, Saremi, who runs her practice by herself, is often seeing 15-20 clients a week, usually for 50 minute, covering between 5 to 8K with each patient along the beach. If she could describe her patients in one word, it would be “overachievers”.
“They are people who tend to be very hard on themselves. They have always done really well in life. If they have a mental health crisis or some substance abuse issue, sometimes it’s harder for them to recover,” Saremi said, “because they don’t have the experience of having a lot of hard knocks, or having failed, so they carry a lot of shame.”
With every patient, the approach is the same. It doesn’t matter how many kilometres you go, it doesn’t matter how fast you go, and it doesn’t matter what your pace is. All that matters is getting out and running.
“It’s an interesting thing for my overachievers that are so used to driving themselves into the ground and working really hard, and thinking everything has to be difficult or it doesn’t count,” Saremi said. “This is a way to kind of do things differently. We run in a much more gentle way. We run in a way where we can have a conversation and connection with each other, and we’re also using the body to notice what are the needs that are coming up, what are the feelings that are coming up, and how can we go about addressing them.”
One of her biggest challenges isn’t always getting people to open up, but rather, keeping herself stocked and fuelled properly for all of the running sessions she does everyday.
As more patients are looking for alternative forms of therapy, Saremi hopes more therapists recognise and understand the benefits of running. One thing she wants to make clear – running individually isn’t therapy, and while it is beneficial, it shouldn’t be treated as such.
“Running can be very meditative and it’s very helpful, but therapy is about a relationship with another person, so it’s important for us to be able to talk,” Saremi said. “I think it’s great that people using running as a way of self care but you have to use running as a way to form a relationship for it to be therapeutic.”