Can or should you trust yourself walking a Way of St. James with depression, anxiety, or suffering from PTSD?
Is it exactly the adventure you need to grow and overcome things, or will it turn out to be a bad idea you’ve let yourself into?
To make a pilgrimage with mental illnesses
If you consider how many people suffer from different mental illnesses, it becomes clear that there will be many among pilgrims too – the environment and their surroundings, however, like in most cases, just don’t notice it.
Because like often in your daily life you found your own way and mechanisms to deal with the difficulties of life or even hide them from others.
And that usually only works well until you’ll be torn out of your comfort zone and confronted with your own boundaries and limits. And this is exactly what happens walking a Camino.
A huge chance or an absolute catastrophe?
Going on a pilgrimage with anxiety, depression or PTSD has the potential for both.
What’s important is: there is no reason to rule something out. Deciding for walking a Way of St. James can turn out to be one of the best decisions in life.
It can help to outgrow yourself and find new strengths and versions of yourself. To find self-efficiency and the ability to act on situations, overcome your social anxieties and come back as this new version of yourself you have found out there.
But it doesn’t have to.
Because it is often those who spontaneously and out of an impulse start walking completely unprepared just because they heard a pilgrimage could help with their depression, who then run the danger of being overwhelmed. They then think to themselves that they are “just not made for this” and “once again fail at something” or similar effects which are very contra productive for their own healing process.
What does it take for the Way of St. James to be a good experience despite one’s depression, anxiety, or PTSD?
If you are affected by it and your gut tells you to go on a pilgrimage and that it might be something to help you, I have the following tips for you:
1. Go and get a professional opinion
If you and your illness have known each other well for a while and you have already created mechanisms and techniques to handle difficult situations well, and you potentially even are in therapeutic treatment, there is a huge chance that the Way of St. James is an amazing idea for you!
If you just came from a Burnout clinic – or even before that – it is not ruled out that it is a good idea, however, it is even more important for you to make sure there is a certain core stability and that you can fall back on help if something doesn’t go as planned.
You can only really estimate this with a professional opinion from someone in that field of knowledge. So, it is advisable to reach out to a doctor or therapist and speak to them about how you feel and what your plans are.
Moreover, it is important, to be honest with yourself. Sometimes you notice that you’re lying to yourself and that you feel way worse than you want to let on – and sometimes you feel that doing something new, exciting, and challenging is long overdue – and that the only thing missing was the courage and motivation to take those steps.
2. Do not listen to the others
If you are carefully trying to familiarise yourself with the topic and start reading in forums and Facebook Group chats or even tell people there about your worries, you will quickly hear the following things:
“Don’t think too much, just do it!”
“Just let it happen and see, the path will give you what you need”
“Hotel? The hostels are part of a pilgrimage!”
This might all come from a good place and could be true for the authors themselves but there is a very high probability that you cannot apply this to yourself.
Having depression sometimes just won’t let you get up in the morning. But if the pilgrim hostel kicks you out at eight in the morning after a very thought heavy and stressful night, it wouldn’t be a surprise for you to end up on the sides of the road, watching the happy crowds of pilgrims, and thinking to yourself: “What the hell am I even doing here?”.
With a generalised anxiety, you might not be able to just see where you’re staying for the night and hope for the best.
And suffering from PTSD, not having a home base and a safe place to go back to every day can be exactly that “bit too much” that takes away the stability and forces you to give up.
3. Take good care of yourself
Walking a Way of St. James has almost everyone reach their limits and often go even further than that. This can be an amazing thing that you will grow with – but it doesn’t always have to be.
Because sometimes for people with specific previous illnesses “going beyond one’s limits” can end badly, that is in panic attacks or flashbacks.
It is, therefore, very important that you listen, and take care of yourself.
If people around you are too much for you, say goodbye and take a step back!
If you’d like to tell me that “I’m not good at doing those things”, I can tell you, that a Camino is the perfect opportunity to practice it. You will be with others who are on the same level as you are in some way, but pilgrims are also a very inclusive little folk that you will never have to see again.
I don’t think there are easier places to just be you, try out new things, and test your limits.
Also, don’t forget to plan a budget just in case you will have to take a taxi home one day or change your hotel for your own comfort.
Nothing is wrong with that – someone who hurt their foot, “is allowed” to take a taxi somewhere. Let the adventure be an adventure and just get to a place with a bed and walls. That is enough reason if you are not feeling well!
4. Be prepared so you feel secure
You’re not a person who casually walks through life and waits for whatever happens next?
Why would that be different if you’re alone in a different country, walking with your rucksack only, in the middle of nowhere?
(Spoiler: The chance that you will become more relaxed with time and that you start to trust in the path giving you what you need is high!)
If studying the Way of St. James beforehand helps you to emotionally prepare for your trip – do it!
If your way of feeling secure about your journey is reading books about it, then so be it and nothing is wrong with that.
If you are worried about not finishing certain stages along the paths, ask someone like me to tailor the path for your individual needs and wishes.
If you want to know what you have to expect in detail, how long stages or paths through the woods are, or how far apart bars are so you can take a break, let me write you a pilgrim guide that gives you the amount of detail needed for you to happily and confidently start your path.
5. Traveling with a toolbox
Always pack whatever helps.
If you are taking medication, make sure you have enough with you. For example, if you suffer panic attacks but don’t take any medication yet, you might want to consider taking something with you that could help in an emergency situation. This should help you put your mind at ease a bit more.
If you are in therapy, ask for tips on how exactly you could handle specific situations that might be a bit more demanding.
For instance, how you could reduce your thoughts to a minimum – going on a pilgrimage is a time unlike any others and often you are alone with your thoughts. This could lead to you getting stuck in bad thoughts.
Create a list of people you can communicate with if you get into an uncomfortable situation – someone who will believe in you if you don’t. Who can you call in the middle of the night? Who knows how to stop panic attacks and what to do if you got triggered by something?
And even if this now is (absolutely legitimate) self-promotion: book a digital accompaniment with someone who knows the way and knows what it feels like to go on a pilgrimage (it is not that easy to explain those feelings and emotions to your loved ones at home), someone who can be your contact in any situation.
My conclusion on the topic “making a pilgrimage with depression, anxiety, or PTSD” is that I really recommend it to you if the base stability is set for it.
If your doctor or therapist advises you against it, then you really should consider their opinion, and if the risk of your plan turning into an expensive lesson on life isn’t too high.
For everyone else, I do see the chance of doing something life-changing. Something that will give you more confidence in yourself and helps you to overcome your fears and outgrow your worries. An experience that will help you to learn more about yourself.
The whole experience allows you to do a lot of physical activity, walking through nature multiple hours a day. It is a community in which you will have conversations with others from all over the world. For most people it definitely is the feeling of achieving something, to be proud of themselves and every stage that you mastered on the trip. To experience something new every day and build trust in yourself and the world, bit by bit.
You will have the distance from your daily life, break out of your routine and habits, and leave behind all the faces you see and things you have to commit to every day.
To walk a Way of St. James, whether that is the small one from Porto to Santiago, which only takes 2 weeks, has the potential to give you a hand in jumping ahead, taking important steps and returning as a “new human”.
Do it! Trust in yourself!