Backpacking to Heal Depression

I’m a recovered depressive. Social anxiety was the root cause. I recovered by backpacking around Asia. When depression returned a few years later, this time caused by financial hardship, I again recovered, by hiking across Spain. If you have a depressed mood or clinical unipolar depression, with similar underlying causes, then it is highly likely you will also benefit from these healing activities.

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My name is Ben, I’m 37, from England, and for seventeen years I had severe major depressive disorder (unipolar depression). This started around 1996 and ended around the start of 2013. The root cause of the depression was severe social anxiety. I lived with depression for approximately six years without knowing what it was and before seeking professional help. Over the course of the following eleven years I saw numerous doctors, four psychiatrists, several care workers and one hypnotist. I was prescribed many anti-depressants, including the usuals: Fluoxetine (Prozac), Sertraline (Zoloft), Citalopram (Celexa), Venlafaxine (Effexor). Each one had a spectacular lack of effect on the illness, and I endured many unpleasant side-effects. I stopped taking medication in 2012 when it was apparent that it could not fix the underlying causes of my depression. My conditions were treatment-resistant, and the British publicly-funded health care system (NHS) could not help me.

I decided to focus on fixing the cause of my depression, not it’s effects. This meant tackling the social anxiety. I was aware that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was an effective treatments for this. I had previously been prescribed a course of CBT, but the depression had made it impossible for me to commit to the treatment. However, I had done some reading on psychotherapy (of which CBT is one form), and was intrigued by a technique called exposure therapy. This is where the patient is subjected to the feared context, repeatedly, in gradually increasing amounts, in a safe environment. I saw that this technique could be applied to my social anxiety. By exposing myself to the social situations of which I was so afraid, repeatedly, there was a good chance I could eventually overcome the phobia. It was clear that I needed a safe environment to do this in. By safe, I mean an environment in which other people’s perceptions of me were of minimal significance. I knew that if I went backpacking, I would be exposed to a constant stream of social situations, with the advantage of being transient in each location, moving on every few days. Therefore, there would be no real social consequences of making a fool of myself in public, because no-one would know me, and I would soon be moving to the next place anyway.

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In August 2012 I started my backpacking trip around Asia, which lasted for six months. Although it was a very, very difficult experience, at least initially, it was greatly beneficial to me. I had been a person who had avoided every possible social situation, and had been afraid of even ‘being’ in public. I intended to use this trip as an opportunity to face my social fear, repeatedly, day after day. From the start I went to a cafes for breakfast and restaurants for lunch and dinner. Always different places. It took a month before I felt brave enough to enter a bar alone. After this I went to bars every evening, deliberately enduring the cringing self-consciousness of sitting there alone. Refusing to hide behind my phone. Throughout each day I would talk to people. Guesthouses and hostels were particularly good for this, as they normally have social atmospheres. It was a pleasure to meet the many people I did, some of whom have become good friends. I increasingly said ‘Yes’ to invitations and new experiences. These were invariably terrifying and yet absolutely gratifying – it gave me a huge sense of achievement to continually expand my comfort zone. Saying ‘Yes’ opened up many new experiences and encounters, beyond anything I had imagined. I embraced every possible social situation. It was an exhausting, frightening process. But before the trip I had been constantly exhausted anyway, and fear had dominated my life. I had everything to gain by the exposure therapy, and it worked better than I could have hoped. By the end of my trip I was completely recovered from social anxiety, and significantly recovered from depression. I was a different person. I now enjoyed going to cafes and preferred eating out to eating in. I enjoyed spending an hour or two in a bar in the evening. I was comfortable around people, and preferred being with others to being alone. I said ‘Yes’ to almost everything. Traveling had become a passion of mine, together with facing my fears, experiencing new things and challenging myself.

In June 2015 I regressed into depression again, this time as a result of circumstances. My newly created company went bust, I lost all my money, had to leave my girlfriend in Argentina whilst looking for work, and was no long able to do all those things which I now loved. Within a few months the depression was so bad I was unable to get out of bed. It occurred to me late one night to again go backpacking, this time walking the Camino de Santiago, something which I had read about extensively and which had long been on my bucket list (since 2012 at least, when I became well enough to actually create a bucket list).

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I started my Camino in August 2015. The first two weeks were horrendous, with my depression compounded by the financial difficulties of living on 8€ per day. I hated the lack of privacy in the albergues (hostels); the agony of walking for six hours each day in disintegrating shoes; how happy everyone else was; and the limited experiences my budget afforded me. However, by degrees, my mood began to improve. I developed strategies to cope with my budget, and was the recipient of a remarkable amount of kindness from others, receiving encouragement, recommendations, food, wine and an excellent pair of footwear to replace my own (I now know that anyone walking the Camino can expect to be part of – and contribute to – a supportive, non-judgmental environment that brings out the best in people). Arriving each day at my intended destination gave me a huge endorphin rush, and the achievement added to my self-esteem, which had suffered as a result of my pre-Camino circumstances. I benefited psychologically from frequent social interactions with the other walkers. I was always one step outside of my comfort zone (I’m not a walker; I can’t speak Spanish; and my finances were challenging), which led to the predictable increase in mental productivity, which in turn lent itself to producing creative solutions to the causes of my depression. Over the period in which I walked the Camino I again recovered from depression. Social anxiety was never a factor, thankfully. I wrote a book about this experience which can be downloaded freely from my website.

I provide this article as an information resource for those with depressed mood or major depressive disorder, caused by social anxiety or life events, who feel that they may benefit from using traveling as a means to recovery. Recovery is difficult and painful, but no more so than living with these disorders. The evidence indicates that these disorders are surmountable. I hope you will use this article, my book and website to aid your research and to learn from my mistakes. It is essential you travel safely, and in a way that will provide the greatest probability of recovery and personal growth.

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  • Vincent Tayelrand

    I love this story and I can attest that backpacking will work. My longest bout of being free of depressions involved two long backpacking trips decades a go.

    This is because this lifestyle comes closest to the hunter gatherer in us and it is a fact that depression is all but non-existent in hunter gatherer societies.

    If I had the funds this would be my lifestyle of choice.

  • P. A. Speers

    You are amazing! Thank you for sharing this incredible story and for writing your book!