Do the Routes of Santiago de Compostela have benefits for Mental Health?

According to the Pilgrim’s Office statistics, more than 300,000 people traveled to the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in 2018 for reasons ranging from personal growth to spiritual reasons, not to mention those who do it solely for leisure or as a sports challenge.

However, some people go further and ask themselves: Do the Routes of Santiago de Compostela have benefits for psychological well-being and mental health? This is the question that a group of researchers, from different centers and universities, has made through a study they have called Proyecto Ultreya.

The objective of the study (first one done on this subject) is to evaluate the psychological effects that occur in the pilgrims who make the Routes of Santiago de Compostela Dr. Albert Feliu, a researcher at the Fundació Sant Joan de Déu and one of this study’s promoters, explains exclusively to Viajes National Geographic that:

The project was born thanks to “the initiative and concerns of a group of researchers and health professionals that, knowing the innumerable testimonies about the positive effects of the pilgrimage to Santiago, we asked ourselves if it would be possible to know scientifically the psychological effects associated with the pilgrimage.” As Feliu points out, “many people, who have made the Routes of Santiago de Compostela, upon returning home, explain that it was a life-changing experience and we want to find out if there is a significant change in psychological aspects relevant to health.”

Is it a sporting challenge, a religious path, or a mental therapy?

  1. Stop to observe

This project particularity is the relation between the supposed psychological benefits that the pilgrimage causes a person and the concept of mindfulness, which means if the journey can be considered a meditative practice that means paying attention intentionally to the present moment learning to live with difficulties and to feel connected with the other without judging. According to Albert Feliu, “throughout the pilgrimage, many opportunities are generated to be silent and observe what is happening in the present as a hay green field waving after reaching a small peak or the forest smell after the rain. You don’t have anything else to do than walk, stop, and observe. “

  1. Very significant changes

With this study, researchers want to evaluate the effects of the Santiago pilgrimage on aspects such as depressive symptomatology, stress or happiness, both in the short term (at the end of the routes) and in the medium-long term (three months after having finished it). The provisional results indicate that the pilgrimage seems to be associated with very relevant changes, especially in the short term, in mental health measures evaluated as stress and depressive symptomatology with reductions of between 20 and 50%.

 

  1. A cure for anxiety

Other aspects that clearly improve are the perception of happiness, satisfaction with life, and mindfulness. In addition, although the effects of the routes on mental health seem to be diluted with time, in the evaluation three months after the pilgrimage ends, the psychological benefits would still be significant. Particularly noteworthy is the anxious symptomatology, which on average would be 20% better than before starting the routes.

 

THE EFFECTS THAT PRODUCE A “NORMAL” HOLIDAYS

As part of the study, its promoters also want to know if the mental health beneficial effects of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela entails are the same that can occur in people who go on holidays that have nothing to do with the Santiago pilgrimage. Through another associated project called Proyecto Vacaciones, the researchers are collecting data on people who take vacations whether they are active, such as hiking or cycling, or passive, such as staying at home or taking a trip to the Caribbean with an all-inclusive holiday plan. The objective: to find out if the psychological changes are similar or not to those observed after performing the Routes.

According to Albert Feliu, “although the natural therapeutic effect of the holidays seems undeniable, we suspect that the pilgrimage can be associated with greater effects at mental health level than simply having a few days off from work.”

In this sense, the researchers believe that the combination of physical exercise in a natural context, an experience close to meditative withdrawal or forming part of a collective would seem, a priori, constitute a “package” of different processes and potentially with a more significant impact on health than most “packages” or tourist options.

This study is still underway and to participate on it, it is necessary to complete some online forms where participants must answer a series of questions before, after doing the Routes and three months after having finished it, to see if the effects last in time.

The project will remain in operation for the rest of the year and, according to its creators, most likely also during 2020 before concluding the participation period on the study.

Travelers who are thinking of undertaking the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in the coming months have the opportunity to be part of this pioneering research to determine the possible beneficial effects that mental health has on one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world.

As Feliu points out, “the preliminary results are promising, but there are still many unknowns to answer about the extent to which the Path is or not a therapeutic experience.” Moreover, he finishes, “who knows if, in a few years, health professionals could come to prescribe the Routes of Santiago de Compostela for some of his patients.”

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