Panic and public transport

Sometimes, you’ll have somewhere you’ve got to be. Work, school, social engagement, protesting against the current state of the world, emergency trip to Ikea for a new rug.

Public transport is a mental illness logistical nightmare. There is loud ambient noise. It is visually overstimulating. There are myriad strangers, all of whom are both potential threats (to the idiot savant that is your animal brain) and judgemental members of society (to your bitchy, socially-conscious brain). It causes headaches and nausea, both of which can be easily confused with or cause anxiety symptoms, and you are trapped, something that every part of the anxious mind wants to avoid.

Add to that the stress of having to work out travel routes, organise connections, get off at the right stop, and remember all your bags, and it’s a miracle anyone with even a smattering of anxiety ever leaves the damned house.

But let’s say you’ve managed to drum up the energy and moxie to get on a bus/train/boat/plane. Congratulations! It is going to be both boring and uncomfortable, unless you live in the Swiss Alps and everything is endlessly, ridiculously pretty to look at.

Here are my top 5 tips for surviving public transport without a panic attack:

  1. Earplugs. My particular favourites are these, Pluggerz, which are designed for Roadies in that they block out overwhelming and damaging noise but allow you to still hear conversations and – if you’re using them at a concert – music. I often use them at work, actually, because it downs out ambient and annoying noise, protecting me from headaches, but lets me hear if a colleague calls my name. On the Underground, they produce a blissful semi-silence that allows you to read in peace.
  2. Alternatively, podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. This is partly because I’m an auditory learner, something I developed after years of language classes, and I learn best when listening to something. It’s also partly because I get nauseous really easily nowadays, and it’s a good alternative to reading. Plus, it lets me avoid panicking by playing a puzzle-game while listening, effectively using all of my attention and keeping my lizard-brain away from useless, aimless nerves. For long journeys, I either lean towards comedy, or I’ll listen to something long and interesting like This American Life or The TED Radio Hour. Block out the world, listen to the dulcet tones of Ira Glass or Roman Mars, and tune back into reality when you reach your destination.
  3. Play games. It’s not a novel suggestion to say you should try playing Candy Crush to avoid your own thoughts, but there’s actually a fair amount of science backing it up. The theory is that visuospatial cognitive tasks, like playing Tetris, reduces the brain’s ability to generate mental images, such as trauma flashbacks (Holmes et al., 2009). Whatever the logic, I’ve found that occupying my brain with games always calms me down. My personal favourite, shared with Frank Underwood in House of Cards, is Monument Valley, a gorgeous game with very soothing music.
  4. Breathe. A commute, when you’re not distracted by anything pressing and you have some time on your hands, is a great opportunity to meditate. There are some brilliant free meditation apps – try a few and pick your favourite! – or else just wearing headphones and listening to nothing is a good way to avoid conversation and turn your attention inwards. Take stock of how you’re feeling. Think about nothing at all, or if that’s too challenging, think about everything that’s happened since you woke up that you’re thankful for. Coffee, cuddles, seeing a cute cat on the street – there’ll be something to be grateful for. Breathe, and feel a little better.
  5. Take a break. Honestly, most things feel like life-and-death when you’re dealing with mental illness, but some things can wait. You can be ten minutes late to almost everything. If you’re really, really panicking – no judgement, I have been that person – I’d recommend getting off the train and waiting for the next one. The change of scenery will help reassure your animal brain that you’ve moved away from whatever threat it perceived, and the fact that you’re not moving will give your body a chance to re-calibrate.

The truth is, you’re going to have some days when it’s really difficult to handle public transport. It might get to the point where you need to talk about working from home a little more, if that’s an option, or you might need to take some sick leave. It’s a very personal journey, and if it’s a trigger for you, it can be ridiculously hard to cope with the overstimulation of busy public spaces, let alone underground ones. That move. And screech. And stink.

Be gentle with yourself, and develop coping mechanisms. Find things that calm you, that you enjoy. Only let yourself listen to your favourite audiobook during the worst part of your commute. Try something, anything, to change it up, because it doesn’t really matter if everyone on the train is coping just fine and you’re… well, you’re not.

I’ve cried in public so much at this point I’m pretty uninterested in what everyone on the Tube thinks of my puffy eyes and red face, but you might not be there yet – the key is to try to think of yourself, and your own health, first.

In the words of Mary Schmich, the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself.

Breathe. Take care of yourself.

With love, always,


Please feel free to like, share and comment! I’d love to hear what public transport is like in your city, and what your rituals are for making your commute as smooth as possible.

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible

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