'I Was Terrified Of Taking The Tube': How To Cope With Public Transport When You're Suffering With Anxiety
The Debrief: 'Millions of people take public transport every day without any problems. Why couldn’t I?'
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, I’m sitting on a relatively empty tube carriage on the Northern Line, and I’m about to burst into tears. My heart is pounding, my forehead is drenched in sweat and my hands are shaking so badly I can barely keep hold of my phone. Why? The train has slowed to a stop inside the tunnel, I feel trapped, and I’m on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.
A few seconds later – they feel like hours – and the train is moving again. My panic subsides as we enter the next station and the potential for escape beckons, but I’ve got another five stops to go. I only make three before remembering the track splits after the next stop and delays are common, so I get off early. I’ll take the bus instead.
Getting from A to B is a piece of cake in London. Granted, taking the tube isn’t a pleasant experience at the best of times – it’s crowded, it smells, it’s always hellishly hot no matter how Arctic the weather – but it’s relatively quick and easy. Throw claustrophobia into the mix, though, and it becomes a mind-bending, nauseating ordeal.
I’d been living in the city for nearly three years without any problems. I experienced the odd tube delay here or there, and I’d sighed and tutted along with everyone else when the driver announced signalling problems or a stopped train up ahead. Standard. Then one day a housemate came home, frazzled because she’d been stuck underground for nearly an hour, and something in my brain flipped. The next day, on the tube, I felt uneasy. By the end of the week, I was a wreck. I’d become fixated on the idea – and fear – of being trapped.
‘The feeling that you’re unable to escape a situation represents a serious loss of personal control, and this is something that stresses out our sub conscious brain considerably,’ says Dr Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of The Idiot Brain. ‘Stress hormones and adrenaline flood your system and your brain sends out panic signals to deal with the “danger”. It’s a fight-or-flight response, and everything is made worse because the brain tends to shut down your awareness of anything beyond the cause of alarm, so it’s harder to focus on anything else.’
I’m a rational person and I was keenly aware of what was going on in my head and why, but I couldn’t reason with my brain. Every second I was on the tube I was wound like a spring, my mental state balanced on a knife edge. Unscheduled braking, the crackling of an impending tannoy announcement or the slightest hint of a bump on the tracks were enough to spin me over the edge.
It wasn’t long before the fear I associated with being on the tube crept into every aspect of my life. I’d take buses and taxis instead, adding hours to journeys and zeros to my credit card statements. If I had to take the tube, I’d schedule meetings at weird times to avoid rush hour, and I’d compulsively check travel apps and Twitter reports, looking for the slightest hint of a delay.
Taking the tube in London is such a normal thing, so the fact that it was such a big deal to me made me feel like a freak. I’d be sat there, twitching nervously with clammy hands and a racing heart, while everyone around me appeared entirely zen, content to read their books, listen to their music or chat to their friends, passing the time in an everyday, mundane fashion. I felt alone and ridiculous, and whenever I mentioned it to friends (always in a cautionary, throwaway fashion: ‘I really hate taking the tube, it’s so stressful’) they’d agree. ‘God, it’s the worst, isn’t it?’ they’d say, in the same way you’d describe queuing in Starbucks or when the corner shop runs out of Pinot Grigio.
But I wasn’t alone. As evidenced by TFL’s new map, designed for people with anxiety conditions showing which stations and sections of its network are underground, tube anxiety clearly affects a significant number of travellers. And its release has opened up a whole dialogue on the subject. A friend of mine shared the map on Facebook, revealing that he’d struggled with claustrophobia not just on the tube, but on all modes of public transport. A report about the map on a news website was followed by hundreds of comments from people expressing their relief that ‘it’s not just me’. And when I pitched this article to my editor here at The Debrief, she came back straight away telling me she experienced the same problems.
‘For a long time, my anxiety was so bad that I had to get taxis to work. It sounds ridiculous but it was the only way I could keep going’ she told me. ‘If you have a panic disorder the tube at rush hour is basically the inner circle of hell’ she added, ‘but I’m very mindful that I don’t want to let this limit my life or, crucially, bankrupt me, so I do try and take the tube every now and then, especially if it’s necessary for work but it is a constant inner battle. Being able to take transport or sit in confined spaces is something I’ve had to work on constantly for the last few years. It’s a process.’
But while knowing other people face the same struggle is comforting, it doesn’t address the issue at hand. ‘Some people are able to live with the anxiety and find ways to manage the condition on their own,’ says counsellor Katy Georgiou Reg MBACP. ‘Grounding’ is a good technique for this. Place your feet firmly on the floor, allowing yourself to feel the ground beneath you. This has the physical effect of stabilising you, and the idea is that in connecting to the ground, you feel more rooted, which calms you.
‘Also, it’s common advice, but breathe! We forget to breathe when we’re anxious or panicking, so try to focus on taking slow, deep breaths of air. With your feet firmly on the ground, close your eyes, take an in-breath and mentally visualise drawing power from the ground as if your legs are tree roots drawing water from the soil. Draw the power up through your feet and legs into your body and visualise it travelling through your blood stream, then breathe ‘the power’ out into your surroundings.’
But, she says, seeking external help can be beneficial, especially if the anxiety starts having greater implications on your daily life. ‘If you’re at a stage where you're avoiding friends, missing work, or hiding the issue from loved ones, you might start feeling isolated, which can lead to depression. There are lots of confidential helplines such as No Panic, Samaritans, MIND and Anxiety UK which can offer you help and support. A visit to your GP is also a good idea as a first measure. They’ll be able to talk through your options, whether that be medication or counselling. You can get counselling through the NHS, but you can also approach organisations such as MIND, which offers a free service, or search counselling directories like itsgoodtotalk.org.uk for private services.’
In the end, I moved out of London. Not because of my tube anxieties, although I’m obviously relieved I don’t have to deal with it regularly anymore. But I know the fear is still there. It scratches at the corners of my consciousness when I’m in a small elevator or stuck in traffic. My heart races when I take a train through the Severn Tunnel, and I can’t get on a long-haul flight without a bottle of muscle relaxants clutched in my sweaty palm. But TFL’s map, and the conversations that are taking place around it means I know I’m not alone. The relief is great, like the light at the end of the tunnel.
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