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Handling anxiety on public transport

October 25, 2021

Whether it’s something that bothered you before the pandemic, or you’re nervous about starting to travel by bus, train or plane again, feeling anxious about using public transport can be a problem if it’s something you need or want to do.

The symptoms you experience as a result of your anxiety could be physical, psychological or emotional, or a mix of all three. You might feel shaky, hot or sweaty, or have wobbly legs. Perhaps you feel fear of some sort – for example about the risk of an accident, or of catching Covid or exposing yourself to other ‘germs’. You might be uncomfortable mixing with other people in an enclosed space, or worried about how other passengers might behave.

Many people who get anxious on public transport have a similar underlying concern, which is that they won’t be able to get off when they need to, for instance if they feel panicky or sick.

Here are some ideas you can try to reduce your anxiety and your fear, and put yourself in a better position to use public transport comfortably and confidently – including some CBT techniques.

Work out what your ‘bottom line’ fear is.

This is the first step to understanding the source of your anxiety, and to move forward – either by problem solving to improve the situation or reducing the symptoms you experience. Are you afraid there will be a crash, or a terrorist incident? Do you find crowded spaces intimidating? Are you worried you might have a panic attack?

Think about the impact the fear has on you.

Do you avoid taking the bus or train as a result of your anxiety, and does this stop you socialising, or make it harder to get to work? If you still make the journey, but you feel terrible, does it end up ruining the rest of your day? And would you like this to change?

Ask yourself how realistic your fear is.

It’s easy to imagine the worst, so challenging your assumptions can help to put things in perspective. Think carefully about what it is you believe will happen, for example: “I will have a panic attack, not be able to cope, and end up getting taken to hospital”. Try to think of times in the past you’ve felt panicky, and you’ve been able to cope with those feelings and carry on.

If you worry that people will be looking at you, do an experiment: when you’re travelling, glance around and see what people are really doing. Chances are they’re gazing out of the window, or engrossed in their phone.

If you’re thinking “The train will be packed, nobody will be wearing a mask, and lots of people will be coughing”, you could ask someone you know who travels by train to describe what it’s really like on board, or watch a few trains pass at a level crossing and see for yourself.

Take practical steps to put yourself at ease.

Travelling has definitely changed since before the pandemic, and we can’t predict or control what others around us do. This uncertainty can lead to anxiety, especially if we’ve not used public transport for a while.

If you’re worried about specific aspects of staying safe, you can plan ahead, thinking of ways you can control your own space and safety. This could involve making sure you have a mask and sanitiser, if you’re worried about Covid. You could make sure someone knows what route you’re on, and when you’re expected to arrive. Thinking about where you’d feel most comfortable sitting or standing is another option – but be aware you might have to rethink your plan if you find someone else got there first!

Take it slowly – try ‘graded exposure’.

This technique involves breaking the journey you’d like to take down into small chunks. If you want to take the bus into town, for example, start by simply waiting at the bus stop and watching a few buses come and go. Next time, get on board, and ride one stop or two stops. You might need to do this section of the journey a few times before it feels okay, but every time you do it the less anxious you’ll feel. When you’re ready, travel halfway, and so on. The final goal is going all the way there and home on the bus.

If you have to travel, and you begin to feel anxious, you can calm the symptoms down by trying some short-term techniques – for instance grounding yourself in the moment using your senses. What can you see? Smell? Hear? You could also try some breathing exercises.

Whatever your situation, it’s best to avoid becoming too reliant on using a certain ‘safety blanket’; if you find yourself without it one day, you could end up back at square one. CBT treatment can help you address the anxieties you feel for the longer term, so you can get on with your day and do the things you need to do. Find out here if ieso offers online CBT in your area.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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