A few weeks ago, I was featured in a video for the Department of Transport about panic attacks on public transport. What are panic-attacks and what is it like to have one on a bus or train? How can members of the public help? It was really great to be given the chance to talk about this topic because for a long time travel has been a significant source of anxiety for me. I’ve had panic attacks in train stations and it’s definitely not fun.
As a very anxious person, travel was intimidating for a number of reasons. There was the overall uncertainty – going to unfamiliar places and the subsequent lack of control that entailed put me on edge. There was the fear of being trapped in a confined and crowded space like a busy bus or train. What if the train was delayed or held at a red signal and I couldn’t escape this metal box full of strangers with sweaty armpits? What if I had a panic attack and couldn’t leave or get any fresh air? OCD added a whole other range of travel-related difficulties. What if I had to use a dirty public bathroom with an empty soap dispenser? What if I had a panic attack in said bathroom? What if a sick person sat next to me on the train and sneezed and coughed all over me and I became seriously ill? Needless to say, long distance journeys are no fun when you have anxiety and OCD.
It got to the point where I would avoid travel as much as I could, and the result was that my world became much smaller. Many things that normal 21 year-olds do were simply off-limits for me. I couldn’t visit my friend on her year abroad, and I had to say no to inter-railing around Europe with my mates. I appreciate that this is something of a first world problem. However, for me the issues was more that exciting opportunities were presenting themselves to me and I was turning them down because I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible might happen. I knew that I had to do something.
A trip to Florence with my Dad in April 2017 was a turning point. As a total art-history geek, Florence had been at the top of my bucket list for years. I hadn’t been abroad or set foot on a plane for years, and the though of spending a week in a completely unfamiliar environment was terrifying. But I didn’t want to let my anxiety stop me from going on my dream holiday. The night before we left for Italy, I wrote: This feels like a milestone. A year ago, I would not have been able to do this. I’m scared because I’m not in control of everything – and control is something I crave. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But ultimately I know I can handle it, even if I do have a few panic attacks along the way. I’m pretty tough. This is about not letting OCD and anxiety control my life anymore
And I was right. Yes, I did have a panic attack pretty much every day. The journey home was particularly challenging – I got stuck in a bathroom, got searched by security whilst having a panic attack, faced a particularly grim airport toilet, and endured long delays and a very cramped plane.
But no, it did not ruin the holiday. I still had an amazing time – I got to see stunning artwork, walk the streets of a beautiful, historic city, and make memories with my Dad that I will treasure forever.
My anxiety around travel has not disappeared. The difference is that I now refuse to let it control my life. Yes, there are days when the anxiety is particularly bad and I have to take a rain check. But overall, I know that I can handle it even if it is scary. I have survived all of my worst days so far, and an awful journey here and there is 100% worth it for a fuller, richer life where I can do the things I want to do and go to the places I want to go.
Overcoming travel anxiety is not easy, and mind-set alone is not enough to tackle it. A combination of therapy, medication and support from family and friends is what has helped me. I started with the small stuff – getting myself used to shorter, easier journeys and gradually building up. Baby steps were key. I continue to work on this by deliberately taking the busier train home, or forcing myself to use train station toilets so I can learn that most of them aren’t as bad as I fear.
Medication has also made a huge difference. I’ve been on Fluoxetine for just over 2 months, and I haven’t had a panic attack since. Medication has lowered my general anxiety enough that I’m actually able to use the CBT techniques I’ve learned in therapy to manage challenging situations. I still have anxiety and OCD, but this drug has changed my life and going on it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
If you struggle with travel anxiety, please know that you are not alone and that it really can get better. It may seem impossible now, but with the right support you can work through it. I’d really recommend talking to a doctor if you struggle with anxiety, panic attacks or OCD, and organisations like Anxiety UK, OCD Action, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness can provide you with additional information and support. Good luck!