Using Public Transport

Is something a number of people who have a mental illness find challenging. Unfortunately, we often have to rely upon it to get around, either because we’re not well enough to drive, or simply lack the finances to run a car. If we find using public transport impossible, this can contribute to serious problems such as social isolation and lack of contact with our support people such as GP’s. I am fortunate to now own a car and have a license, but I still find myself in situations where public transport is the best option – whether it’s because the trip is a really long one, such as an interstate train trip, or because there’s no parking available at my destination. I’ve been working on being able to cope with public transport better so that these trips are less stressful for me. So, here are a few tips I’ve found helpful.

1. Take it slowly
If you also find public transport a challenge, you need to build up to it with small steps. I’d advise against an interstate train trip if you have panic attacks on trains! Work up to it in small stages. I started by taking a short bus trip to a friend’s house who would drive me home afterwards. I’d only do this in daylight and in good weather, the trip was pretty short, and I had something nice to reward myself with straight afterwards – catching up with a friend. I also knew I was going to be dropped home afterwards, so I wasn’t stressed during the visit. Small successes build up your confidence to manage bigger challenges. Whereas biting off more than you can chew and throwing yourself into a huge challenge where you crash and burn will leave you feeling humiliated and deeply discouraged. Don’t be embarrassed if you have to start small. Slow and steady wins the race here. It’s also okay if you need to just take the bus one or two stops away and then walk home.

2. Reward yourself
Try to create a positive association with public transport by rewarding all your efforts and taking yourself to fun and exciting places. If you are really stressed about it and the only places you ever go on it are to the doctor or dentist – that spells trouble! Go to the local park, visit a friend, go to a cafe for an icecream, down the art gallery or museum, whatever you like. The more enjoyable, the better. You may even find yourself looking forward to the destination more than worrying about the process. I used to take myself to the movies.

3. Trauma Issues
One of the reasons many people find public transport difficult is the closeness to strangers. This has been a big one for me. There’s a couple of ways around this – for starters, try using public transport during the quiet times of the day. Avoid getting on a bus at peak hour! Take a bag with you that you can put onto the seat beside you to discourage company. (obviously, this isn’t fair if the bus is full) Sit near to the door so that you don’t feel trapped by people in the passageway. Use grounding techniques to manage your anxiety. Move away from anyone who intimidates you – go and sit close to the driver if you need to. Try to make eye contact with anyone you find non-threatening and focus on their presence. I often wave to small children or chat to Mum’s with prams. I smile at elderly folks and help people with trolleys on and off the bus. This makes me feel useful and gives me something else to think about instead of focusing on my anxiety. It also helps to remind me that most of the other people on public transport are just regular folk like me, not scary or threatening. I was on the bus the other day and a man was standing in the aisle next to me, when I noticed that he had a big mop of long fluffy white cat fur stuck to his nice dark pants! I suspect he has a lovely white persian cat at home that had been sleeping next to him on the couch. It suddenly flipped how I saw him – from being a threatening man standing too close to me, to just a regular guy with a cat and not someone to feel afraid of.

Night is also an additional stress. Waiting at a bus stop in the dark adds another level of stress to the experience. I’ve been creeping up on this one. Initially I wouldn’t catch any kind of public transport when it was close to dark. Then I moved onto being able to cope if I arrived home when it was a little dark, as long as it had been light when I first got on the bus. Then I started to catch the bus home after dark provided it was from a good stop – lots of light and plenty of other people waiting. The bus stop outside the TAFE is a good one for this. I always have my mobile phone with me, and if I feel scared, I call someone to talk, or I pretend to call someone and talk into the phone anyway. This helps me to feel safer and generally stops anyone else approaching me.

4. Voice Hearers
May also find public transport a big challenge. If you find you sometimes need to talk to your voices out loud, something that may make you more comfortable on public transport is to turn your phone off or to silent, and pretend to be speaking to someone on it. (it’s important to turn it to silent while you do this – it’s pretty embarrassing otherwise if it suddenly rings!) An MP3 player can also provide something else to focus on and may make things easier. If your voices get so loud you can’t hear what other people say to you, you might want to try learning some basic lip reading. One way to start this is to watch daytime soapies on mute. The overacting and lots of face close ups can help get you started. I don’t find this easy but I’ve heard of others who say it takes the edge off a bit. 🙂

5. Dissociation
If you’re prone to dissociation then the combination of a stressful environment plus the rhythmic motion of the vehicle may really have you zoning out. I miss a lot of stops! I leave books, jumpers, and handbags on trains. If you have a phone or digital watch, set it to go off a minute or two before your timed stop to alert you. Then, set it to snooze or to go off again every 30 seconds! If you have to put down belongings, put them on the seat by the aisle so you have to pass them to get out of your seat. Better yet, put them on your lap, or into a bag. Never put things on the floor by your feet. Ladies, use a handbag with a long shoulder strap and put it in your lap with the strap still around you. This makes it a lot harder to leave behind! Guys, use pockets or a student satchel. You can also tie belongings to one wrist with a piece of string or ribbon, esp if they are too big or awkward to put on your lap – eg a guitar. Don’t feel silly – the most important thing is not to donate your precious shopping or other belongings to the transport association!

6. Take a friend
If you have a lovely helpful person with some time on their hands, try taking along a friend while you get used to using public transport again. I was really surprised how much difference this made to me. It can help you create some more positive memories and experiences.

7. Distraction
I love my MP3 player for this. I put in one ear bud so I can hear my music, but I’m still aware of what’s happening around me. This is pretty important when you’re near traffic and roads, your sense of hearing plays a huge part in warning you about traffic and keeping you safe. But trips which felt excruciatingly long seemed to shrink to nothing when I have some of my favourite music to listen to.

8. Weather
This can certainly make a big difference to your travels. There’s not much more miserable in life than being stuck at a bus stop in the rain or in 40C heat. So, check the weather before you go out. Invest in a small fold up umbrella. Always take a jumper even if there’s only a small chance it will get chilly. I’ve found that catching a bus in the evening on hot days can be very cold because the air conditioner is still running even though its now mild outside. Try to avoid long waits for transfers during heatwaves. Take a frozen water bottle with you if you have to go out. This might all sound really silly, but if your stress level is already high things like getting wet or being really hot can be the difference between being uncomfortable and having a meltdown.

9. Smart phones
One of the things that I really struggle with is reading the guides! I have a minor learning disability that means I tend to scramble numbers and have difficulty with some kinds of maths. Bus timetables are basically my worst nightmare, and I frequently end up in the wrong place at the wrong time waiting forever for a bus that isn’t coming. This is incredibly frustrating! I also end up carrying a lot of timetables around so that I can get home. Knowing that I may read them wrong, I always go home a few buses before the last ones of the night even if I was at a function I was really enjoying. I’ve just upgraded to this entry level smart phone, which means I can pay for a small amount of internet and access google maps. In fact some internet data is included on my phone plan, I’ve just never been able to use it before. So, no more carrying around wads of timetables, and it’s much easier for me to be flexible and change plans last minute when I can just google map a new route home. I’ve spent the last couple of days bussing about the place getting used to using the phone to work out my next step. This wont be an option for everyone, but now that basic smart phone prices are down to $50, it is becoming more achievable.

10. Control issues
One of the things that can make public transport more stressful than other forms of transport is the awareness that you are not in control of the vehicle. It requires a certain degree of trust to get on board! If this is an issue for you, stay near the door, try sitting on the left aisle, away from the other traffic, and never forget – if you really need to, get off at any stop, catch your breath, take a small walk perhaps, and then get on the next bus that comes. You may feel trapped, but the reality is you can get off at any stop you need to, and very few bus drivers would prefer to keep on board someone who’s having a panic attack. For longer trips this is more challenging. Using creative visualisation may help you feel less trapped – in simple terms, try going away to your happy place and stay there until the trip is up if you need! If you can read or watch a movie that may help to distance you from your surroundings. Alternatively, mindfulness techniques may help you to adopt a more detached and curious perspective about your circumstances. If at all possible, try to get off public transport before you become overwhelmingly distressed. This will help you feel more in control of your condition. If you hang on until you have panic attacks or meltdowns, public transport will become more associated with these really upsetting experiences, which will only make it harder to use in the future.

11. Use alternatives
On bad days when you know you wont cope – and hey we all have them! – don’t set yourself a task you know can’t achieve. Go for a walk instead, or have a ride on your bide. Get a second hand pair of roller blades. Hitch a ride with a friend or family member. Don’t curl up in a small ball at home and brood forever!

Constriction and isolation are bad for your mental health, and you can easily get stuck in a downward spiral where the more miserable you feel, the less you’re able to cope with public transport, so the more you’re stuck at home, and the more miserable you feel. You deserve the freedom to explore your world. Feeling familiar with and safe in your space can help expand your world and reconnect you to outside events. Having a local park you can walk to if you need some space or to get out of the house for a while is a good thing. I go hop on the swings when I need a breath of fresh air. Check your local messenger for free events such as gallery openings. Find a local pub and make it yours. Make sure your world is bigger than your bedroom.

This article can be found in pdf form here for easy printing or downloading. Feel welcome to share using the buttons below. To read similar articles, click on a label below. To see my copyright policy, go to my About this Blog page.

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