How avoiding the thought buses helps me with Agoraphobia
Posted on 17th July 2017
by Natalie Hind
Until most recently, I heavily relied on public transport. My life was full of things I could only get to via a bus or a train. Work, college, fun, relationships, right down to my healthcare. I would travel overseas; jetting off on exotic holidays and city breaks. In my not-so-regular down time, I would catch up with friends and family all over the country to step away from the hum of my busy life. I would occasionally jump in a car with L plates on, hoping to add ‘drive’ to the list of available transport options open to me, particularly on the days where the countryside took its toll on my much-needed service.
I eventually moved away from the countryside, and into the city. I accepted a place at a drama school, a short train journey from one of the liveliest and most exciting areas in London, and an easy ride away from a host of theatres, workshops and like-minded people; once a dream and now a very real opportunity.
A few weeks into my course, I chose to commute back home to the countryside. The journey would consist of 2 trains and a ride on the tube. This journey would be the one where public transport, for me, lost its convenience. Shortly after the train left the station, I was gripped with Anxiety. And I had to find a way to abandon ship. The anxiety travelled from 0-100mph in seconds. I struggled to breathe, my hands and feet were tingling and my mind was spinning faster than the train I needed to escape. My chest tightened, my stomach span and it felt much like my body was trying to reject anything and everything inside it. In minutes, I was slumped on the floor by an exit, in the lap of a girl I had only recently met, trying to thank her for not leaving me, but unable to as the anxiety took hostage of my tongue. Shortly after this, I saw a paramedic, who assured me that my body wasn’t failing me, but that I was one of an army of people who suffer panic attacks in situations they feel they are unable to escape.
Hearing this did not bring me relief, but more fear. I certainly had been no stranger to anxiety before, after having propelled through many stages of my life to date in a state of constant striving. Milliseconds after an achievement, “What next?” would enter the stage in my mind, rarely pausing to enjoy what I had just claimed, regularly ignoring the beautiful, everyday intricacies of the life I was already living… Adamant I wouldn’t endure this experience again, I chose to avoid public transport as the evil perpetrator of my anxiety.
Over the following year, avoidance started arriving into most situations where I felt like I couldn’t escape, looking to avoid a panic attack as much as possible. The more things I avoided, the smaller my world became. Eventually, I was unable to be in a room without some promise of an easy escape. The everyday things I used to do so freely, and so often take for granted, now had become completely inaccessible. I had learnt to avoid all public transport, and relied on family to transport me to and from college over the holidays and the odd weekend, a 3 hour trip each way. This became the only method of transport I would take altogether, if I was unable to get to a place on foot.
Turning to a therapist, I was introduced to Mindfulness, and to graded exposure to overcome the Agoraphobia. This planted some seeds of wisdom that would slowly grow over time. At this point, it had become very clear that avoidance was certainly not a help, but a hindrance, and that the only way to get ‘over’ these fears, was to go through them. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I began to step into situations and places that had become anxiety-inducing and practice welcoming in the fear, instead of wishing it away.
I found myself at a crossroads when I was faced with the opportunity to travel to Europe to fulfil a requirement of my course. Something that when I signed up to the course, was a huge factor in me accepting the place. With a heavy heart, I opted to defer my studies for a year.
I chose to develop my practice of Mindfulness and was introduced to an 8-week mindfulness meditation course. I began taking bus trips, accepting rides from friends, using taxis, and visiting places again. I regularly visited shopping centres, theatres, restaurants… my social life improved and my confidence soared. I even got my driving license, which bought more opportunities into my life, as well as giving me back my independence.
One of the most important discoveries I have made on this journey so far is surrounding avoidance, and how it had been the avoidance of things and places that had fed the fear. I have also learnt an interesting lesson in that, avoidance can be, an excellent way to work with Agoraphobia. I came across the teachings of Surryacitta Malcolm Smith, and the ‘Thought Buses’. He speaks about how our thoughts can take us on different journeys. Our thoughts arrive as buses, and there is an option to step on the bus and let the journey take us, possibly to a destination we don’t want to go. As we step off the thought bus, we are back at the bus stop. We are at our present moment. Observing it for what it is. How we use this bus service, can be our choice. We can indulge in the art of spending time at the bus stop, our present moment, and just observe the passing buses. We can choose to step onto the bus, and allow the thought to take us on a journey.
In my case, a thought bus may arrive, full to capacity of avoidance chatter, and the bullying back-seat voices of anxiety. I can choose to watch the bus drive off without me. As an observer of these buses, and through becoming a less frequent passenger, I have been able to observe my thoughts coming in and out of my mind, labelling them and seeing them for what they are. Just that. Just thoughts. Sometimes we get on the wrong bus, and that’s okay. It will eventually run its course. We can return to the bus stop. Knowing that I can avoid these thought buses as much as I desire, has been what I have needed to use actual transport again, and through this notion of labelling and observing, I am claiming my life back.
Tagged as: Natalie Hind
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