Train Therapy

Bogdana
8 min readSep 3, 2022

This year, my favorite conference — Interesting, was put on again by the lovely Russell and I got invited to do a talk. Here’s the waaay to long transcript, which I managed to condense into 9 minutes and 21 seconds while on stage.

In June of 2021 I was in the Brussels main train station waiting for an overnight train to Vienna on my annual road trip back to my home country, Romania, to visit my parents. Since 2017 I had found myself unable to travel by airplane, as my regular anxiety descended into outright flight phobia. Before then, I had been a reluctant air traveler, often going into panic attacks mid-flight or shutting myself up in airport bathrooms just before take off to avoid getting on the plane. Instead of confronting my fear, as many specialists suggest, in 2017 I made the decision I was going to start going everywhere by train (or car) if I could effectively reduce, or so I thought at the time, my range of travel to Europe.

As I sat in the Brussels train station, I had an uneasy feeling. It was the time after the first big wave of the pandemic, some restrictions had been lifted but I was still carrying a separate bag filled with antibacterial wipes, masks and proofs of COVID testing. I sat fiddling with my passport as the familiar feeling of a panic attack started to build.

If you’ve never had a panic attack, and BTW this may be different for different people, it starts with a general uneasy feeling. Something feels off and then a small detail, like an air bubble moving in your bowels, will trigger your body to go into acute “flight or fight”. Your blood rushes to your core, leaving your extremities cold and your chest and armpits sweaty, your heartbeat accelerates, your breathing becomes shallow and vision tunelled. You are sitting exactly like you were 2 minutes ago but you’re fighting for your life.

And then I got on the train.

Now before I tell you about my night of trainly revelations, let me say that there are many types of train journeys and the one I won’t be referring to is the dreaded UK train commute. Commuter trains are an outlier in my story, a type of train travel I have not done much of and don’t wish to do much of anyway. My story is about long distance trains, those that aim to rival the prevailing mode of long distance transportation, airplanes, and how they have considerably helped me live a more peaceful life.

The Brussels Vienna Night Sleeper is one of the longest standing night trains in Europe (sleepers have been around for over 150 years having started in Belgium and now criss crossing the entire continent). While the continent has a long tradition of overnight trains, this was slowly dying down pre-pandemic because of the accessibility and ease of intercontinental flights. That’s where I found myself, mid-way through my panic attack, clutching at the complimentary bottle of spritzer wine and wondering if I was having a heart attack.

I made it through that trip and got home ok and then took a trip back, avoiding the night train thinking that maybe it had somehow triggered my anxiety. Since then I have gone back and forth through most of Europe on day and night trains and what has become solidified in my mind is the certainty that, had I not been on a train that night, I probably would have had my biggest mental breakdown in my adult life in the middle of a crowded and claustrophobic airplane or in an airport bathroom and would have had to be taken to hospital. The trains saved me.

Being on a train is the experiential equivalent of therapy. If you’re prone to panic attacks like me, what therapy asks you to do is first ground yourself and then interrogate your emotions. It’s hard to do any of those when you’re traveling by plane because modern travel is not a process, it is a rush to an ending: you want to get in and out of the airport quickly.

Not trains. Trains are a process. You cannot rush much, and while they go much faster than most people think (there is a strip of railway between France and Germany where the DB picks up to 300 kms /h rivaling Japan’s bullet trains) the experience of trains is meant to slow you down and allow you to reflect.

I can think of there things that make trains a grounding process:

  • Speed of movement is mediated by presence of scenery → airplanes are hard to place spatially; you don’t see anything out the window so the speed becomes immaterial and you may feel suspended out of space. Not in trains: lying down in your bunk in a night train facing the window is a fundamentally comforting experience; you’re progressing but you’re not uprooted, you move but you’re sitting still, you advance but you’re not doing anything. It’s hard to get the same feeling in a plane which is why lots of people with anxiety need to watch the small map visualisation on the plane’s screens;
  • The feeling of community on long distance trains — when you have anxiety or panic attacks, one of the recommendations is to not be on your own and try to talk to someone; this helps with the feeling of being under threat and enables you to feel like you can get help; planes are not built to enhance that feeling: cramped seating and grumpy air attendants, screaming children and overconsumption of wine makes the plane feel more like an angry waiting room even when the flight is long-haul. But, there is nothing more fun than going to the restaurant on board when you’re on long distance trains; because the staff there spend so much time together (a night journey takes between 10 and 17 hours) they generally will know one another really well and spend a lot of time on banter and engaging with whoever’s there. The best time for me has always been to go to the restaurant late in the evening, order a soft drink and eavesdrop on their conversations; my favorite memory was when the display case on a Nighjet restaurant broke down and the staff started selling their products off a restaurant table; it felt like being in a night market in downtown Avignon. Everyone paid cash and packaged food was passed around as people queued down the aisle.
  • The purposelessness of your time on a train — it’s always been hard for me to relax on a plane; irrespective of the length of the trip, you try to keep busy; the safety instructions happen, then food, then picking up the food, then a movie, then landing cards and all the while you’re suspended in mid-air while going at mind boggling speed. Not on a train: once you’re in your cabin, nothing else happens but you are going somewhere and you can spend 12 hours not having to do anything, the door closed just waiting for this magic carriage to get you to where you want to get to. There are limited instructions, nobody walks past you, people are usually quiet. We moan the loss of things like boredom, purposelessness, daydreaming. They were great and it’s hard to do them in the modern world. But not on trains. And the comfort people with anxiety extract from those states is priceless.
  • Train design — lots of people with anxiety also display OCD like symptoms finding comfort in familiar, organised and repetitive spaces; trains are by definition designed to be orderly because they need to fit people in spaces in an organic fashion; European trains don’t excel at this because we are a communal type of society and they are designed to circumvent the need for privacy. But night trains have caught on the insight that people don’t really like to smell other people’s farts when they travel long distances so there is more and more allowance made for single travel. One of my biggest regrets is that i most likely won’t get to travel on a Japanese sleeper. If you’ve never seen the interior of a Japanese sleeper, here’s some cues; even in second class these are designed to offer individual privacy and enable one to feel alone while not being separated. None of the more colourful fabrics and interiors of european trains, Japanese trains are an oasis of calm.

Finally, beyond considerations about living more sustainably and making responsible choices, there is something of value in the overall objective of slowing down our experience of our life. Most of the work that gets put into innovation is to speed things up. Myself, I work in an industry where our stated purpose is to inject technology into everything so things can be done faster and better. People’s lives are being accelerated by access to everything and ways to get all of that faster. Being exposed to so many other people, makes us think we have less and less time to do all the things that other people are doing and reflecting in glossy Instagram posts. For the anxious mind, the acceleration of existence is terrifying. Living for the next plan is the antithesis of grounding, and the pressure of that creates panic disorders which are crippling.

I found trains to be one of the most compelling companions to slowing down. Getting places later rather than sooner, having space and time to be bored, having time to reflect and observe are some of the inherent qualities of train travel.

For now, I will be going home in October and I cannot wait to get on a Deutsche Bahn train and munch on the complimentary square of chocolate that comes with every order of coffee or beer (!) while I immerse myself in whatever the hell catches my fancy for the 12 hours I’m onboard.

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Bogdana

CX Strategist and Design Director. Recovering Internet lover. Write about technology, design and what I watch/listen to/read.