Some 40 percent of voting-age Americans don’t exercise their right to vote, according to the Pew Research Center. It could be fear–not disenchantment or indifference – that keeps some people away from the polls.
“Many mental health professionals are scratching their heads about why so many people are fearful of living these days,” said Cornell-trained psychiatrist Dr. Tony Stern of NYC. “We seem to be a fearful nation since 9-11. It’s hard to know if the craziness about Donald Trump is a cause or a result of the fear thing. We’ve gotten out of the habit of taking reasonable risks.”
If while standing in line at the polls, your palms get sweaty, your heart pounds, you feel that your legs are on the verge of buckling under, your vision blurs, butterflies take flight in your stomach or your muscles stiffen and you want to run home to a safe place, if it’s any comfort, know you are not alone.
Fear of voting affects a number of people. It’s not just the decision of which lever to pull that is the culprit — but the fear of public places, waiting in line, signing your John Hancock in public or just feeling trapped in the voting booth – it’s an amalgamate of many different fears.
About 8 million adults in the U.S. have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during any given year according to the National Center for PTSD. Returning veterans and civilians alike have been diagnosed with this and other anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia (fear of crowded spaces) and claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces). This feeling of being trapped can be incapacitating and paralyzing while waiting in line and in the voting space itself. Anxiety can be a master manipulator so we avoid situations that provoke it; voting is one we can’t control – not just the election outcome, but our surroundings and often excessive stimuli.
This often presents another dilemma for the non-voter, who feels a responsibility to vote and shame as a result of not doing so. The non-voter may make excuses, “I was home sick” or even say he voted when he didn’t. One agoraphobic woman, after voting for the first time, told me she couldn’t remember whom she voted for. But she did recall, “My palms were sweaty. It was like going into a lion’s cage. I felt I had to do it, but get out before he bit me.”
Silver Spring, Md., photographer Stuart Pohost admitted that his fear of voting was overwhelming. “It was the same anxiety I felt when going in for major surgery. I was standing in line at the polls in a perfectly safe place feeling like I’m not safe at all, like I’m going to die, or pass out, or lose control.”
Voting caused him such tremendous anxiety that his therapist once accompanied him to the polls as part of his treatment. “The thing that bothered me about voting was not voting per se, not making the decision,” said Pohost. “The problem was waiting in line, which is a commitment, feeling trapped and feeling like I couldn’t leave the line if I wanted to.”
Shannon Evans of Council Bluffs, Iowa, found a solution: “I don’t vote unless I can get an absentee ballot mailed to my house. Too many lines, too many people with unattended children. Just the thought makes my head hurt and my skin sweaty.”
“For every one person diagnosed with agoraphobia, I think there are at least ten more who isolate themselves and fear leaving their house. Voting is just one part of this,” Stern added. “It’s our slippery slope. The momentum of the slippery slope is a vicious cycle.”
Accompanied by her service dog, Pamela Thomas voted in Oklahoma. “My nerves were bad. I was shaking. Buddy, my service dog, tried to get me to leave. I just marked stuff, got my sticker and left. I honestly have no idea who or what I voted for. I just remember kids were screaming and petting Buddy without asking. By the time I got to my car, I was still shaking; my brain could not focus on anything. I sat for 15 minutes before I could drive home.” Thomas vowed the next time, “I will make sure I take a human with me or do an absentee ballot.”
Jodi Aman, LCSW, psychotherapist in Rochester, NY, and founder of “Give Fear The Boot,” agrees. “Bring a friend to support you.” She also suggests concentrating on the ceiling or a spot under the curtain. And “take a few breaths; focus on feeling empowered to take some action.”
“Anything can be a trigger if associated with past trauma,” explains Aman. It could be sound, smells, a voting venue in a church if you are a victim of past abuse or the fear of not making the right decision. “If you messed up a decision in the past, that could create anxiety.” The chaos of the election and our feeling out of control and overwhelmed triggers uncertainty. “It triggers us to get ready, it often means danger. When we have chaos, we crave order.”
Aman’s philosophy is “Disempower anxiety, and empower yourself to take some action.” This advocate for self-compassion has a new book, “You 1, Anxiety O,” which explores how competition causes anxiety in our culture.
“Your vote matters but it’s not the only vote,” says Aman. “Some anxious people may feel too much responsibility.”
“Regardless of political affiliation, the parents I talk with are terrified about who will take over as president,” said couples therapist, Nancy Fagan of San Diego. “They fear the true needs of the family are being forgotten. They fear this will impact the kind of country their kids will inherit.”
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