Roughly 40 percent of voting-age Americans don’t exercise their right to vote — and we often assume disenchantment or indifference keeps them away from the polls.
But what if it is fear that’s keeping people from casting a ballot? It may not be fear of any potential candidate or of which level to pull — although some may claim that’s a problem, too. But there may be a very real fear of voting, of public places, waiting in line, signing your John Hancock in public or just feeling trapped in the voting booth – as an amalgamate of many different fears.
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 — you should know you are not alone.
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, both while waiting in line and while in the voting space itself.
Anxiety can be a master manipulator, so people often avoid situations that provoke it. Voting is one we can’t control — not just the election outcome, but our surroundings and often excessive stimuli.
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One agoraphobic woman in North Carolina, after voting for the first time, told LifeZette 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 then had to get out before he bit me.”
Silver Spring, Maryland, photographer Stuart Pohost admitted 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,” Pohost told LifeZette. “The problem was waiting in line, which is a commitment. It was 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.”
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 me. 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 that the next time, “I will make sure I take a human with me or do an absentee ballot.”
Jodi Aman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Rochester, New York, and founder of “Give Fear The Boot,” agreed with this plan. “Bring a friend to support you.” She also suggested concentrating on the ceiling or on 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,” Aman told LifeZette. 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 also triggers uncertainty. “It triggers us to get ready, and 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 of self-compassion has an upcoming book, “You 1, Anxiety O,” which explores how competition causes anxiety in our culture.
“Your vote matters, but it’s not the only vote,” said Aman. “Some anxious people may feel too much responsibility.”
The good news, according to Aman, is this: “Anxiety is usually curable. You can overcome it.”
Karen Feld is an award-winning writer in New York; she has covered politics and health for many years.