With Covid-19 raging, the economy, civil unrest, public health concerns and fear votes won’t be counted are in the forefront. The resultant panic has contributed to a pressing need to vote and simultaneously for many, apprehension about going to the polls and the legitimacy of the election. The radical division in our country amplifies the urgency of Tuesday’s upcoming election. This year, for the first time, an unprecedented 100 million people took advantage of early voting by three days prior to the election. For the first time in U.S. history votes are likely to surpass 150 million.
“Collective trauma has taken over our country,” says Dana Brown of San Diego, ACES Science Statewide Facilitator. Those with adverse childhood experiences (ACES) resulting in Complex-PTSD have a more difficult time with activation of old trauma in addition to the current uncertainties—the pandemic, civil unrest, voter suppression, police presence and fear of personal safety. Some New York residents are receiving threatening robo calls.
But what if fear holds people back from casting a ballot? It may not be dread of a specific 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. 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.
This year, more voters cast their ballots ahead of Election Day either by mail or early voting. Some in NYC queued for 4 hours donning facial masks on the day the polls opened. But when Rebecca Paige Evers voted in West Texas at the county courthouse many voters were without masks. “It did not feel like a safe environment to vote,” she said.
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.”
About 8 percent of adults in the U.S. have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at any given time, according to NIH the National Center for PTSD. But in reality experts agree the numbers are far greater and growing. 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.
This year it’s not only disenchantment or indifference keeping voters home. More than 35 million people of voting age have a disability and for many of those, that is what keeps them away from the polls. The challenges are many. Add to that, a weakened immune system may make them more vulnerable to the virus.
One agoraphobic woman in North Carolina, 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 then had to get out before he bit me.”
That’s because “trauma fragments the emotional capacity to be in the moment,” according to Tom Hubl, who has led workshops on collective trauma.
A Maryland resident admitted his fear of voting overwhelmed him. “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,” he said. “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.”
Accompanied by her service dog when 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. 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,” agrees 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 said. 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 penned, “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: “Anxiety is usually curable. You can overcome it.” Early voting in some states is a step to mitigate some of the fear.
“There are many folks who are rightly triggered and intimidated by just the sight of armed police in and around the polls,” said University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.
Perhaps that’s why some New Yorkers waited in line for 3 to 4 hours on the first day of early voting. Judy Baumgarten posted this advice on the website Nextdoor in NYC, “If it’s covid 19 keeping you away, put on a HAZMAT outfit and vote in person. Let’s get this election decided as soon as possible.”
This year, people worry not only who to vote for but how to vote to make sure they are safe and their vote is counted. Rules vary by state, sometimes language makes it more difficult to understand ballots especially poorly designed ones as in NY. In response to the pandemic, most states have changed aspects of the voting process. If you vote in person, your polling place may be different, and don’t forget current safety protocols.
Black Lives Matter activist and author Blair Imani reasons, “If you can find the love of your life by swiping right or left then you should be able to make important decisions about our country just as easily.”
“From grassroots to grass tops we have to maximize this opportunity,” advises Dana Brown, who looks for the silver lining. “Find peacefulness amid the chaos.”
“We don’t have to look far to feed the fear,” says Brown. “We are all dealing with collective trauma, collective grief and collective loss. But there’s an opportunity for collective hope—I feed the hope.”
See also PoliticalMavens.com
See also Acesconnection.com