Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Fear and anxiety at the ballot box

By Laurie Meyers October 22, 2020

Word began to filter out late morning on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the last day that Virginia residents could register to vote in the 2020 general elections. A severed fiber-optic cable had brought down the commonwealth’s voter registration portal. Officials said the cut was an accident caused by roadwork; skeptics on Twitter had “accidentally” trending. Paper registration was still available — if postmarked or dropped off at local voter registration offices.

By midafternoon, after an approximately six-hour outage, the site was back up. A federal judge ordered an extension of the deadline to compensate would-be voters for lost time. Everyone would still be able to register to vote. All’s well that ends well, right?

And yet. To many people, the snafu seemed like just one more alarming plot twist in the tale of an election season — and year — so fraught with unprecedented crises that it would most likely evoke reader skepticism if found within the pages of a novel.

The U.S. national elections are already set to serve as a proxy for the country’s stance on climate change, universal health care, racism, police brutality and (dueling visions of) democracy. The maelstrom of events that is 2020 has brought everything to the forefront in Technicolor. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. The ensuing protests against police brutality and the continuing demands for an end to racial injustice. The spread of violence by white supremacist groups. Record-breaking wildfires in California and Oregon. An incredibly active — and ongoing — hurricane season. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rush to appoint her successor. All of it amidst a pandemic unlike any other seen in the past 102 years.

When most Americans started staying home in March in hopes of bringing down the levels of infection by the novel coronavirus, they most likely didn’t expect that almost everything about COVID-19 would become partisan. The degree of threat posed by the virus. Whether to close businesses and restrict community movement. To mask or not to mask? In some quarters — albeit fairly fringe ones — the very existence of the novel coronavirus became a partisan matter. Now, less than one month before the election, more than 225,000 Americans are dead — a total that includes a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and people of color — and voters have spent months wondering about the best way to cast their vote.

In response to voter anxiety about going to the polls in person, most states expanded absentee mail-in voting by allowing anyone to use COVID-19 to justify their request. But the U.S. Postal Service, which had been preparing for the surge, was subject to organizational and equipment changes that made the mail less timely. So, many voters worried: If they requested an absentee ballot, would it arrive in time? The requirements for mail-in ballots vary from state to state, leaving some voters baffled and bemused. A process that is usually fairly straightforward has become yet another tangle to unravel in a year that has been fraught with knots.

“Our ability to cope with uncertainty is maxed out,” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Keri Riggs, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Richardson, Texas. The pandemic has also effectively put most of our previously established timelines in question.

“We can’t make plans,” Riggs, whose areas of specialization include depression and anxiety, says. “The thing about the election is that we have a theoretical deadline.” We’ve always thought we understood when voting for the election was over, but this year, we can’t even have a sense of certainty about when it might end and when an undisputed winner in the presidential election might be declared, she says. Part of this year’s election anxiety is tied to not being able to rely on that usual deadline as an endpoint to at least one source of uncertainty.

With the exception of the contested vote count in Bush vs. Gore in 2000, modern Americans are used to learning who the winner of the presidential election is on election night or the morning after. But because so many people are voting by mail this year and it will take time to process those ballots, the votes amassed on Election Day will not be the final tally.

“If there is a contested election, it could drag on for a very long time,” Riggs points out. “Everything has already been dragging on for a very long time.”

And it’s not just about the endpoint. Many voters see this election as more than a mere partisan contest; to these voters, it is something upon which the future of bigger picture issues such as climate change, immigration and racial justice rests. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 83% of registered voters say it really matters who wins the presidency. These results are an increase from the 74% of voters who said the same thing four years ago and the highest share of voters saying this in two decades of Pew Research Center surveys. In keeping with the anxiety surrounding the election, approximately 50% of survey respondents said they expected that voting will be difficult.

The stories that we tell ourselves play a critical role in how we cope with stress, anxiety and the seeming chaos around us, Riggs says. Too often, clients focus on the “what ifs” of a doomsday future that may or may not come to pass, she explains.

“The Islamic theologian, Sufi mystic and poet Rumi once said, ‘The words you speak become the house you live in,’’’ notes Ryan Thomas Neace, an LPC who is the founder and CEO of Change Inc., a St. Louis counseling practice that focuses on healing and personal growth in the face of pain. A similar dictum is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The power of life and death is on the tongue,” he continues. “In other words, what we say matters.”

Neace is not denying that voters are facing weighty issues as they cast their ballots, but he maintains that the narratives we construct are not solving anything. Instead, people get caught in the trap of thinking that constant worry and panic are somehow equal to civic engagement or political purpose.

Clients can break their “doom” loops with present-moment awareness, Riggs says. For example, when fear of the future and visions of disaster threaten to take over, she has clients practice telling themselves that they and everyone they love are safe in that moment.

Riggs also advises clients to consume social media and news in moderation and to take breaks. She urges clients to channel their energy into productive action, either by engaging in the political process with a campaign donation or volunteering at the polls, or via a smaller personal outlet such as journaling or even cleaning the bathroom.

Riggs says it is also essential to exercise self-compassion and what one of her clients calls “grace.”

“We need to give ourselves and each other grace — the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “We’re not all on our A-game.”

Neace reminds clients that it is OK — indeed helpful — to tell themselves resilience-building stories such as, “There’s a lot at stake here, but we’re going to get through this together, no matter what.”

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, pictured in a nationally-televised debate on Sept. 29.

Fear of racial violence

“There is a lot of evidence that there are a number of groups that actively want to hurt and disenfranchise Black Americans,” says Harrison Davis, an LPC in Atlanta who specializes in depression, anxiety, resentment and helping people overcome personal obstacles. These groups have come out of the shadows and appear to feel empowered by what they — and many Black Americans — perceive as support from the police and from forces within certain parts of the government and judicial system, he says.

The clients and community members he’s spoken to say their sense of security has diminished over the past year because they feel betrayed by people they believed were their allies. Some of his Black clients have told Davis that instead of standing by them in the fight for racial justice and an end to police brutality, some of their white neighbors and friends supported these law enforcement actions and were actively critical of the ensuing protests.

On top of this vulnerability, some of his Black clients have expressed concern that President Trump has not committed to a smooth transition of power if he loses, while white supremacists are threatening violence or even war, Davis says.

Some clients have an almost panicky need to prepare for an emergency — as if by doing so they can keep their darker fears from manifesting, he continues. This sense of catastrophe is fueled not just by the election, but by the many deaths the coronavirus has brought to the Black community.

Although the threat is real, his clients’ response — living in a constant state of anxiety and panic — is neither healthy nor sustainable, Davis says.

Like Riggs and Neace, when working with clients struggling with election anxiety, Davis zeroes on how much news and social media they are consuming. Not only are clients being bombarded with a sense of overall catastrophe—they are engaging in conversations that are often vitriolic and damaging.

“When I grew up, you would just watch the polictical coverage on the TV networks,” he says. Now, everyone can watch a developing story or scandal in real time. So Davis asks clients to notice how they are responding as they track this torrent of information. “Is it causing you to tense up?” he asks. “Lose sleep?” Clients also report irritability and constant worry–not just about the election, but everything. Right now, the constant urgency and concern of news and social media has such a marked effect on clients, that Davis has moved away from recommending that they balance their use. Instead, he has them do a complete detox.

“Channel that energy into positives instead of arguing with people,” he urges clients. Rather than trying to convince others of their viewpoint, they could be helping people register to vote or get to the polls on Election Day. Davis also encourages clients to find hobbies and outlets that have nothing to do with politics or current events.

On a deeper level, he finds that clients are struggling to accept the world as it is. They may have believed that we had grown as a nation and society over the past decade but now may see that things haven’t changed significantly. One way to cope with that reality and find greater peace is to identify ways to help the community, Davis says.

In his own life, Davis’ father, who was an activist in the civil rights era, told him and his siblings that they might have thought things had changed, but they really hadn’t. Black Americans are still engaged in the struggle for racial equality that has been denied them for generations.

That doesn’t mean that clients need to live in fear, Davis says. Living like that only gives power to those who want Black people to be afraid. He urges clients to find a space where they feel like they belong and to be thoughtful about who they invite into their inner world. They may not yet be able to change the world, but they can control elements of their world by removing unsupportive friends or by leaving environments which make them feel triggered or unsafe—such as social groups or toxic work environments.

A number of his clients are very spiritual, Davis adds. They find strength through the Bible, which holds many stories of people who experienced tragedy and injustice but prevailed by relying on faith and their community.

Power and connection amid chaos

Although many of us view the cacophony of the election cycle as something to endure while keeping our sanity in check, ACA member Laura Brackett is encouraging clients to find their personal power in the chaos.

The year 2020 and the years leading up to it have been traumatic in myriad ways, and exploring personal power is a constant component of trauma work, she says. “The beauty of it is that personal power takes countless forms,” says Brackett, the director of community engagement at Change, Inc., in St. Louis. “For some clients, this has meant outward action in the form of voting, protesting and becoming active in the community. For others, it has meant embracing their own emotional reactions and how that is influencing their behavior and empathy toward self and others.”

Often the process involves a combination of both external and internal work, she says. Brackett’s goal is to encourage clients to embrace their personal power without losing sight of how its expression affects others.

“If there is one thing this year has shown us, it’s that we don’t live in a vacuum,” she says. “Our words and actions have real impact on others. I want to help my clients see this interconnectedness and learn how they can best live within it in a way that is compassionate as well as empowered.”

 

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Related reading, from ACA’s Department of Government Affairs and Public Policy: “Counselors Are Voting in 2020

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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