Psychology

The Emotional Empowerment of Voting in the Age of Fear

We would not be blamed for being less than eager to vote in the upcoming 2020 elections. The overwhelming majority of the United States does not trust the government. A recent Pew Research Center study found that only 20% of United States adults report that they trust the government to “do the right thing” always or most of the time. And that’s not an aberrant finding – public trust in government has been steadily declining and staying low for the last two decades

Source: Derick Smith, used with permission

And why should we have trust in government? The state of the world does very little that might inspire confidence. We are in the grips of a horrible coronavirus pandemic that has now claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, with almost 7 million infected. Further, there is no clear indication that an effective vaccine or treatments are going to be available or easily disseminated any time soon. In addition, the stability of our economy is in question, with our current national debt at $23 trillion dollars, with one in six children still living in poverty. And not to be outdone, climate change is causing a huge part of the country to be on fire and a huge part to flood.

As if that all wasn’t bad enough, there is tremendous concern about the safety and fairness of our elections. The Senate Committee on Intelligence has determined that Russia is interfering in our election. There is severe doubt regarding access of voters to both in-person and mail-in ballots. And the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has magnified these concerns as many people question the fairness of the current administration picking a Supreme Court Justice so close to the election – especially when the Supreme Court may weigh in on the validity of the election results.

Our overall lack of enthusiasm in government is manifesting in voter turnout. Only 61.8% of the country voted in the 2016 presidential election. For example, only 40% of the country voted in 2018. And now many of us are facing illness, death, and economic hardship. We are disconnected from our loved ones and much of what we enjoy doing – or are just too overwhelmed by trying to figure out our kids’ schooling while working from home. It would be understandable if we were feeling despair regarding our current situation and fear for what lies ahead. For many of us, the last thing on our mind is our intention to engage in the political process.

The pressure and stress around recent elections has become so great that there is even a diagnosis – Election Stress Disorder. For example, in the 2016 election more than half of people surveyed in the Harris Poll of the American Psychological Association reported that the election was a significant source of stress. There is no indication that stress level has lessened – adding to the list of difficult events we now face.

And while we may be tempted not to vote in November, it is crucial that if possible we do. To be sure, I am in no way attempting to reassure anyone (myself included) that everything is going to be alright. I have no real insights into the political process or what it has in store for us – or the impact it will have on the various issues our country faces.

But beyond the logistics and practicalities of the political process lies an important emotional process. Voting gives us an opportunity for emotional empowerment rather than fear and despair. I have been encouraged by the work of artists such as Al Jourgensen of the band Ministry who has started a campaign to encourage his fans to vote. In talking with him this week on The Hardcore Humanism with Dr. Mike Podcast, I became struck by the critical connection between the act of voting and our emotional well-being. Voting allows our voice to register – to be seen and heard and possibly effect change – even in the absence of our desired outcomes.

So how do we embrace this difficult moment as a source of emotional empowerment?

The first step is to validate how difficult the current situation is. No benefit can be gained from asking people to avoid the personal and political perils many of us currently face. Similarly, it would not be helpful to shame either ourselves or others for not wanting to vote. This type of emotional suppression and avoidance underlies many mental health issues and can only exacerbate our stress. Validating our emotions is a source of strength – a platform from which we can launch our approach to engaging in voting specifically and the political process in general.

And if we do commit to voting and validate the stress that lies ahead, we need to take a “put our own oxygen mask on first” approach to our current mental and physical health. This is not easy, but we must prepare our minds and bodies for the inevitable stress that will come – on top of the substantial stress we already have. Behaviors that are shown to improve overall health and well-being such as sleeping well, eating healthy, exercising and managing substance are vital to reducing stress and shoring up our strength as the election approaches. Think of voting like running a marathon – how we take care of ourselves will certainly affect our ability to perform.

Once we have resolved to vote, we have the opportunity to build activities around voting and the political process that can improve our emotional and physical health by contributing to an overall sense of purpose. Living with an overarching purpose has been identified as a key factor in living a longer and more productive life, and often leads to engaging in healthier behaviors and improved coping skills to manage stress. To be clear, the research does not suggest that purpose is only a powerful predictor of health and well-being when we succeed in our desired outcomes. The issues with which we struggle will be here regardless of the outcome of the election. If we believe in specific causes that we feel would benefit the country, a great deal can be gained both personally and as a society by our working towards those goals in a purpose-driven way.

There is further evidence that among the range of activities that drive our sense of purpose, civic engagement, specifically getting involved with our community through participating in organizations and volunteerism, can be particularly beneficial to our health and well-being. For example, research suggests that volunteering has shown to predict lower depression and stress, as well as improved physical health. For many of us, volunteering for political causes including encouraging people to vote can give us the opportunity to engage in proactive and prosocial behavior. 

More, many of us are currently feeling isolated and lonely, and this feeling has been exacerbated by the realities of needing to social distance due to the coronavirus. And as many of us watch the news, we sink further into isolation as we fear for what lies ahead. Voting and getting involved politically can give us the opportunity to identify likeminded people and build community that we otherwise may not have.

Finally, while we need to consider the possibility that we may not get the outcome we want in any or all of the candidates for whom we vote, it is crucial that making our voices heard still has benefits for the causes that matter to us. We need to resists the all-or-none thinking that can naturally come from elections. The issues we face will no doubt be influenced by this election, with potentially very upsetting real-world consequences for people. Health care, right-to-choose, taxes, environmental regulations, gun rights and control, immigration, and criminal justice reform are just some of the many issues that directly impact our day to day lives.  But our political system is dynamic and ongoing. We must recognize that registering our opinion by voting still has an impact in terms of letting people know where we are collectively as a nation.

Overall, when we don’t vote, we are not simply refusing to engage in a discrete act. We are losing the opportunity to participate in a range of mental and behavioral actions that can affirm who we are and what we want our world to be. That process, even if we don’t like a particular political outcome, can be powerful for us in terms of our emotional and physical well-being. And voting and engagement in the political process can be part of a greater, more powerful process that can ultimately help us during this troubled time.

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