If while standing in line today at the polls, your palms get sweaty, your heart pounds, you feel that your legs are going to buckle under, your vision blurs, butterflies take flight in the stomach, your throat or back of the neck are tight, and you want to run, you're not alone.
Fear of voting affects "a large number of people," according to Jerilyn Ross, clinical director, Phobia Program of Washington. It's not the decision of which lever to pull that's the culprit, but the fear of public places, waiting in line, signing your name in public or feeling trapped.
With 25 percent of voting-age Americans never exercising their right, and another 25 percent not voting regularly, it could be fear -- not apathy -- keeping some people home from the polls.
"The main feeling behind all phobias is a feeling that you're trapped," says Ross. A phobic person will not only feel trapped in the voting booth, but also in line.
The men and women of all ages who fear voting could be among the estimated 2 million agoraphobics, who fear crowds and are virtually housebound; graphophobics, who fear signing their name in public; social phobics, who are afraid of meeting new people; claustrophobics, afraid of enclosed spaces such as elevators, and those afraid of standing in line.
"Phobic persons become master manipulators," says Ross. "They know how to avoid situations that provoke anxiety. But voting is one they can't."
There's a real dilemma, she says. Phobic people who feel a responsibility to vote--and don't--feel "very ashamed of themselves. They frequently make excuses, 'I forgot to register,' or 'I was home sick,' " or even say they voted when they didn't.
One agoraphobic woman after voting for the first time couldn't remember whom she voted for. But she did remember, "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 photographer Stuart Pohost admits that voting causes him "tremendous anxiety," so much so that two years ago therapist Ross accompanied him to the polls as part of his treatment program.
"The things that bothered me about voting was not voting per se, not making the decision," says Pohost, 30. "The problem was waiting in line, which is a commitment, feeling trapped waiting in line, and feeling like I couldn't leave the line if I wanted to.
"When I finally got to the voting booth I was so full of tension, anxiety and fear that it was very hard to see clearly and to vote. All I could think about was flying out of there real fast.
"I think I voted for the right people, but the phobic feelings were so strong that they blurred my normal thinking processes. I had blurred vision; my heart was pounding. I wanted to get out. I started to leave and then came back. Even though the whole process took no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, it was extremely uncomfortable.
"It was the same anxiety I felt when going in for major surgery. I'm 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."
Since undergoing treatment for his phobias, Pohost has made progress, but he still has a perceived fear of the polls. "I still expect my fear to be right there with me on Nov. 2," he says, "but I'll challenge it."
"A simple thing like voting, for a phobic individual," says Ross, "is like you or I winning an Olympic medal."
If you're not the candidate, and Election Day is still anxiety-provoking, here's what the Phobia Program recommends:
* Acknowledge your phobia.
* Know that your feelings are not unique. They are frightening but not dangerous.
* Instead of focusing on your own fears, get involved in what's going on around you, even if you just count the number of people or the tiles on the floor.
* Admit your fears to a friend.
* Have a friend -- a "safe person" -- accompany you and wait in line with you.
* Check the location of exits so you don't feel trapped.
Or, follow the recommendation of Frances Cohen, 34, a government employe of Bethesda, who admits she can "feel paranoid" and worries about taking too much time so that "people will wonder what I'm doing in there.
"I feel compelled to have a sample ballot marked ahead."