The Psychology Behind FOMO and How to Fight It

(Fear of Missing Out, for those of you who've missed out on the acronym update.)

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The Psychology Behind FOMO and How to Fight It

This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.

You’ve just drawn a bath, lit some candles around it and even poured a glass of your favorite merlot to enjoy while you soak. Sounds relaxing, right? Being alone with your thoughts surrounded by soothing warm water. And it is, for a few minutes. Until what made it relaxing is exactly what makes it terror: being alone. Where is everyone else? What are they doing? The relaxation drains faster than the water does as your mind reels with thoughts.

You’re doubting tonight’s decision to stay in and relax, forgoing your friends plans to party. And before you know it, you’re second-guessing the plans you made for New Year’s—maybe you should have chosen the party at the nightclub instead of an intimate dinner setting. Then your mind wanders to your vacation time: you chose to save money and stay home for a staycation, but what about Mexico? All of your friends are going for a week of fun and sun—why didn’t you do that, instead?

This fear we feel when we are in one place but we want to be elsewhere can be defined (unofficially; it may be in the dictionary, but it’s not a recognized mental health diagnosis … yet) as Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, and it can be debilitating. One should be able to enjoy their life without constantly comparing and feeling as though his or her choices aren’t good enough.

But we live in a world of vast choice, and it’s understandable that with so much selection, we may question ourselves from time to time.

When it comes to making a decision, “it’s not that that one is the right and the other is the wrong choice, it’s more that we are not trusting the choice we have made,” explains Friedmann Schaub, M.D., Ph.D., author of the Fear & Anxiety Solution.

Anyone who has suffered from FOMO knows how uncomfortable it is.

What Are the Symptoms?

When someone deeply questions everyday life choices to the point of FOMO, he or she might experience the mind racing, uneasiness, insecurity and a lack of presence in the moment. Physical symptoms include a racing heart, and in general, the nervous system is on edge, says Dr. Schaub.

All together, the feelings (physical and emotional) of FOMO are terrible. It feels like anxiety, but with added insult to injury. “We could say that this is a form of anxiety, but I would probably say more precisely that this is a form of anxious insecurity,” notes Dr. Schaub.

Adding to the insecurity that comes with FOMO is the fact that allowing our anxious insecurity to rule our lives can lead to further problems. When these fears and worries start to interfere with daily life, it could be more of a disorder—such as Social Anxiety Disorder—explains A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., who specializes in human development and abnormal psychology, including PTSD and anxiety disorders.

We are connected to the ‘net at all times. We are constantly seeing what other people are doing. Thanks to technological advances (read: the ability to scroll through other peoples’ lives), FOMO is more widespread than it was 20 years ago when you might never have known what other people did over the weekend, notes Dr. Schaub. Ah, the good old days.

When we go to our phones, the problem arises as we see others doing something more “exciting” than us, or friends doing something without us. “We might worry that we are missing out on that excitement by choosing to stay behind,” says Dr. Marsden.

Compounding this fear many feel when they see glossy beautiful pictures of friends on far away beaches or dressed to impress at a concert may be that social media is an unfair and unrealistic view of reality. It’s too easy to only show one side of life: the best, most perfect version.

“We are living so much in other people’s realities. We feel pressure to keep up with that expectation to have something to show for; and to be as cool, unique and exciting as others that we become more and more susceptible to identifying ourselves through the eyes of others. This leads to insecurity and anxiety, rather than feeling more connected to ourselves,” explains Dr. Schaub.

Believe it or not, our longing to connect to what others are doing is a quite natural tribal urge, claims Dr. Schaub. But how can a person find balance and appreciation for his or her own choices minus the FOMO?
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According to Dr. Schaub and Dr. Marsden, some ideas to overcome FOMO include:

Appreciate What You Have Going On: Before bed, take a moment to write down three things you appreciate about yourself and the choices you made, suggests Dr. Schaub. For example, “I’m proud of how I listened compassionately to my co-worker today.” Or “I’m glad that I said no to my boss when he asked me to stay late.”

Go on a Social Media Cleanse: Take a few days off from Instagram and Facebook, and be mindful of your own life and of when you are using these apps, urges Dr. Marsden. A cleanse from social media allows a person to focus on what is important in his or her own life without comparison.

Listen to Your Feelings: When faced with a couple of choices, take a moment to listen to your body when you imagine doing each activity, Dr. Schaub instructs. If you imagine staying home and chilling, and you feel relief—that’s a good sign. Value this.

Get to Know Yourself and Your Preferences: When it comes to FOMO, it’s crucial to ask yourself, are the activities you view as ‘cool’ or ‘exciting’ actually anything you want to do or are interested in? Do you enjoy staying out until 6 a.m.? Is it fulfilling for you to travel, or do you value home time? “Once you figure out what fulfills you, don’t be afraid to stick to it,” says Dr. Schaub. “Be your own frame of reference, don’t make other people the frame of reference. When you make a choice, trust that it was right for you and stand behind it.”

Tess Bercan is an avid writer, traveler, dog lover, and above all, learner. Tess’s research and writing has appeared in Go Nomad, International Living, Spirit Guides Magazine, Elephant Journal, Everyday Diabetes, Green Lifestyle Market and Think Health Magazine.

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