Is FOMO a Diagnosable Mental Health Condition?
"Fundamentally, the fear of missing out is an experience of anxiety at the thought of not being included in an event, not being ‘in the know,’ and a sense of or fear of not living one’s best life," Sheva Rajaee, MFT, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, explains. Amira Johnson, a mental health expert and clinician at Berman Psychotherapy, an outpatient psychotherapy practice based in Atlanta, GA, adds that connection and relationships is a vital aspect of our human experience, and FOMO “is an experience where an individual feels as if they are hindering themselves from an opportunity to engage and connect with others.”
While the term FOMO is believed to have been coined by a marketing strategist in 2000, the feeling spread like an epidemic as swiping and double-tapping became ubiquitous. By 2013, the phrase jumped from Urban Dictionary to the Oxford English Dictionary and experts continue to publish research that finds the prevalence of FOMO correlates with lower life satisfaction. According to Rajee, that FOMO feeling is heightened when you compare yourself to others and believe that they *must* be having a better time than you.
Johnson notes that psychologists are currently researching the specific causes of FOMO. However, in her professional opinion, FOMO can be attributed to one’s ability to be satisfied living in the present moment. “Oftentimes, human beings are living from a state of memory which means reflecting on the past and using the past as a guide for their present experience, or focusing on the future which then takes away the energy that can be spent in the moment, or now,” she explains.
Furthermore, as Rajee points out, FOMO seems to be a branch of anxiety, and it's not a leap to think the feelings of loneliness associated with FOMO could lead to depression. But is FOMO something you'd find in the DSM? Or something your doctor can prescribe a treatment for?
Ahead, learn what FOMO means for your mental health, plus practical tips to help stop it from running your life.
But first, know that FOMO happens to everyone
While experiencing FOMO is not fun, know that you’re not the only one that feels that way. According to Johnson, FOMO can be experienced by anyone from time to time. “The question of ‘what if’ tends to arise when opportunities and experiences present themselves and an individual uses their free will not to partake,” she says. “Being that we have various decisions we can make and options we can choose from at any given moment, sometimes we may wonder if we’ve made the right choice for ourselves.”
Here's what you need to know about FOMO and what it means for your mental health.
FOMO isn't exactly a technical term, but it has a real impact
Rajee tells me that while FOMO isn't considered a mental health disorder the way clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder is, "it is caused by a very real set of emotions and carries real effects." In fact, she says, feeling like you're being left out is a psychological trait we've inherited from our ancient ancestors. For them, being a part of a social group was necessary for survival.
"If everyone in your ancestral group began to hang out by the campfire without you, or went hunting in a group without you, you would begin to feel a sense of dread and anxiety at the thought of being left out," Rajee says. You know, because a roving saber-toothed tiger might take you out while you're all by your lonesome.
Nowadays, Barbara Kahn, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the 2015 study "FOMO: How the Fear of Missing Out Leads to Missing Out," tells me, FOMO is no longer associated with the very real "fear" our ancestors felt. Rather, it's more closely tied to anxiety. Rajee agrees, but points out that the stress created by comparing yourself to others or feeling left out is different from the panic that ensues when people suffering from social anxiety feel they might be being negatively judged.
Rajee also says that while she hasn't found FOMO to cause depression, people dealing with depression will feel like they're missing out more frequently and at higher levels. Johnson echos this by saying: “The more one is focused on the ‘could of, would of, should of’ the less energy they are expending on the ways in which they can honor the space that they are currently in.”
Moreover, Johnson says, “the more an individual engages in the experience of FOMO, the more a feeling of unhappiness will arise within them. This could lead to maladaptive coping with their feelings and emotions, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, or falling deep into the depths of depression in order to protect themselves from what they are experiencing.”
So, while FOMO is not considered a mental health disorder, its effects are very real and it can become a more serious problem.
How to stop FOMO from running your life
1. Remember social media is a highlight reel
If you're prone to feeling like you're missing out, Rajaee says gaining some perspective can help minimize your sadness. "Remember that what you see online is only a snapshot. Don’t draw conclusions about what a person’s life, relationship, or job is like based off of limited information or a 15-second story," she says. Because social media often functions as a sort of highlight reel of our lives—leaving out the pain, anguish, and time spent alone doing nothing—you end up not only comparing yourself more often, but also comparing yourself inaccurately.
2. Practice acceptance and build tolerance
Rajee also says that you might not be able to condition yourself to stop feeling FOMO entirely, but you can condition yourself to become tolerant of the feeling. "[Learn] to accept the possibility that people are having more fun than you are, and that this is okay and doesn’t have to be solved or changed," she says.
3. Be present
Another way to manage FOMO is to be more mindful in the moment. "If people appreciate what they are currently doing and enjoy where they are, rather than attending to social media reminders of events that they have missed out on, they'll mitigate feelings of FOMO," Dr. Kahn says. And when you stay in the present, you won't be as tempted to post photos to your own feed and then obsessively check back in for likes or views—or create FOMO for someone else.
4. Reframe your thoughts
To help overcome the feelings of FOMO, Johnson recommends implementing a cognitive behavioral therapy approach of reframing your thoughts which can help observe the validity of your automatic thoughts. “For instance, when a thought such as ‘I’m not loved because I’m always missing out on opportunities to connect and be involved’ arises, look for the ways in which the thought is valid as well as ways it can be reframed and be untrue,’ she explains. “The reframe for such a thought could be, ‘I’ve made a choice not to hang out lately, and I’m going to start putting myself out there more now.’”
5. Dig deeper by journaling
While reframing your thoughts can be helpful in minimizing FOMO, Johnson also suggests digging a little deeper by keeping an active log in a journal of your experience with FOMO. In your journal, she says, you can ask yourself questions such as: Why do I feel like I’m missing out? How will these experiences I perceive that I’m missing out on serve me? In what ways do I need to engage with myself more and worry less about things happening outside of my control? Doing so can help you delve into the core of why FOMO is showing up for you and help minimize its effects.
If you need to get away from your technology without quitting it cold turkey, try digital minimalism or the digital detox that doesn't require fully ditching your phone.
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