There’s a reason you’re addicted to scrolling through Insta and checking your Facebook feed: Each little red notification gives you a mood-boosting hit of dopamine. But, if you’ve ever felt a twinge of loneliness upon seeing a selfie your crew took at brunch or Snaps of them cavorting on a Friday night (even if you chose to stay at home for a night of multi-masking), you know that social media brings some unpleasant feelings along with the good ones. Most notably, FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”
“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, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, explains.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“If everyone in your ancestral group began to hang out by the campfire without you…you would begin to feel a sense of dread and anxiety at the thought of being left out.” —Sheva Rajee, psychoanalyst
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.
How to stop FOMO from running your life
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.
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.
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.
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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