You're Not Imagining It — Your FOMO Might Be Even Worse Right Now

All was (kinda) ok when everyone was locked in their homes. Now that some people are out and about, the social ramifications of COVID-19 feel even more real.

The first few weeks months of the coronavirus pandemic were difficult for so many reasons — rising case numbers and death tolls, an overwhelming sense of dread and uncertainty, socially isolating from people we love and care about. But there was something undeniably... comforting (?!) about knowing that the whole country was, for the most part, taking a moment to stop, together, to help control the spread of the virus.

Of course, for those under the incredible stress of being an essential worker during those times, or who may have lost someone or something to the pandemic, this "pause" moment came at a large cost.

But for all those doing their part in staying home to help stop the spread, it may have been especially "nice" for those who normally suffer from crippling FOMO (fear of missing out). When everyone is at home binging the same Netflix show (hi, Tiger King), you can't possibly be missing out on parties and vacations and epic fun times. For people who normally have a constant, nagging feeling that they should be doing something more fun/adventurous/social/exciting/productive, it may have been blissful to hibernate at home for a while without a sense of guilt. (See: Why It's Ok to Enjoy Quarantine Sometimes)

Now that we're about six months into a global pandemic and certain areas of the world are coping — and reopening — better than others, your Instagram timeline has likely been filled with more of the "usual" stuff: people on vacations, partying with friends, enjoying a beach or pool day, etc.

And, as a result, your FOMO may have come roaring back — I know mine has.

But now, rather than coping with FOMO the way we (at least, I) normally do (more activities! spontaneous trips! full days and all-nighters!), many people are forced to stick to at least a somewhat-limited lockdown routine of staying home, again being isolated from family and friends, and limiting travel of any sort. This all varies by exactly where you live (maybe you're in a state with rising case numbers or an area with more strict rules), your own personal comfort with transmission risks, your economic and environmental means of engaging in certain activities, and also whether or not you've recently been in contact with someone COVID-positive. Before, what you did with FOMO was your own choice; now, many people aren't even given the option to indulge in revelry because precautionary measures are still in place (and for good reason, to keep people safe).

But that doesn't make it any easier seeing so-and-so watch the sunset on the dock of their boyfriend's family's lake house every night, or seeing that one influencer suddenly pop up in the Bahamas (?!). These days, it doesn't even take that much to stir up a little FOMO-slash-jealousy. City apartment dweller? You're probably just dying for a backyard at this point. Settled in suburbia? You're probably aching for any sort of ~out on the town~ feeling. (And don't even get me started on the whole singles/dating vs. relationship quarantine sitch.)

Then, of course, depending on where you live, your activities might truly be limited to the confines of your home, whereas other people might be freely living their lives in an almost-normal (albeit masked) state. And, because of social media, you get a lens into the lives of people in various states of quarantine, no matter how drastically different they are from your own.

All this is to say, if your FOMO is oozing onto the screen every time you open your phone, you're far from alone (or imagining it).

Why Your FOMO Is So Bad RN

"The textbook definition of FOMO is an apprehension that other people might have rewarding experiences when you're not there," says Jessica Reed, L.P.C., a licensed- and national-certified professional counselor. The root of the feeling is, "'You're having a good time, and I'm not. You're having a good time without me.' And, of course, we all want to have a good time."

But it's not all about social media—and it doesn't just affect millennials and Gen-Zers. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (conducted during COVID) found that loneliness, low self-esteem, and low self-compassion were more closely associated with FOMO than age or social media use. And guess what? We were in the middle of a loneliness epidemic even before the pandemic started; since then, feelings of loneliness and isolation have only increased.

A difficult part of all this is, now more than ever, you're probably relying on your phone and social media to feel connected to your "people" and to your larger community — so you're simultaneously getting the benefits of connection (that may be really hard to get elsewhere at the moment) while also feeling the burn of FOMO.

"You have the basic need of being safe, but also have a very core need of social acceptance...there's still a part of us that wants to feel connected to those around us," says Reed. Normally, those connections can be made while going to concerts, sitting at a table for dinner, going to a bar, meeting up with groups for workout classes or outdoor activities — but now, we're forced to be a lot more creative with how we meed this need.

"It's partly an issue because of the unpredictability," says Annette Nunez, Ph.D., a psychologist in Denver, CO. "The situation is changing week by week, even day by day. So, you may be at a place where you can start going to restaurants again, stores, bars, hanging out with your friends and you get a taste of it, and then because of what's going on, things are starting to shut down and locked down again. You have a sense of freedom, but then it's taken away. Psychologically, it kind of plays like this game with you. It's like giving someone a sucker and then halfway through, taking it back."

So, basically, this quarantine rollercoaster is somewhat like taking candy from a baby. And we're the babies. Cool.

We're also kind of like teenagers again — even if you aren't quarantined with your parents. For example, when you were a teenager, going home to meet your curfew instead of staying at a party is bound to leave you wondering what fun happened after you left. Similarly, staying home and avoiding risky behavior (in terms of coronavirus transmission) might really bum you out when you see other people bending the rules on TikTok. "We're being socially excluded, even when we're doing 'the right thing,' and that might create even more anxiety," says Reed.

You may be feeling triggered by things you're seeing on social media that isn't necessarily FOMO but is just part of the general mental health milkshake that COVID has gifted us all. "It's like this kind of learned helplessness where you can feel hopeless and helpless because you don't have any control of what's going on around you," says Nunez. "Any human being likes predictability and likes routine. They like to know what's going to happen next. And because right now we're living in a world that is completely unpredictable and things do change day by day, that does cause a feeling of defeat. You might not don't feel like yourself, or you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed."

What You (We) Can Do About It

A big factor, of course, is the highlight-reel nature of social media. This concept is nothing new: You post the day you go to the beach, not necessarily the day you spent on the couch rewatching The Office eating dry cereal out of the box.

The good news? One thing we can all do — collectively — is post more of the latter, says Reed. Post when you burn the first batch of cookies. Post a teary selfie after you have a meltdown over spilling your coffee on your work computer. Post a frown emoji on days when you're really, really missing your friends.

"That's one way to normalize some of the FOMO is to show all parts of the journey — that's a way that we can connect," she says. "It's a way to normalize emotions and destigmatize a lot of things in terms of vulnerability and transparency. Because whether you're posting it or not, we're all experiencing it."

Jessica Reed, licensed professional counselor

My whole mantra during this time has been 'we're in this together.' And we are—if you put something out there expressing this, people will gravitate to it. They're like, 'Oh my God, I would never have guessed. I feel that way too.' In fostering that understanding, it helps breed a sense of connectedness that we feel is lost because of quarantine.

— Jessica Reed, licensed professional counselor

Second, know that "comparison is the thief of joy," says Reed. You've likely heard it before, and it's all the more relevant now: Sitting in your living room stewing over how someone seems like they're having a ~glorious~ day apple picking isn't going to make your life any more enjoyable. To be fair, they might not even be having that great of a time. "If you're really comparing yourself to an experience that you only have a small amount of information about, then that would probably be inaccurate to frame a thought or feeling based on it," says Reed.

"Perception is everything," continues Reed. If you're feeling FOMO, "the way you're thinking about it will probably increase a mix of not only anxiety but also inferiority and disappointment, and admitting to yourself that you're feeling left out. And if you're feeling left out, there's a core belief that you personalize about yourself, and that could be 'I'm a loser' or 'I'm broke' etc. But psychologically, you want to shift that by reframing it, by focusing on your wins, by engaging in pleasurable activities."

Also, try to place more trust in your decision making, says Reed. "A part of that FOMO was a choice. When you're anxious about the confidence in your decision, that's basically what's driving this feeling of, 'I feel like I should have been there/doing that, but I made a decision that led me here and I have residual feelings about it.'" If you're an essential medical worker still battling difficult hospital shifts, you may be feeling jealous of the people chillin' at home — and one deep root of that is your decision to go into the field you're in. If you're quarantined in a city, it's because, at some point, you decided to live there and stay through this tough time. During a time when it feels like our collective future is out of our control, it's easy to feel like you went wrong in your decision making along the way. It helps find something concrete to "blame" your current feelings on.

Instead, this is a great time to practice gratitude and mindfulness. You might be tired of hearing all this, but get excited for even the tiniest wins for the day (i.e. "I put on real clothes") and make a big effort to find joy where you are and in whatever ways you safely can.

"You don't have control over the outside world, but what you do have control over your mindset, and recognizing that is really important," says Nunez. It's time to get aggressively creative about problem-solving when you feel like you're blue — from FOMO, or general COVID-related downer moments (which, yes, we are ALL having). "Literally make a list of all the things that bring you joy and happiness, and then start implementing it in whatever way you can," she says. Don't just list things you can do at home (drinking coffee, doing yoga, reading, etc.). For example, if you love traveling, include that in the list, then do whatever you can to make a safe, local day trip happen. (See: How to Get the Mental Health Benefits of Travel Without Going Anywhere) If you're dying to be in a packed bar having a dance party with your friends, look up local socially-distanced concerts, invite a few friends over and rage in your backyard, or learn the choreography to the WAP music video.

It's really easy to dwell on what you don't or can't have right now — especially when you're watching people who're doing everything you want (and more) on your social feeds. And while connecting with people on social media is wonderful, if it feels like Instagram is sucking all your joy, put the damn phone down. I know it's easier said than done (def let screentime features help), but if you're not staring at other people's lives on your tiny computer, it'll be a lot easier to live the life you're in.

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