As a sophomore in college, Alexa Goins landed the opportunity of a lifetime: She was accepted into a semester-long study abroad program in Paris. But deciding whether to say bonjour to the city of lights wasn't a no-brainer. It was a burden.
"I could not decide if I was going to go on the trip or not because I was afraid of missing out on a whole semester of events and friendships on my college campus," says Goins, now a senior at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Her final answer? "I didn't end up studying abroad."
While turning down a Parisian adventure might be Goins' most drastic decision driven by "the fear of missing out," which in popular parlance is abbreviated FOMO, it hasn't been the only one. This summer alone, the 21-year-old took two jobs, two internships and two writing gigs because she didn't want to miss out on any professional opportunities – a sister phenomenon she calls "career FOMO."
And Goins well knows what it's like to burn out socially from going out on Friday nights instead of giving herself a rest after a long week. "You're afraid that if you miss out on said social outing, it will turn out to be some grand experience that you regret not attending for the rest of your life," she says. "It's dramatic, but it's a phenomenon that's spurred on by social media culture."
Goins has that right. In a series of 2013 studies in the journal Computers in Human Behavior – the first to define the concept for research purposes – scientists found that FOMO was "robustly linked" to social media use, and that the under-30 set was most vulnerable to it.
"You know what everyone is doing, where they're doing it, everything is exclamation marks," says Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York, who was not involved in the study. "They don't talk about anything that's negative or the cost of anything or the difficulties they have – it's all positive. And it's person after person."
The downfalls of FOMO go beyond feeling sorry for yourself. The Computers in Human Behavior studies also linked it to distracted driving – a finding supported by data released in August from Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions. Their survey of more than 1,600 high school students found that 34 percent of teens take their eyes off the road when they get an alert from apps such as Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter – a dangerous trend the organizations link to young people's "always on" lifestyle.
“Whether you call it FOMO, 'the grass is always greener syndrome,' 'wanting to have it all disorder' or simply 'vacation jealousy,' there's a good reason most of us feel bad about being left out from time to time.”
FOMO can also negatively impact mental health. According to the Computers in Human Behavior studies, the feeling is linked to being in a worse mood and poorer life satisfaction. "The consequence is insecurity and indecisiveness – and that can really ruin your life," says Sapadin, who works with people stuck in patterns of self-defeat and wrote the book "Master Your Fears: How to Triumph over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life." "It becomes an anxiety disorder and it throws you off balance and there's no way of just relaxing and appreciating what you do have."
Hungry for Social Connections
Whether you call it FOMO, "the grass is always greener syndrome," "wanting to have it all disorder" or simply "vacation jealousy," there's a good reason most of us feel bad about being left out from time to time: Strong social connections are critical to physical and mental well-being, and may even lengthen your life, research suggests.
"If you think about how important social acceptance is to people and has been for eons, in principle, having the experience [of FOMO] is not a bad thing in small doses," says Mark Leary, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University, where he directs the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center. "Like any negative emotion, it raises a little red flag and tells us, 'Attend to the quality of your social connections.' It's perfectly human, perfectly natural and probably functional."
But when the feeling is chronic, it may be time to consider the root of your FOMO, be it a mental health condition like anxiety or simply too much time on Facebook. To find out how "severe" your FOMO is, try taking this quiz, developed by the Computers in Human Behavior studies research team. "If you go through life feeling like you're on the outside and you're missing out, and everything that happens you resent the fact that you're not being included, that's a more serious problem," Leary says.
One difference between people who experience the occasional healthy dose of FOMO and those whose FOMO is constant and crushing could come down to how accepted they feel in real life. "Sort of like the hungry person is more sensitive to the fact that other people are eating," Leary says.
For others, FOMO might be linked to perfectionism – say, an obsession to live a perfect life with the perfect partner and take perfect vacations, Sapadin says. "Anything that's less than perfect is going to feel not good enough." No matter the cause, seeing a mental health professional can help.
Conquering Chronic FOMO
While spending her junior year on campus instead of abroad, Goins came face-to-face with the consequences of her FOMO. "I missed out on the trip of a lifetime and realized that a lot of my friends, who I stayed for, didn't really care that much [that I was still around]," she says.
Goins also grew increasingly aggravated by her social media connections flaunting the details of their seemingly enviable lives. So she went on a social media "diet," quitting Facebook – the main culprit of her FOMO – for four months earlier this year. "I just wanted to get to a point where I wasn't constantly thinking about how other people were spending their Friday nights and how I was 'missing out,' or seeing people's awesome vacation photos and thinking about how I was stuck in a tiny town in Kentucky," Goins says.
The "diet" worked. Though she now uses Facebook for academic reasons and occasionally to keep in touch with family and friends in different parts of the country, Goins says her FOMO is mostly cured. Case in point: When she was accepted into the study abroad program (again) in April, she said yes. She's now in Paris – a sort of FOMO treatment in itself. "The French lifestyle of taking things slow and not making it all about work and success are … great influences on me," Goins says.
Can't fly to Paris to treat your FOMO? In addition to breaking it off with social media for a bit, Sapadin suggests letting go of comparisons and focusing on what you want from life. "Define that for yourself," she says. And remember to put away your phone when you're around people you care about. Otherwise, you'll continue to miss out on what's in front of you for fear of missing out on what's not. "One thing the media has suggested is that you can have it all," Sapadin says. But in reality, "you have to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to others."
Leary advises taking a different perspective. "If you stop and think, you are probably doing things that … when other people think of it, they go, 'Wow, I'm sorry I'm missing out on that,'" he says. Viewing situations that way can help you "realize this is not something unique and peculiar about you," he says, "you are just looking at it from one side of the fence."
Got FOMO? How To Get A Grip was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.
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