You’re late-night scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, and suddenly, you stumble on a series of photos or videos of your friends or family having fun without you.
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You ask yourself: Why didn’t they invite me? Did they just forget to include me?
And then, just as quickly, you’re falling down a rabbit hole of trying to make sense of it all: Wondering what you did wrong, wishing you had been included, scrolling through their social media profiles to find clues for what made them leave you out in the first place. Ultimately, you’re left simmering in sadness, guilt or shame because you’ve developed a fear of missing out.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, has become all-too prevalent over the last couple of decades. It’s an experience that many of us are familiar with. And while it’s directly related to our self-esteem and self-worth, it also has a direct effect on our physical, mental and emotional health. And how could it not? When everyone else around you is having fun without you, what can you do to feel good about where you’re at and what you’re doing on your own?
Clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, breaks down all the nuances of FOMO and shares advice for how to avoid it or how to manage it when it inevitably creeps up.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, refers to the feeling or perception that other people are having fun, experiencing new things or living a better life than you. And while it most often pops up when you see or perceive these characteristics in people you love and you’re close with, it can also occur with parasocial relationships. When you see people you don’t know but follow on social media doing really cool things you wish you were doing, it can have a lasting impact on how you feel about yourself.
“With the advancement of social media, people are feeling like they can’t escape FOMO,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have access to everything 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and most people are on multiple platforms. Because of this, people are feeling like they’re either missing out or they’re not doing enough to reach their full potential.”
FOMO isn’t entirely dependent on social media (though, social media is perhaps FOMO’s biggest culprit). FOMO can happen to anyone anywhere at any time.
An athlete who frequently sees someone they look up to working out in the gym four to five days a week may experience stress associated with the belief that they’re not able to commit to the time or keep up with such high standards.
Someone who enjoys reading may become triggered by someone else’s long list of books they’ve read over the course of a year and may feel as if they’re not smart enough, educated enough or able to maintain that level of comprehension.
Someone who wishes to be more socially involved or active might feel left out, anxious or like they’re not doing enough whenever they see or hear about other people traveling, going on adventures and experiencing things they’ve never experienced in their own lives.
In many ways, modern day FOMO is similar to the long-time phenomenon known as “Keeping up with the Joneses” — the pressure of having to meet or exceed your neighbor’s social status, wealth and popularity.
FOMO can affect anyone, but certain people are at higher risk for FOMO if they have an underlying mental health condition or have low level of self-esteem. Of course, social media isn’t all bad, but it can be particularly harmful if your personal relationship with your body image is in disarray. And in particular, anxiety disorder and depression both lend themselves to experiencing FOMO more frequently and with longer lasting effects.
“What concerns me is people who are predisposed to emotional disorders like anxiety or depression typically withdraw or avoid situations, and their way of connecting with others may be through social media,” notes Dr. Sullivan. “The human experience is all about connection, so we have an innate need to connect. But in the instance of a person with anxiety or depression, the majority of their connection may be through social media.”
A 2017 study correlated more daily social media use with a higher chance of having an anxiety disorder. While a 2022 study suggests depressive and anxious symptoms worsen the longer we spend on social media. While social media likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, how we use it and how often we use it certainly has a direct impact on our ability to experience FOMO.
When we have basic needs that are unmet and we depend on social media use to satisfy those needs, it likely compounds the severity of symptoms we’re experiencing. Studies also suggest that FOMO is a negative emotional state resulting from unmet social relatedness needs.
“FOMO is probably the most hurtful in teenagers or younger adults, specifically because they are trying to figure out where they fit in life and what groups they fit into,” shares Dr. Sullivan.
The fear of missing out can have a direct impact on your physical, mental and emotional health. You might physically experience some symptoms associated with anxiety that include:
Mentally and emotionally, you might experience an increase in intrusive thoughts. You might even become consumed by the cycle of negative self-talk, making it more difficult to manage and believe in your own sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
If at any point any of these symptoms become increasingly disruptive, it’s important that you ask for help.
“From a psychological standpoint, when it starts to impact your daily life, we know there’s an issue. And that’s any domain of life: social interactions, athletics, school, relationships,” states Dr. Sullivan. “Whatever it may be, if any aspect of your life is disrupted, we need to be able to identify the root of the problem and any potential solutions that can help.”
“What we have to do is set appropriate limits and do a value-based assessment of our goals and what helps us to achieve those goals, including our use of social media,” says Dr. Sullivan.
Some helpful solutions for avoiding and managing FOMO include:
“When we start to feel physical or psychological symptoms, we know it’s time to stand up and take a break,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to set limits.”
This can look like deactivating your social media accounts, saving social media involvement for the weekends when it’s not disrupting your work, or imputing time limits on your smart phone so you can only access certain apps for a limited amount of time within a 24-hour period.
“If you have a younger adolescent child at home and you’re just starting to introduce them to social media, it’s very important as a parent to set those limits for the child,” advises Dr. Sullivan. “Sometimes, it can be very difficult for a child to recognize those triggers in themselves.”
“Sometimes, FOMO can be paralyzing,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It pulls you into this rabbit hole and paralyzes you.”
For this reason, if you identify what your triggers are, you can work toward avoiding those triggers or prepare yourself for how to react when those triggers occur.
For example, if you see somebody who you know is in your friend group and they’re hanging out with someone else, and you know that’s going to trigger you, you need to make sure you’re not searching for those types of things on social media, and that you’re reaching out to those friends to address your concerns whenever they surface.
“Overall, try not to be jealous and instead, be grateful that your friends have people who care about them, and know that the same is true for you,” encourages Dr. Sullivan.
Developing your sense of self is vitally important in all stages of your life.
“When we start to look at ourselves as complex individuals, we recognize what we bring to the world and to our relationships, and we recognize our worth,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It is also important to recognize what our values are and what our interests are. And sometimes, it’s OK if those values don’t align with other people, especially if they’re important to us.”
You can do this by taking inventory of your values by way of doing a value-based assessment. Make a list of all the things that bring you joy, that make you feel confident, that make you feel good about yourself and the way you move through the world around you. Then, make a list of all the things that don’t serve you, the things that make you feel bad about yourself, harm you or make you feel like you’re not good enough.
By doing this, you can physically discover all the things that you should hold onto and perhaps interact with a bit more and all the things you may need to cut out of your life or adjust the way you interact with them.
“We need to make sure young people especially understand their worth, understand what fills their bucket, understand what makes them who they are, what brings value, what brings joy and what motivates them, so they know themselves deeply and are not spending time comparing themselves to other people, thus bringing down their self-worth,” explains Dr. Sullivan.
Out of FOMO come other things like JOMO (the joy of missing out) and ROMO (the reality of missing out). And it’s that reality piece that’s an important part to remember: What you see online is just a sliver of what’s actually happening behind the scenes.
“Most of the time, we’re only seeing half the picture,” clarifies Dr. Sullivan. “We’re not always seeing the reality of what’s happening behind the scenes, and we all have struggles and challenges that we’re faced with. We have to ask ourselves: Are we evaluating a real situation or is this just half the picture?’”
You can embrace a lot of these management tools on your own, but sometimes, situations can be a bit more complex, especially if you’re not sure where to start.
“A psychologist who specializes in interpersonal therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful with managing FOMO and making sure that you’re chasing your dreams in reality and not online,” recommends Dr. Sullivan.
After all, when you fear you’re missing out, it feels good knowing you have someone on your team who understands your experience.
“Seeking help from someone who specializes in mental health treatment is always a good idea,” reinforces Dr. Sullivan. “Interpersonal therapy is an exceptional way to understand you as an individual and how you relate with the world. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also good for more physiological symptoms and learning to manage cognitive distortions and ruminating thoughts.”