Parties with friends. Cryptocurrency. Google stock. FOMO, or the “Fear of Missing Out” isn’t just a term that people throw around on Twitter. It is a real phenomenon that affects millions upon millions of people.
The term FOMO has often been used jokingly, as a hashtag (#FOMO), or as an excuse to do something you wanted to do anyway. But FOMO is not always so innocent.
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How Could FOMO Ever Be a Problem?
There are a lot of fears and phobias. Is FOMO one of them?
It can be.
We’ll explore those that have anxiety-related FOMO later in the article, but of course, most “Fear of Missing Out” is more of a minor tickle rather than a true fear.
The issue is that FOMO can be a problem in select cases. Those with anxiety may be more prone to FOMO (take our free 7 minute anxiety test for more about anxiety, and FOMO can also lead to bad decisions.
First, let’s talk about what FOMO is, and then we’ll explore the good and the bad as it relates to FOMO.
What is FOMO?
It has been a long week. You want nothing more than to go home, shower, and lay in your bed staring at the ceiling. You haven’t slept in days and you still have one more day of work tomorrow. You need to rest.
But then your close group of friends calls, and they want to go party. They’re planning to do some activities that you’ve wanted to do with them for months. They’re going to make memories that you won’t make. You need rest, but instead of rest, you get…
(dramatic music plays)
You fear missing out on fun activities. You fear missing out on hilarious jokes, once in a lifetime experiences, and the chance that your friends will get closer without you there. You know you need to relax, but:
- You don’t want to miss out on a fun memory.
- How can you relax knowing you may miss something amazing anyway?
Sure, you could sleep, but you have FOMO. So you’re either on your way out the door or you’re at home texting your friends, staying up all night to watch their Instagram stories or see their photos. The only thing you’re not doing is relaxing like you’re supposed to.
In other words, the fear of missing out affects your behavior. Whether or not that is a problem depends on what it is you fear.
Other Examples of FOMO
The party example is the most common example of FOMO, but there are others, and as we explore FOMO further, we can quickly see how it becomes problematic.
That’s because missing out can hurt. Ask someone that considered investing in bitcoin in March of 2013 how they how they felt when that same Bitcoin hit $18,000 in 2017. Or ask someone that sold their Amazon Stock after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 how they feel now that $AMZN has hit over $1500.
Missing out on something amazing can fill us with regret, and that regret can fuel FOMO, and that FOMO can then fuel bad decisions.
In the example above about partying, the person needs rest but is allowing their fear of missing out to dictate their behaviors so they do not get rest. If they have an important meeting at work the next day, a test, or something else that requires being well rested, chances are they will not succeed.
FOMO can affect financial decisions. For example, someone that felt they missed out on Amazon may invest too much money in a stock with less potential because they are worried about missing out on the “next Amazon.”
Scammers can even use FOMO for their own personal gain. In the world of cryptocurrency (a form of unregulated online currency that is currently popular), scammers with a lot of money will band together to drive up a cryptocurrency price by a substantial margin – far more than it is worth.
Why do they do this? Because they’ve found that other investors get FOMO. Once the currency has grown, investors that missed out on purchasing it will buy into the currency hoping to catch its growth. This drives the price further. Then, only after the price has gone up, all the scammers sell their cryptocurrency at the higher price and walk away.
The people that bought in late because of FOMO end up taking the loss, stuck with a currency that has less value than when they started. FOMO caused them to make bad, rash decisions.
These are all examples of how FOMO can have real, tangible negative consequences. In some cases, it may even develop into a real fear.
Is FOMO Anxiety?
Some researchers believe that the “Fear of Missing Out” may be related to social anxiety.
Social anxiety is usually the fear of social situations.
But in the case of FOMO, the person fears what will happen if they do not go to social situations. They may not be “Shy” like those with traditional social anxiety disorder, but the effects of a social situation are still what motivates them to struggle with anxiety.
There is an argument to be made that FOMO may also be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The fear of missing out becomes a persistent thought, known as an “obsession,” and then either go to the event or spend hours on social media monitoring for updates. That behavior is then considered a “compulsion.”
FOMO is anxiety in its own way. But it’s not clear if it is related to current anxiety disorders, or more closely related to something else, like an addiction.
The Science of FOMO
When a phenomenon reaches the cultural mainstream, it also becomes a subject of research. Not surprisingly, over the last few years there have been several research studies published about FOMO, including its causes and effects. Some examples of these studies include:
• This study found that the fear of missing out was causing an increase in alcohol consumption in college students, along with more negative alcohol-related consequences.
• This study found that social media use was directly and strongly correlated to fear of missing out. It also showed that those that experienced FOMO also had less life satisfaction.
• This study found that those that already feel as though they don’t belong can struggle with stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of FOMO.
• This study found that the “Fear of Missing Out” may eventually lead to other negative emotions, like depression.
These are only a few of the many recent studies that have come out about FOMO.
Causes of FOMO
For mental health in general, one of the first steps towards treatment is recognizing that there is a problem. But if you were to tell people that FOMO is potentially a major problem in their lives, most would likely laugh or think you sound silly.
One of the main reasons is that fear of missing out is frequently reinforced as though it is a healthy emotion, even though it is not.
Take, for example, someone that goes to a party because they were about to experience FOMO. There is a good chance they will have a great time at that party. It is thus unlikely that they come home and regret their FOMO, and similarly unlikely that they decide their FOMO was a problem.
Or imagine the person that loses hundreds of dollars on cryptocurrency investments because they experienced FOMO. Sure, they may have lost money, but they still see others get rewarded and, almost like an addiction, they don’t want to miss out on the next opportunity to “moon”.
FOMO can thus also be linked to jealousy. People want what others have, especially if they obtained it easily, and then try to get it for themselves the same way only to come in too late.
But of all the causes of FOMO, none impacts more people than social media.
Indeed, if you look at the research, most studies have directly linked social media use with the fear of missing out. The more someone has a social media addiction, the more they struggle with FOMO.
The reason for this is the same reason that frequent social media use has also been linked to:
Social media directly causes FOMO by showing people the most exciting parts of other people’s lives. Social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others, bombards people with posts, photos, and videos that depict exciting or interesting events and experiences.
This, in turn, causes people to have FOMO in two different ways:
- They want to experience the fun that others are posting about.
- They don’t want to miss any posts about that fun.
It is the latter that is also problematic. The story tends to go like this:
People with strong FOMO tend to also spend more time on social media because they also experience a fear of missing out on the posts that people make about their activities. They log on to social media more and more often, leading to greater levels of social media addiction. They then also begin to experience FOMO of the events that they didn’t attend and become more likely to attend those events later when asked even if it is not a good idea to go.
It becomes a vicious cycle with more social media use and more “fear of missing out” with the consequences of that FOMO not necessarily becoming apparent for years.
Treatment of FOMO
One of the challenges of “Treating FOMO” is that often FOMO doesn’t need to be treated. If someone experiences a fear of missing out that they rarely give into, and they still are able to lead productive and happy lives, the FOMO is more of a hashtag than an actual issue.
More problematic FOMO can still be tough to eliminate. Often the person with FOMO isn’t yet ready for treatment.
For example, a person that experiences a fear of missing out of parties is still going to have a great time at parties, they’re still going to want to go to future parties, and they’re not necessarily going to see or feel the impact of that FOMO on their life. If they have a great time and don’t notice that the FOMO has affected them in some way, the likelihood that they will be ready for a change is near zero.
Also, it is even possible for a tiny bit of FOMO to be a good thing. Fear of missing out can push people to break out of their comfort zone and go out and enjoy time with friends and family. Social time is still important for mental health, even if it comes from a less than ideal place.
But there are other times when FOMO does need to be treated, whether or not the person with it is ready for treatment:
- If FOMO is causing you to make bad financial or social decisions.
- If FOMO is also leading to or related to social media addiction.
- If FOMO is causing depression, anxiety, or stress.
- If FOMO is affecting work, relationships, or finances.
These are the situations that can help someone realize that their fear of missing out is an actual problem. If it is, there are some ways to start treating it:
Eliminating Social Media Time
FOMO and social media addiction are directly linked, and it’s difficult to eliminate one without the other. If possible, eliminating or vastly limiting social media time is going to be your best weapon against the fear of missing out. The links between social media and FOMO are indisputable. Closing your accounts or using apps like LeechBlock (which blocks websites after you’ve spent too much time on them) is an important start.
Mindfulness About Social Media Lies
Studies have consistently shown that social media causes people – especially teens and young adults – to believe that everyone else’s life is better than their own. It is critical to remember that people ONLY share what they want people to see, which makes everyone’s life look better than it is.
Research has consistently shown that people that spend a lot of time on social media rate other people’s lives as better than their own, and they’ve found the main cause of this is believing that the photos they see online prove that their life needs to be better. That experience is the beginning of more severe FOMO, as people take risks they cannot afford to take to try to “keep up” with the way they view the lives of others.
One researcher suggested that showing how silly it is to be addicted to social media may be a potential way to break the habit.
Schedule Your Priorities
Giving in to FOMO can reinforce it. That’s why to stop FOMO, you have to schedule in your priorities. From this study:
“Results showed that students experience FOMO frequently, particularly later in the day and later in the week, and while doing a required task like studying or working.”
People experience fear of missing out more when they’re doing an activity they don’t particularly want to do. They then either give in to the activity or monitor social media.
Any time you are engaged in an activity that you need to do, you will want to cut yourself off from both giving in to FOMO and monitoring social media, in order to break that cyclical habit.
Breaking the Habit Inside You
There is some good news about FOMO. The ability to prevent the fear of missing out from controlling your life often comes from recognizing it.
Social media and FOMO can be addictions just like an illicit drug.
That means that breaking the addiction may require a withdrawal period, followed by behavioral changes that the person needs to do in order to keep the addiction from coming back.
It is a good idea to strongly consider a break from social media, and a break from any activity that causes FOMO for as long a period of time as you can spare. That time can help give you a much-needed break from your habits, and thus potentially help you “refresh” so that you can figure out a way to either get back on social media in small doses or avoid FOMO and the negative consequences of it.
If you also feel like it would be useful to address any anxiety you’ve struggled with as a result of social media, FOMO, or any other issue in your life, please consider starting with our anxiety test, where we score your anxiety and move you forward towards treatments.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jul 23, 2018.