How to Get Over FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
May 31, 2024

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Do you ever find yourself scrolling through social media, seeing friends and acquaintances on lavish vacations, attending exciting events, or enjoying picture-perfect moments, and feel a pang of anxiety or sadness?

Let’s imagine Sarah, a graphic artist in her late 20s, who often experiences this very scenario. Sarah loves staying connected with her friends through social media. However, her nightly scroll through Instagram and Facebook has become a source of stress rather than relaxation.

After a long week at work, Sarah decides to unwind on Friday night by catching up on social media. As she scrolls through her feed, she sees that her college friend, Emily, is at a concert of their favorite band. Another friend, Jessica, is posting photos from a beach vacation in the Caribbean, and her coworker, Mark, just shared a picture of a new, trendy restaurant he’s dining at.

Sarah starts to feel a knot in her stomach. She had spent the evening at home, eating leftovers and watching a TV show. The feelings of joy she had earlier now seem insignificant compared to the excitement she perceives in her friends’ lives. This growing sense of missing out leaves her feeling restless and discontent.

Do you relate to Sarah’s experience? If so, you are experiencing FOMO – the fear of missing out. Fear of missing out is the anxiety that arises from the belief that others people are having wonderful experiences that we are missing out on. This feeling can lead to a compulsive worry that we’re missing out on social events, experiences, or interactions that others are enjoying. It’s a common feeling among young adults, with three in four of them experiencing it.

What Drives FOMO?

There are several social and innate human traits that make us ripe for the picking in a FOMO situation.

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Social Comparison

Humans naturally compare themselves to others. This social comparison can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety when perceiving that others are engaging in more fulfilling or enjoyable activities. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in environments where people frequently share curated versions of their lives, such as on social media.

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Need for Belonging

A fundamental human need is the desire to belong to a group. FOMO is most commonly driven by the fear of social exclusion. The idea that one might be left out of enjoyable or important experiences can trigger significant anxiety and stress, as it challenges the individual’s sense of belonging and social connection.

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Influence of Social Media

Social media platforms amplify FOMO by feeding us a constant dose of seemingly perfect moments from others’ lives. This overdose of others’ carefully curated pages can distort our view of reality and create unrealistic expectations about what our own life should look like.

What Happens in the Brain During FOMO?

When we’re experiencing FOMO, several brain processes are involved.

Dopamine Release

The “feel-good” chemical messenger Dopamine is the main player in our brain’s reward system. The anticipation of social rewards (such as likes, comments, or new content) triggers dopamine release. This creates a cycle of seeking more social media engagement to maintain those feelings of pleasure.

Social Comparison and Self-Esteem

The brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for complex cognitive behavior and decision- making, is engaged in social comparison. Constant comparison to picture perfect social media posts can cause us to feel we’re not good enough and lower our self-esteem. This region of the brain evaluates our social standing, and negative comparisons can activate stress responses.

Amygdala Activation

The amygdala, the emotional processing part of the brain, becomes active during experiences of FOMO. It triggers feelings of anxiety and stress associated with the fear of missing out, heightening emotional responses to perceived social exclusion.

Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC)

The ACC, involved in experiencing social pain, is activated when we perceive ourselves as excluded or left out. This activation can lead to emotional discomfort, similar to physical pain, reinforcing the anxiety associated with FOMO.

The Impact of FOMO on Mental and Physical Health

“The fear of missing out is an old, actually an ancient fear, being triggered by the newest form of communication: social media.

Our survival as an individual within a tribe, and thus our survival as a species, once hinged on our being aware of threats both to ourselves and to the larger group. To be ‘in the know’ when we roamed around in small groups was critical to survival. To not be aware of a new food source, for example, meant you literally missed out on something that could mean the difference between life and death. When humans began to create more stable farming communities, being in the know involved paying attention, being in the right places at the right times to get resources and information, and engaging in the gossip of the day as it filtered through the community.

We all know that systems to consolidate and enhance communication among humans to keep each other informed of important information, including potential sources of danger to our tribes/countries/species, developed over time and include the forms we interact with today such as television, newspapers, the internet, and social media platforms.

Because being left out is considered that important an event for us to pay attention to and to respond to quickly, we actually have a part of our brain that is specialized for sensing if we are being left out. Not that it is usually a matter of life and death anymore whether you are on Facebook or Twitter, but for many people that is or has become their community ‘lifeline.’

That specialized part of the brain is a part of the limbic system, the amygdala, whose job it is to detect whether something could be a threat to our survival. Not having vital information or getting the impression that one is not a part of the ‘in’ group is enough for many individuals’ amygdalas to engage the stress/activation response or the “fight or flight” response.

Feeling physiologically stressed does not feel good, and that is one of the reasons why feeling left out or the ‘fear of missing out’ feels bad and people want to avoid it. In an attempt to prevent the stress response, some people will (unfortunately) redouble their efforts to not miss out on anything and end up in an almost constant process of ‘checking’ behavior. That is, they are constantly looking at their [social media] feed to see if they are missing out on anything, which doesn’t actually lessen their stress that much. Being in a hypervigilant state is the complete opposite of being at peace.”

-Anita Sanz, Clinical Psychologist, on Quora.com

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has several negative impacts on both mental and physical health. Mentally, it can lead to increased anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem, and social isolation. Physically, it can cause sleep disturbances, cardiovascular problems, a weakened immune system, and stress-related symptoms such as headaches and muscle tension.

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Increased Anxiety and Stress

Constantly feeling that one is missing out can increase anxiety and put us under chronic stress. This is due to the ongoing worry about not being part of rewarding experiences and the pressure to stay constantly connected to social media.

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Depression

The persistent belief that others are living more fulfilling lives can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and sadness, which can develop into depression. This is particularly pronounced when individuals compare their real lives to the curated and often idealized versions they see online.

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Low Self-Esteem

FOMO can erode self-esteem, as individuals may constantly feel they are not measuring up to their peers. This negative view of ourselves can diminish our self-worth and confidence.

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Social Isolation

Ironically, FOMO can lead to social isolation. The stress and anxiety it causes might make individuals withdraw from real-life social interactions, fearing they can’t live up to the expectations set by social media portrayals.

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Sleep Disturbances

Using social media too often, especially right before you go to bed, can interfere with sleep patterns. Electronic screens put off a blue light that can limit melatonin production.

Melatonin is a hormone needed for sleep regulation. A shortage of it can cause insomnia and poor sleep quality.


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Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Problems

Chronic stress and anxiety associated with FOMO can have physical repercussions, such as elevated blood pressure and an increased heart rate. Over time, this can cause cardiovascular issues.

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Weakened Immune System

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is elevated when we’re experiencing anxiety and stress. Higher than normal levels of it can suppress the immune system, lowering our resistance to infections and illnesses.

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Physical Symptoms of Stress

Individuals experiencing FOMO might also suffer from headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, and other physical manifestations of stress. These symptoms are the body’s response to the chronic stress induced by constant social comparison and anxiety.

How Limiting Social Media Use Helps Mitigate FOMO

Quitting social media is not without its pains. A lot of people, for example, mention making new accounts to “keep in touch with those they care about” or limit the fear of missing out.

FOMO and stuff is caused by social media, not resolved by social media. Checking Twitter and Instagram doesn’t actually make you any more connected. If anything, it takes away your precious time to show you ads and posts. The critical thing, however, happens after you close the app.

In the most severe cases of problematic use, including mine, there is a short (minutes-long)feedback loop happening all day long. I would go back to whatever I was doing and then within a few minutes do my loop again: check Snapchat, Texts, Email, and Instagram. A few more minutes would go by, and then I would do it again. And again. Screen time records were up to 5-6 hours on a given day, typically the weekend. I had over 100 phone pick-ups throughout the day. These statistics are available for Apple devices if you turn on screen time.

When I first quit social media, I began feeling so much FOMO. I was worried that I would miss out on important things, become less social, etc. But, I realized something super important that I wanted to share.

I know what this feeling is. It’s a withdrawal pang. That’s what users suffer their entire lives and keeps them addicts. Non-users don’t feel these feelings, it’s an effect caused by the drug/software/app. How wonderful that I am removing this attachment!

-OK-Monitor-506, FOMO and Quitting Social Media, Reddit.com

Limiting social media use the most effective strategy to manage and reduce the impacts of FOMO. Here’s how this approach can help.

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Reduces Exposure to Triggers

By spending less time on social media, we are exposed to fewer curated, idealized portrayals of others’ lives. This reduces the tendency to compare our own life to the seemingly perfect experiences of others, which is a major driver of FOMO.

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Improves Mental Health

Less social media use can dramatically reduce stress and anxiety. Without the constant barrage of updates and notifications, we can have more of a sense of calm and mental clarity. –

Limiting social media time helps diminish the negative self-comparisons that often lead to low self-esteem. People can focus more on their achievements and experiences without feeling overshadowed by others’ posts

Promotes Real-Life Connections

Spending less time on social media allows more time for face-to-face interactions. These real- life connections are often more meaningful and fulfilling, helping to meet the need for social belonging in a healthier way.

Engaging more with family and friends in person can strengthen relationships and provide a deeper sense of connection and support.

Enhances Focus and Productivity

With less time spent distracted by social media, we can concentrate better on the things we need to do. This can increase out productivity and give us a greater sense of accomplishment.

Limiting social media encourages mindfulness and being present in the moment. This helps individuals appreciate their current experiences and surroundings, reducing the feeling of missing out.

Improves Physical Health

Less screen time can improve sleep quality, especially if you limit screen use before bed. Better sleep makes a huge difference in our overall health and this will reduce the physical symptoms of stress.

Less time on social media can lower cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, leading to improved physical health and reduced risk of stress-related illnesses.

5 Tips for Limiting Social Media

  • Use Set Specific Times: Allocate specific times of the day for checking social media, such as once in the morning and once in the evening.
  • Use Apps to Monitor Usage: There are apps that track and limit screen time and can be helpful for managing social media consumption.
  • Create Screen-Free Zones: Create screen-free zones, like the bedroom or the dining room, to allow more time for offline activities
  • Engage in Offline Activities: Try reading, exercising, and other activities that don’t need screens.
  • Digital Detox: Periodically take breaks from social media entirely to reset and reduce dependency on digital interactions.

Embracing strategies to limit social media use and focus on present experiences can significantly mitigate the effects of FOMO, leading to a more balanced and fulfilling life. By fostering real-life connections, practicing mindfulness, and valuing our unique journeys, we can overcome the anxiety of missing out and find joy in the everyday moments.

Remember, life is not about keeping up with others but about appreciating and making the most of our own path. With these positive steps, we can cultivate a sense of contentment and well-being, fully embracing the richness of our lives.

  • Austin, C. (2019, December 2). Baylor Study: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) Plus Social Media Connections Can Equal Happiness. news.web.baylor.edu.
  • Gupta, M., & Sharma, A. (2021). Fear of missing out: A brief overview of origin, theoretical underpinnings and relationship with mental health. World Journal of Clinical Cases9(19), 4881–4889.
  • Servidio, R., Soraci, P, Girffiths, M., Boca, S., Demetrovics, Z. (2024, June). Addictive Behaviors Reports, Vol. 19, 100536.

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