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FOMO: ‘Fear of missing out’ can lead to anxiety, even depression - but there are solutions

It has a name. That twinge in your gut when you see people laughing in sweaters on social media, or when you haven't checked your Facebook feed in a while. This anxiety, or FOMO (fear of missing out) is the pervasive apprehension that you're miss...

Photo illustration by Gary Meader /
Photo illustration by Gary Meader /

It has a name.

That twinge in your gut when you see people laughing in sweaters on social media, or when you haven't checked your Facebook feed in a while.

This anxiety, or FOMO (fear of missing out) is the pervasive apprehension that you're missing a rewarding experience, said Essentia Health psychologist Dr. Nicole Fleming. And even she isn't immune.

"My triathlon team, they had a get-together when I was in California last week, and I thought. 'FOMO,'" she said.

We have a primitive instinct to connect and build relationships, and doing that through social media can feed FOMO because it creates a distorted reality. Online profiles often show the good stuff or the exaggerated bad stuff, Fleming said, and it offers unhealthy avenues to validation, another FOMO trigger.


Fleming sees FOMO in patients ages 50-70 who are using the internet as a primary way to connect. Some will get upset that their adult children aren't commenting or liking their posts.

This uneasiness can turn into cognitive distortions, such as "They must not like me" or "They're excluding me." That can lead to anxiety, insecurity, isolation, even depression - and no one is exempt. "Probably not unless you're a Tibetan monk," Fleming said.

But there are tools. Fleming's recommendations are not to personalize it, to unfollow someone for a time if there is anxiety about the relationship, and to avoid posting to social media for a response.

"Think of it in the same terms when you give a gift to someone, don't expect a gift back."

And this isn't unique to social media; the holidays can flare FOMO on and off the internet.

If you're close with family and are unable to be with them, this can affect fear of missing out, Fleming said. In this case, it's a matter of wanting to be included. A positive step is to acknowledge feelings and reframe: "When I feel sad because I can't be with my family during the holidays, it means I love my family," she said.

"There's always a more positive beautiful side to some of the more negative feelings we experience."

There are many reasons to check the smartphone: to see if a child got home safely, to see game results. We get a dopamine release in our brains from going online, Fleming said. It turns negative when we're pleasure-seeking or getting anxiety over what we believe might be happening without our knowledge.


FOMO was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2013, but it was first coined in a 2003 Harvard Business School op-ed. FOMO, or FOBO (fear of a better option), referred to a post-9/11 feeling that you needed to do everything all the time because you had seen your mortality, according to Boston Magazine.

Susan Lombardo sees FOMO manifest on campus today. She is the director of advising and academic services at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "The level of indecision there is greater than it used to be because of the fear of missing out," Lombardo said. There are two distinctive fears: wasting time and money; missing out on a career by choosing a major.

"That gets them immobilized," she said.

Telltale signs of FOMO are circular conversations. "You think they're making a decision. You think you've moved forward, and they're back at square one."

When this happens, her first job is asking questions, listening and relaying that options don't disappear when they choose a path. "Most people actually work in different fields than they majored in."

To combat FOMO, students are double majoring and adding more minors - they will also run ideas past several faculty members. "If they can get two or three people that they respect and consider mentors say the same thing, they feel better about their decision."

Also, hiring companies recognize FOMO and are being coached to offer rotating positions that expose Gen Zers to multiple tasks, Lombardo said. "What they're telling corporations is not how to get rid of that FOMO, it's how to work with it and make it a productive thing."

If FOMO causes distress to the point of harming functionality - running late to work because of the need to check social media - or if someone has stopped socializing in person, Fleming recommends seeking assistance.


When used appropriately, social media is a powerful way to connect - in real life.

"I am a five-year breast cancer survivor. ... It was very lonely to be one of the few under 40 with breast cancer. Now with social media, I can connect with people around the country," Fleming said.

There are strategies to using the web in a way that may minimize FOMO. Fleming suggested designating specific times to check social media, and creating limits - not using it when you're with another person or when you're angry or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

You can ease FOMO by disconnecting and practicing being present, she said. Instead of taking a photo of an experience, feel the positive emotions it can elicit. Mindfulness, the ability to observe without judgment, is an excellent tool, as well.

Fleming also suggested shifting your focus to finding happiness in hobbies. There's less of a chance of feeling you're missing out if you're participating in activities with others. We benefit more from facetime. "You couldn't get the same level of neurostimulation on a screen as we would if we were actually interacting with people."

Another go-to: It's important to tell yourself you can't be everywhere all the time. If you notice feelings of loneliness and exclusion, make plans to see friends in person.

Lombardo isn't sure she's experienced FOMO, but maybe ROMO (rumination on missing out). "We do a lot of 'what-ifs,' all of us," she said. "For me, it's all looking back on things and wondering instead of being frozen."

Fleming experienced more FOMO when social media was a novel concept, but she relies on identification of it today. "When I feel that thing in my stomach like 'Oh, FOMO,' I can identify it and move on."

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