‘Back to Normal’ Anxiety Is More Common Than You Might Think

 ‘Back to Normal’ Anxiety Is More Common Than You Might Think

All about the unwelcome return of FOMO and how to manage it.

Shutdown orders of pretty much everything for the past year managed to shut down something plenty of guys didn’t miss: anxiety. Without events, parties, meetings, and must-see places to miss out on, FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out—was wiped out, too.

In my psychiatry practice, I saw more people than ever who were struggling with feeling isolated, and I saw plenty of new cases of depression and anxiety. But none of my patients ever complained about FOMO. Now that the world is turning on again, FOMO is returning with a vengeance, and it’s freaking a lot of guys out.

FOMO isn’t an official psychiatric diagnosis, but it may as well be, because I hear patients describe symptoms of it all the time. It’s when you feel that you always have to be connected, or plugged into what’s happening around you, and when you’re not, you feel like you’re falling behind, in life or at work.
At its roots, FOMO is about our innate drive to compete.

The need to always live up to expectations, to perform, to be in the know, can make anyone anxious. Checking out of the whole keeping-up game was totally okay last year, and it made some of my patients, especially those with social anxiety, feel more comfortable than they had in the past. Many of you may not have even thought about FOMO, and now you’re thinking, I can totally relate. Now that you’re aware that FOMO is a contributor to anxiety, discover what to tackle to help manage your feelings.

Figure out your FOMO’s M.O.

It sounds obvious, but it’s critical to identify where that FOMO is coming from. Anxiety can be particularly disturbing when you can’t figure out what’s causing it. If you’re hitting a dead end on what about “the swing of things” is stressing you, you might try making a list of how your life was better and worse before things picked up and how it’s better and worse now. If you notice you got more sleep and weren’t the last to leave the office every day, you might see that FOMO is coming from work pressure.

This was the case with a patient of mine—I’ll call him Mike, a graphic designer in his early 50s who felt unmotivated when the pandemic caused his business to slow. Mike spent months saying he couldn’t wait for things to start back up. But once they did, the stress of having to keep up with new projects and the lack of free time made him anxious again—and he’d had no idea his former anxiety was about work.

Mike and I discussed ways he might create time for himself, such as setting boundaries so work didn’t carry over into nights and weekends. If this seems impossible, sometimes accepting that you’ll have less time but making the most of the free time you do have can set you on the right path.

Resist the urge to rush back to normal

Take a second to focus on what you want your new, FOMO-free (or FOMO-managed) life to be. Not what someone else thinks it should be—or even what you think it “should” be. Figure out what’s most meaningful in your life.

Keep in mind that there are more choices for what you want your life to look like than either “how things were” (prepandemic) or “how they are now.” For instance, you might not have to click back into your work life like a double-A battery in a remote. The pandemic changed the entire world, so chances are it changed you and the people around you. This may be the moment to talk with your managers and colleagues about new ways to do things.

I’m rethinking things, too. A year ago, I couldn’t imagine seeing patients online, because it seemed impersonal. But I’ve learned that these visits are convenient for some of my patients and they save me a long commute. My new normal may include more options for online sessions, even if just one day a week, and I’ll see how things go from there.

Make FOMO useful

FOMO isn’t all bad: Some studies show that risk-seeking behavior—like taking out a loan to start a business or going for more reps at the gym—is more likely to occur when you see people around you taking similar risks. You may also be more motivated to get out and do things, like hike—or hike really far—when you see social-media posts by friends who are doing it. Scans have shown that a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, which plays a role in pleasure and reward, lights up like a firefly when we outperform someone else. But if your performance is giving you anxiety, it might be time to drop the comparisons with everyone else and focus on outperforming yourself.

I have a friend who makes sure that every year on his birthday, he is bench-pressing more than he did the year before. That way, it doesn’t matter how much others in the gym are lifting. This mindset can actually shift any fear of missing out on what’s going on around you to fear of missing out on living your best, most anxiety-free life. And that’s one kind of FOMO that’s worth having.

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