We relied on our friends to entertain us, support us and make us laugh, then we had to do without them. We popped to the shops, queued in post offices, took buses and trains, and dragged our kids through crowded museums. Then COVID came and everything changed overnight But now, We’re being told a new message, but our FOGO red flags are up – we’re not suffering from fear of missing out, now it’s plain old fear of going out….
FOGO: A new way of life
Let’s deal with FOMO first, or Fear Of Missing Out, which wasn’t as glaring before social media became embedded in our lives. Now, sleepy eyes are barely open before we’re checking our Instagram feed, Twitter, or Whatsapp messages. We’ve all felt that sinking feeling scrolling through someone else’s amazing holiday/new job/weekend away, while stuck doing something mundane, wishing we could fill those little squares with more excitement.
Before social media we could only imagine what we were missing; now we can see it in real-time: the morning after the party you missed, or weren’t invited to, is now plastered all over your feed with the hashtag #bestpartyever. There is no escape.
Suddenly the holidays stopped, the parties vanished and the “secret exciting project – can’t tell you yet,” updates dwindled. But we learned new ways to nourish our social side – Zoom has had a massive increase in profits, thanks to family and friends’ online quizzes, and waking up with unexpected hangovers, became the Saturday night norm and our houses and gardens never looked so good. In short, we evolved to the new normal.
There are plenty of downsides to lockdown, but one of the upsides was having a total lack of commitments, and while there was a re-adjustment period, it turned out we savored a simpler life:
“With three children, after school was spent running them to clubs, picking them up from friends’ houses and weekends were a series of parties, football, swimming, and gymnastics,” explains mum Angela. “Suddenly it all stopped, and I started to relish the hours we weren’t rushing around but spending time as a family.”
Georgia, 28 agrees: “I live on my own, so I was petrified I’d go slowly mad in lockdown, but that isn’t what happened. I had a routine, started the day with yoga, worked from home, went for a run, talked to friends online, called my mum more, got really into box sets… I have to admit I enjoyed not having to meet people for drinks after work and dare I say it, a break from dating was lovely!”
But whilst we were enjoying our first jigsaw since we were eight and making sourdough starters, we also stopped venturing out. Suddenly every outing was accompanied by a ritual of hand sanitizing, mask-wearing, and walking along the street zig-zagging to avoid getting close to anyone.
Anna, 38 says her anxiety increased every time she ventured out: “It wasn’t the queuing or hand-washing, but how weird it was meeting friends in the street,” she explains. “Some would get too close, some would wave from miles away and one of my friends actually went in for a hug, I just couldn’t handle the uncertainty of every meeting.”
Much like Anna’s experience you may have become reluctant to leave the house as each day passed. A typical symptom of people who suffer from anxiety is imagining things in their lives are worse than they are, but the problem with Covid, is every news channel, social media feed, newspaper, or talking to friends brought a tsunami of bad news, scare stories and worry.
Fight or Flight
When anxiety and stress kick in, our internal alarm systems are on hyper-alert and our survival system, which harks back to Neanderthal days, reacts with a fight or flight response; fight the danger head-on or run very fast in the opposite direction. Since none of us could fight Covid head-on, we opted for flight, which in this case meant staying on the couch, closing the blinds, and NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE.
The problem with lifting restrictions from a psychological point of view is, we had trained our brains to think going out meant danger and staying in was the right thing to do. Now, it’s flipped the other way and our anxiety is on overload.
Becoming institutionalized is usually used to describe people who have been released from prison and find it hard to adjust to the real world, but when I had to stay in hospital following the birth of my first child I discovered how strange it was. After two weeks, the daily rituals of ward life – the nurses bringing medicine, taking blood pressure, and attending wounds started to become normal, as were the four walls of my room and the occasional trip to the ward kitchen for lukewarm tea.
I started to view outside as a fearful place and when my baby and I were finally discharged I was fearful of the bustling city and shocked to see people getting on with their daily lives. That was after only two weeks. We’ve had over two months, and longer for those shielding, so readjustment is going to take time.
The anxiety of re-joining the world has the added stress factor of not being quite sure what we are allowed to do. It swings wildly from FOMO on the gossip of who is seeing who, to obsessing over who is breaking the rules, worrying what the neighbors think when a friend pops round for a socially distanced glass of wine, and being petrified if anyone breaks the distance rule.
Jenny, 41, agrees: “I was invited round to a friend’s garden for coffee, but when I arrived, four other couples were there drinking wine and socializing. I panicked, made excuses, and left. My brain could not cope with more people than I had expected.”
FOGO: Dealing with Fear
The worry mainly stems from fear of the unknown: Have we got Covid? Have we had it? Will there be a second wave? Will I get it worse than others? How will the older people I know cope with this? When will everything be back to normal?
Fear is a primitive human function; there to protect us – making us alert by pumping adrenaline through us when we sense threat; but is also an emotional response to situations. We can choose positive fear, like bungee jumping or watching scary movies, or actively avoid situations that expose us to what we fear most. In this case, FOGO protects us from potentially catching the virus but also from the unknown.
How can we stop FOGO?
In situations like the phobia of flying or of spiders, for example, systematic desensitization can be useful. Essentially, the person is exposed in a controlled environment, to their fear, and over time the body’s physiological response changes. Based on this response, one route out of FOGO is to take small trips into the outside world so that your body becomes more relaxed each time.
- Mindfulness can be really helpful here. The main philosophy is being present and fully engaged in the moment; living in the now. This translates into making sure you focus entirely on your immediate activity, instead of fretting about what will happen next week or next year. So, if you need to post something, only focus on getting to the post office and back rather than worrying about who you might meet, or whether your friend should pop by later.
- Understand that even trusted news sources can be biased – look at news objectively and realize there’s always an agenda. Kate, 34, coped not by hiding the news but by reading all of it: “I read every news front page on my app each morning and it helped to see how different papers deal with the same story and how the same message can be distorted.”
- Choose three friends who you trust aren’t ‘breaking the rules’ and decide you’ll only see them at first. That way you’ll feel in control with friends whose outlook is similar to yours. Start with a coffee at lunchtime (less chance of other people turning up and being coerced into drinking wine)! Tell them you’d prefer it was just you at first so you can get used to being in company again.
- Take a small walk to outside spaces, rather than tackling a supermarket or high street where you’ll encounter lots of people. Gradually work up to visiting shops over time.
One of the toughest parts of this situation is not having anything to look forward to. We work hard all week, so really enjoy meeting friends for dinner at the weekend and we live for our holidays. With all that taken away, it’s time to create new treats to circle on the calendar. Perhaps you could start by organizing a cocktail party in your garden for three close friends but keep the numbers small.
I know quite a few friends who made a jar of “first things we’ll do once lockdown is lifted,” suggestions and plan to make their way through the jar. Anyone in the family can add a suggestion. Make the planning as elaborate as you can – plan your next holiday in minute detail, road trip, shopping splurge, beach adventure, or research a new skill/course you’ve always wanted to do. Make sure your jar includes everyday activities you’ve missed – lunch in a café, spontaneous pub/bar visits, or post-school run coffee.
Ask yourself if your FOGO is because of the Coronavirus, or whether it’s because you’ve enjoyed a simpler, less hectic life, and fear going back to commuting, rushing around, and never having any downtime. If this is the case, it’s time to make some changes.
- Ask work about your options to work from home for part of the week even when restrictions have lifted. You’ve proved you can work autonomously and meet deadlines and lots of companies are realizing it’s a great way to have work/life balance for their employees.
- Do you do too much? Write down all the demands on your time during the week. Do your kids need to attend so many clubs? Do you need to say NO a few more times to commitments? Is it always you organizing/cooking/arranging everything? Time to sit back and take time for yourself.
- Decide some rules for when life goes back to normal, to take some pressure off. For example, announce you’re not cooking at the weekend anymore, or that Tuesday nights are YOUR night, where you don’t ferry people around or meet anyone for after-work drinks. Dedicate it to having a bath, reading a book, or listening to podcasts.
- If you were one of many who discovered running during lockdown, try not to give it up once normal life returns.
In short, take it very slowly when you are venturing out, then increase your exposure to others tentatively. But crucially, a little bit of FOGO can be a good thing. See it as a signal to evaluate how you live and possibly slow down a bit. Don’t forget that humans adapt very quickly to new circumstances and environments and it won’t be long before the FOGO leaves and FOMO creeps back in as everyone starts picking up their old lives and going to the #bestpartyever again.
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