I just got out of a relationship with a perfectly lovely individual. He was tall. He had a job. He was nice to me. He came from a corn-fed, family-values-type background. And yet, part of me was never committed to us. Part of me wanted to redownload Bumble (a less sketchy version of Tinder), attend the singles dances, and/or Facebook stalk the groomsmen in my friends’ wedding photos. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy; I think I was. But something deeper, something more sinister like a full-body version of restless leg syndrome was lying in wait, prompting me to look a little longer at each of the wedding band-less men who checked me out at the grocery store. I felt unsettled.
Many of you may follow this up with “But Cait! That’s how you know you’re not in the right relationship.” I would agree with you, but I would also counter with “But what if I have felt like this to some extent in every relationship I’ve been in. And what if I admitted to feeling like this to some degree in every school I’ve ever attended and in every job that I have ever held? Do I get to write all of those off as ‘just not right,’ too?” To which you would respond, “DAMN DANIEL, I didn’t mean to start an existential query. We’re going to stop inviting you to Bachelor viewing parties if you can’t engage in normal chit-chat.”
Although I might vocalize it more frequently than is socially appropriate, I believe that I’m not the only one my age who feels this way. Also, there is science to back this phenomenon up.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is actually an primitive condition rooted in our drive to survive. Our survival as an individual and our survival as a community/people/species was once determined by our ability to be aware of threats to both ourselves and to our larger group. To be in the know often had life-or-death consequences. For example, to not be aware of a new source for water meant that you missed out on something that could keep you alive. When people evolved from transient hunting and gathering situations to stable farming communities this innate need to be in the know began to be utilized in a different way. Survival became less based on an individual’s efforts and more dependent on community interconnectivity. Thus our instinctual drive to need to know became less about physical life-or-death threats and more about societal life-or-death.
The problem is that although we don’t need to respond to being in the know with the same urgency that our caveman forefathers did, our brains still experience these evolved threats in an archaic manner. The limbic system, specifically the amygdala activates and responds to these threats in a visceral fight-or-flight response. What was once essential to our survival and triggered very infrequently now becomes problematic as our awareness of possible “threats” have amplified through the ever-increasing platforms for information and awareness (social media, newspapers, the internet, group texts). A constantly triggered amygdala can lead to prolonged and habitual stress, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, etc.
Of course this problem is larger than Instagram-fueled travel envy for a group of twentysomethings. Walk in a straight line long enough and you will bump into a single young adult who is struggling to the point of debilitation with navigating their relationships, careers, and future. FOMO is making us afraid to act, for the fear that any movement is movement away from a potential route to our end-all-be-all happiness.
Here’s the thing, though. All decisions reduce more freedom than they create. So what starts out as the action-promoting thought process on our real-life Choose Your Own Adventure book becomes a battle of making choices versus preserving freedom. Our amygdala is triggered. What information are we missing that is vital to our survival? Having too many choices promotes indecisiveness, and so we are left in a perpetual state of ambivalence towards making a decision on our futures.
This ambivalence is a luxury, which is only made affordable through the current state of globalization, advanced technology, and upward mobility in society. A case could be made that it only exists because of the endless sea of opportunities as they react with the subjective experience of the emerging adult. Emerging adulthood, a term coined by developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, is the phase of the life span between adolescence and adulthood, roughly age 18-27. This stage is characterized by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between.” So in a social climate and an age hallmarked by ambiguity, emerging adults have developed intolerance to the unknown. Many stand by as opportunities to contribute, connect, and progress come towards them and then slip through their open fingers.
What can we do to not fall victim to all of this? I’m not 100% sure, since I am more of a fellow traveler than an expert on this subject. However, I have found some things to be helpful in reducing distress and in enabling me to be functional in the midst of uncertainty.
Are you being picky because of this FOMO phenomenon or do you actually not like your job/school/love interest? Figure out how to differentiate between the two. Try to recognize the circumstances around which you are most triggered to have a FOMO reaction. IDK go to a therapist or something.
Reduce your social media usage.
Take a break from Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter. Just delete Twitter because that thing breeds anxiety and toxicity. Give your brain a vacation from identifying threats that aren’t even relevant to your situation.
Focus on now.
While it is near impossible to only focus on the present moment when you are simultaneously at an age where you need to make important decisions, know that anxiety can only live in the past and in the future. Use thought-stopping techniques to shut down debilitating rumination loops regarding the diverse ways your future might be limited. Read this quote and breathe.
“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
― Corrie ten Boom