Cambridge Students having fun on Caesarian SundayTobia Nava

We all know well (arguably a little too well) that feeling of worry that comes with seeing others enjoying themselves at an exciting event without you. Even when your social battery is drained, you can’t help but let your mind wander and formulate a string of questions about the unknown: Will I be invited next time? Who else is there? Am I boring? All these thoughts spiral so quickly, and this sense of anxiety just builds and builds to an almost unbearable level. The term given to this feeling of anxiety helpfully sums up this paragraph in just four words: fear of missing out, which shortens even further to ‘FoMO’.

“You’re sitting at your desk unable to focus on that pressing essay due tomorrow.”

So now you’re sitting at your desk, staring at the wall, feeling worried and unable to focus on that pressing essay due tomorrow. Don’t be ashamed – it’s not you being dramatic; it’s a largely involuntary behaviour driven by the powerful force of evolution, pushing our ancestors to have a social drive as part of a ‘survival in numbers’ tactic.

Humans are inherently social- we learn through imitation and work in groups to get tasks done. The physiological underpinnings behind why we crave such interactions are a consequence of an intricate web of chemical messaging in the brain. Socialisation triggers the reward-circuit tract within the hypothalamus to release the hormone oxytocin, which in turn stimulates the release of our ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’ - dopamine. High levels of sociability activate this described dopaminergic pathway through increased neuronal firing, triggering a dopamine surge and resultant feelings of pleasure. This positively reinforces social behaviour, making us want to seek more. Conversely, when alone, the firing in this reward-circuit tract is reduced and, in the absence of dopamine, feelings of depression and anxiety take over.

In the past, FoMO hasn’t been such a pressing issue, but the rise of social media has brought about a whole new wave of unprecedented social anxiety and is disproportionately affecting young people. This is down to the relentless nature of posting on social platforms. At any one point in time, somebody is highlighting their great experiences and successes on the internet and our constant exposure to this tricks us into this false perception that others are leading a much more fulfilling life than us. Feelings of self-criticism start to enter our thoughts and we end up with the misconception that we are inadequate.

How do we overcome this depressed state? Many of us scroll more to try and alleviate any feelings of loneliness by attempting to immerse ourselves in others’ lives. This increases our exposure to the unattainable standard of life that people publish online. The vicious FoMO cycle then starts again, driving us deeper and deeper into this troubled hole that we have inadvertently found ourselves in.

For most of us, the ready cure for this unfortunate situation is to put our phones down and distance ourselves from the distorted view of the world created by social media. Some people, however, are so troubled by these feelings that a solution such as this won’t suffice and so their principal treatment that’s recommended to alleviate symptoms of FoMO is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). This practice aims not necessarily to cure FoMO but to challenge these cognitive distortions and behavioural responses that make it so profound.

“Put the phone down and pick up another way to pass the time”

CBT does this by examining all the emotions surrounding FoMO and unpicking each feeling in heavy discussions in depth. CBT should to eventually get the patient to try and rationalise the feeling of fear and should hopefully lead to the patient convincing themselves that although their anxiety shouldn’t be dismissed, it is largely an irrational response. The therapist will then go through different coping mechanisms (e.g., distractions that require full cognitive engagement) so that the patient can prevent this spiral from continuing on their own.


Mountain View

Work hard, play hard: the science of fun

At this point, you may be frustrated that this survival needs for sociability are causing you so much excess stress which at this point in the year, isn’t welcomed alongside other work-related matters. But flip this on its head; although we don’t need to hunt in packs anymore, we learn so much from being around others. For instance, we are constantly conversing with others and imitating their actions, trying to learn from their unique experiences as we try to navigate this complicated world around us.

This is not meant to be yet another boring plea to reduce screen time- in moderation; everyone needs time to let their brain relax, especially in our compact eight-week terms. But if the FoMO starts to take a toll on your life, it may be worth trying to put the phone down and pick up another (non-degree related) way to pass the time.