FOMO can be a mental illness: doctors

By Thuy Quynh   May 4, 2024 | 05:00 am PT
FOMO can be a mental illness: doctors
A person holding a phone. Illustration photo by Pexels
When her phone's batteries ran out, Kim Ngan felt an immediate sense of anxiety running through her body. She was afraid she would miss a message from work.

Ngan, 29, is a communications worker in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District. Due to the nature of her job, she always has to check for news and updates on social media, as well as thinking up new ideas for projects.

At one time when her phone could not be reached, Ngan did not receive a notification about adjusting the agenda for an important event that was about to go live. At the last minute, Ngan did not have enough time to turn the situation around, so she was reprimanded and saw her salary reduced.

"Ever since, I do not dare to leave my phone, even for just a minute," she said.

Ngan is suffering from what doctors describe as a subset of FOMO (fear of missing out), which is taking toll on young people whose world is often ruled by social media pressure.

Ngan usually works until late at night, and still checks her emails and messages even at 2 a.m. Whenever an event is coming up, Ngan would lose sleep, ready to sit up in bed at any moment to check her phone.

"I am always anxious, worried that if I turn off my phone, something bad will happen," she said, adding that the anxiety has been getting worse, causing her to lose sleep and appetite.

Trang, 32, a business worker in Hanoi's Cau Giay District, also has that "fear of missing out" as her job requires her to stay connected with dozens of groups every day. As she always works on the computer and the phone, every waking moment of her day, even during the time spent on meals and personal hygiene, is accompanied by electronic devices.

On one occasion, Trang fell asleep and did not check her messages, resulting in her company losing an important contract. Trang was reprimanded in front of her colleagues as a result. Ever since, she never puts her phone on silent, even while she is asleep.

Eventually, the stress took its toll and Trang suffered from gastrointestinal problems. She felt fatigued and anxious all the time. Her work performance could not improve while her concentration plummeted, as she was too distracted by her phone all the time.

Ngan and Trang do not just suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO), but it is combined with signs of anxiety disorder, said Tran Thi Hong Thu, vice director of Mai Huong Daytime Psychiatric Hospital, after the pair visited last month.

"FOMO is becoming increasingly more prominent among young people, and is a consequence of the Internet boom, especially social media," Thu said.

The fear of switching off can be considered to be a subset of FOMO, according to Todd Hancock, global chief commercial officer and Asia Pacific president at Priority Pass. A survey of 8,500 respondents in 11 countries revealed that over a third of people feel that they find it difficult to be detached from their daily life even while on vacation, CNBC reported. Some 73% of respondents said they feel anxious about missed messages if they don’t check on their phones constantly. Over half of Gen Z respondents said they had checked their work messages even while they were on vacation.

Someone with FOMO would feel anxious and irritable when they get away from usual devices for connections, such as phones or computers. The root cause of such fear might be a fear of being left behind, or a fear of loss. The rise of social media and other forms of media has also exerted pressure on people, forcing them to be constantly up-to-date on various trends for work reasons.

Those suffering from FOMO may lose sleep as their minds are flooded with negative thoughts, resulting in anxiety disorders and depression.

Thu recommends people with FOMO to first reduce their frequency of using electronic devices.

"The less time you spend on media, the less you will feel that you depend on them. It will feel uneasy at first, but this feeling will pass," she said, adding that people should take up hobbies like reading, walking, gardening and cooking, without the need for electronic devices.

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