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FOMO and the Pandemic: the perils of missing out while staying in

Image: An isolated figure silhouetted against warm light in a darkened room.

2020 has not had a good name; with uni students feeling as though they have just thrown 9k into the incinerator, crackling and lagging zoom voices replacing the clarity of face-to-face diction, having to chat with friends through doorways, windows, masks and screen after screen after screen. A fifth of people have their love language as ‘physical touch.’ At a time when proximity is, in the majority of cases, illegal, it is hard to feel as though you can fulfil these needs with any sort of ease.

We have been told time and time again that these are our ‘prime years,’ filled with opportunities for success and friendship formation, to throw ourselves into the new world of university independence. Clubbing, massive parties, turning up to in-person lectures with a deadly hangover are part of the norm that we were conditioned to expect. So, what are we supposed to do when we’re waking up to yet another day of national lockdown? 

In early April, a week into the first national lockdown, 44% of young adults reported feeling lonely, which was an increase from the 16% that reported this feeling before lockdown. Loneliness isn’t the only issue. Despite the intention (with good reason) to keep us from mixing, the issue goes beyond the desire to party and have a good time. Being trapped at home can escalate to being trapped in your own head, with forms of escapism such as spending time with friends, going to the gym, going shopping, going out to eat strictly forbidden. We live in such a technologically advanced world, but nothing can quite match the spontaneous journeys into town, the trips to art galleries and long hugs with a friend you haven’t seen for a while. We are lucky to have Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime, but these platforms can be such a painful reminder of how things used to be and serve as a bleak comparison to something as simple, yet heart-warming, as holding someone’s hand.

These platforms can be such a painful reminder of how things used to be and serve as a bleak comparison to something as simple, yet heart-warming, as holding someone’s hand.

For me, the hardest part of this is the unshakable feeling that someone, somewhere, is having a big get together that I’m not invited to. This is by no means a rational emotion, but it’s just this idea that even if I wanted to get up and make the most of the outside world and opportunities, I couldn’t because there’s no one to say I can. I find myself with FOMO, the fear of missing out, which is a complex emotion under normal circumstances, let alone when everyone else is obviously missing out, too. 

As a mother says to reassure her nervous child on a Monday morning, even before the pandemic, entering year 7 in September: “We are all in the same boat.” When you are at a party, and you want to leave early because you’re exhausted but you’re worried you are going to not be a part of everyone having a good time, it can be such a relief to find out someone else is feeling the same, because you know you’re not alone in choosing self-care over fun. That silent permission and approval of not being the only one can be so valuable. However, why is it that there are millions of people around the country who are staying at home, and we still feel as though we are pressing pause on what should be the most exciting time of our lives?

The impact of isolation and “pressing pause” is undeniably impacted by the urban-rural divide. A Magdalen fresher from rural Cornwall told me: “We got off lucky in the sense of not being policed. However, I did feel some envy when it came to looking at those on social media living in urban areas, who could pop down the road to go for a walk with their friends – most days I saw more horses than people.” Living in Greater London, I experienced a completely different reality. In and out of lockdown, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. In my head, I had walks along the beach, small farm shops and cottages straight out of a painting completely romanticised. However, ‘Big Asda’ being just around the corner, and the bleary-eyed pyjama-clad mums you can always see there can be a constant reminder that you are part of a community; you never have to worry about resources being in short supply. This is not the case for everyone, and we need to be mindful of how some people may have more to worry about than when they will next be able to go for brunch, as human contact is so limited. 

We need to be mindful of how some people may have more to worry about than when they will next be able to go for brunch, as human contact is so limited.

What doesn’t help is going on social media and seeing large scale gatherings, going on a walk and seeing people out in groups, drinking on benches or trying to stay quiet and avoid getting caught while laughing. Humans are inherently conformists, and whilst trying to obey the rules, as many psychologists have found whilst studying obedience, watching those who are disobedient can make this considerably harder. This detrimental effect on our motivation to obey the rules is exacerbated by those in power shamelessly breaking them. Especially when trying to help younger people understand why they should follow the rules and law, explaining why the Prime Minister’s father didn’t wear a mask or why the Prime Minister’s senior aide felt lockdown was prime for a road trip can be rather difficult. Whether we like it in not, those with a platform serve as role models – they influence our behaviour. To read more about this, have a look at the results from the UCL COVID-19 social study, part of which explores the decrease in compliance with public health orders when politicians and others in power have been caught breaking the rules.

I think being university students make us even more inclined to feel as though we are missing out, knowing we are paying so much for an experience that can’t compare to the years prior to us, thinking of what could have been. Fear of missing out isn’t just based in the present, it’s about looking back to the past and comparing it to the present, looking towards the future and praying for change. Hearing about university years where you could have dinner parties with your tutors and go clubbing on a Friday and get away in the summer, it’s no consolation to remember “We are doing to right thing by staying inside, people are dying,” because that’s why we are not going out; it doesn’t make us feel any less alone. 

So, I’d rather tell you about things I think about and do while I feel as though I’m having, and going to have, half of the university experience of anyone that came before us and will come after us. These are just some of the reasons why I definitely feel as though the university experience is just as “worth it” as always, despite such exceptional circumstances. 

Fear of missing out isn’t just based in the present, it’s about looking back to the past and comparing it to the present, looking towards the future and praying for change.

Firstly, I try to appreciate the little freedoms we have left. At Oxford, it’s having a cup of tea with my housemates, listening to my tutor and forgetting they’re behind the screen because I’m too busy trying to capture their wisdom in condensed form, having time to discover new types of music, to draw and to write and to not feel guilty for staying home and relaxing. Going for walks in the deer park, getting takeaway coffee, Facetiming my friends to tell them my latest discovery of 8-week-old mouldy bananas stinking out the university kitchen cupboards, making roast dinners with my housemates and looking forward to something as simple as popping to ‘Tescalator Tesco.’ At home, it’s not having to deal with the inconsistency of Eduroam Wi-Fi, hugs from your favourite family member, seeing your pet curled up on your bed and that sense of familiarity and comfort. 

It’s so hard to maintain motivation, but my advice would be to make checklists, tick them off as you go, plan the days with a good balance of studying and self-care, come out of your room to cook or to chat or to walk, write something – write anything – and to try to remember that this won’t last forever.

For many people, understandably, this is no source of consolation, and it just feels as empty as an “I’m here for you” or an “Everything will be okay” does, but a pandemic is not the time to put pressure on yourself. If you’ve gotten out of bed, made it, had a shower, and eaten something, that is an achievement alone. When you are getting dressed for a trip to your living room, your desk, or Sainsbury’s, you are fighting the FOMO. You are making the most of this bleak winter. 

You are doing great, so keep going – and accept that it’s valid to feel fear of missing out, when coping with staying in.

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