By Jody Miller
FOGO. It’s not a typo for FOMO – fear of missing out. There is a new acronym in our midst and it’s causing a great deal of mental and emotional havoc. Fear of going out – more commonly referred to as FOGO – is a genuine issue that plagues many individuals as they cope with the prospect of life beyond the cocoon of the COVID cave.
According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, as of June 2020, almost 41% of Americans reported a struggle with mental or substance abuse, while 31% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, and 26% expressed pandemic-related trauma and stress. The shock of lock-downs, seclusion, Zoom meetings, children at home, dealing with family in close quarters 24/7, and bleak around the clock news coverage has given way to apprehension, if not downright dread, about the reemergence into society as restrictions are loosened and lifted.
While you may or may not take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone, rest assured there is help. Known as America’s “happiness coach,” Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is a favorite on TV shows from Good Morning America to Dr. Oz, as well as frequent guest expert on CNN, Fox, and countless local morning talk and news outlets. With expertise delivered in such a relatable format vis-a-vis an ebullient personality and bite-sized nuggets of wisdom, you could swear she is dwelling inside your brain and reading your thoughts.
We had the fortune of speaking with Dr. E to discuss how this new FOGO originated and the steps you can take to get your life and emotional well-being back and better than ever.
What is Normal, Anyway?
In days of old, say a year and a half ago, you had social competency. Now 14 months later, you feel awkward and terrified. “You got into a spot where your norm is being alone and not interacting with other people,” states Dr. E. “So even though you have the skills, it was normal at one point, then it became not normal.” You’re confined to a condition of just close family or by yourself, so the thought of small talk and mundane interactions becomes something your avoid.
Add elevated levels of stress to the bubbling brew, and you have Dr. E’s red zone. “When we are at high levels of stress, we tend to see things in a more negative way,” she explains. ‘Our brain is primed to see what’s wrong. And then your brain scans for data to support that” This includes fixating on all the bad things that could possibly happen and reverting to a survivalist mindset.
The Hot Tub Syndrome
According to Dr. E, the severity of this quandary is a matter of perspective; If the pessimistic half of your dueling inner voices is crushing its more optimistic opponent, Dr. E proposes her “hot tub theory” to re-enter the social waters. “Imagine you’re submerged in a hot tub, and passing out because it’s so hot. Instead, put your foot in and out until it becomes comfortable. You do that dance with both your feet, then your legs, until finally you’re up to the top half of your neck. It now feels great because your body acclimates to the change.” Like the hot tub, if you try things little by little rather than diving in, the more comfortable you feel and better equipped to address your stress.
Dr. E recommends doing something healthy and mindful before, during, and after a potentially stressful situation. Meditation, a walk, listening to music. “When you address your stress before, during and after, it’s going to help you to get out of the red zone,” she asserts. Sr. E advises you bring along someone you trust and have them interact with you to quell the anxiety and to have an “out” if you feel an anxiety overload. This “out” could be retreating to the restroom or quiet area to watch videos or escaping to an outdoor area for fresh air. And give yourself a reward afterward for the effort: a massage, your favorite dessert, a new lipstick. Hey, whatever works.
Possibility vs. Probability
If you are obsessing over all the bad things that could happen when you venture back out into the world, you are allowing possibility to win over probability. “There’s a difference between possibility and probability. And a lot of times people confuse the two. Is it possible that you could contact COVID and die? Yes. Is it likely? Absolutely not,” Dr. E contends. To truly focus on what is real and what matters, Dr. E stresses the necessity of transcribing thoughts onto paper.
“Draw four quadrants” says Dr. E, “and write the pros of going, the cons of going, the pros of staying, the cons of staying. And then weigh and analyze each one.” This exercise allows you to focus on what is positive and see for yourself that the probability of going out and having fun is far greater than the possibility of catastrophe,
Face Your Fears
“If you are exposed to your fear for long enough, your fear will increase, then it will plateau. And then it will decrease,” informs Dr. E. This is known as ‘exposure’ in psychology. She advises that once you commit to something, do not back out when you feel a surge of panic. “If you have a panic attack and you leave the exposure, you actually strengthen that phobia,” she warns. Even if you feel you could implode from the anxiety, removing yourself has the opposite effect. “It’s that plateauing and decreasing that teaches your subconscious to say ‘yes, I can do this.’ So if you’re going through that panic attack, just remind yourself this is your body trying to protect you.” When your stress level finally subdues, then you can decide if you will stay or leave the situation. You will experience on a deeper level that you can thrive during moments of stress.
“Go out for a glass or cocktail at a restaurant, then maybe it’s dinner at a restaurant, then maybe go to a smaller party or outdoor gathering so you kind of have that graded exposure as opposed to just jumping into the scariest thing possible,” urges Dr. E. But you must stick with it to conquer that fear. “Address your stress and realize that it will plateau, just like the hot tub syndrome. The more you do it, the easier it gets.”