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Why I have both fear of going out and fear of missing out in a pandemic

When my son was born in April 2019, I envisioned bringing him out every weekend to various attractions and to see the world. Then Covid-19 hit.

The author experiences a jittery feeling whenever she steps into shopping malls with her family, especially when they are crowded.

The author experiences a jittery feeling whenever she steps into shopping malls with her family, especially when they are crowded.

When my son was born in April 2019, I envisioned bringing him out every weekend to various attractions and to see the world. Then Covid-19 hit.

After the circuit breaker was announced in April 2020, we did not step out of our house for two months.

He cried in the elevator when we first took him out after the circuit breaker was lifted. To him, the elevator is a new environment.

This got my husband and I worried, and we started thinking: “What have we done to our child while protecting him from the virus?”

FEAR OF GOING OUT (FOGO)

We were afraid to take our son out but we did not want to deprive him of experiencing the real world (outside the world of Cocomelon and Blippi).

There is always this jittery feeling whenever we step into shopping malls, especially when they are crowded. We will check if he wears his mask well and sanitises his hands after touching surfaces in the malls.

The purpose of going out is to spend time and enjoy moments as a family yet we were constantly bothered by the possibility of being infected.

For the most part of last year, we were told that going out increases the risk of exposure to the virus.

There were daily news reports on public places visited by Covid-19 cases while infectious.

Our home thus became our sanctuary.

As a psychologist, I know that Fogo is an avoidance response to prevent ourselves from contracting the disease.

Given that the Covid-19 situation is evolving and uncertain, it is a normal reaction to feel fearful.

ADAPTING TO THE NEW NORMAL

In recent months, while I still ensure that we sanitise our hands after touching surfaces, we have become less uptight about being in crowded places as we took “baby steps” to explore more public places.

Compared to a year ago, I am less apprehensive about the disease because we have sufficient data to understand the symptoms or how people may recover from Covid-19 even without experiencing the symptoms.

The ability to self-administer an antigen rapid test and recover at home even if we test positive gives us a better sense of security.

The shift in our mindset to live with the virus also influences our risk perception.

DEALING WITH THE NEW OMICRON VARIANT

So I was looking to visit themed indoor playgrounds with my now coming three-year-old toddler — until news about the new variant Omicron hit late last month.

I thought to myself: “Do I need to be worried about the new variant?” and “Should I cancel our outings?”

I wasn’t sure. At that time, we didn’t have much information about Omicron.

Part of me is telling me to be cautious about going to crowded places, yet my recent social media feed included posts showing long queues at the Christmas Wonderland at Gardens by the Bay, malls packed with shoppers, and children bouncing around on massive bouncy castles.

People do not seem to be affected by the emergence of the new Omicron variant.

So I thought: “Why worry when others are not and are having fun?”

FEAR OF MISSING OUT (FOMO)

One study found that the more we are dissatisfied with our social needs, the higher levels of Fomo we tend to experience.

Two years of living with Covid-19 have restricted many of our social activities.

It is not surprising that many of us feel the need to reconnect with others and maintain social connections.

Furthermore, with social media, we know about what others are doing, such as going on staycations or enjoying new fun activities.

We start to compare. We start to think that others are having more fun and living better lives than we are. We start to feel uneasy about being cooped up at home and reassess our risk of going out. 

In health psychology research, risk perception is subjective. In assessing risk, people may take social cues from others.

For instance, if they see that their friends are also going out to shopping malls, they may do the same.

As I reflect on this, I soon realised I have reassessed the risk associated with Covid-19 in order not to miss out on fun activities.

I know I can’t possibly revert to keeping my son at home every weekend while seeing fellow parents bring his classmates out for playdates.

STRIKING A BALANCE

As Singapore moves to living with endemic Covid-19, there is a possibility of new variants emerging from time to time.

We can’t always be in a high-alert state. A prolonged state of heightened alert can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. On the other hand, we should not be complacent in the fight against Covid-19.

We need to strike a balance to meet our basic social needs.

For those still anxious about going out for social gatherings, you could try gradual exposure to situations that cause you to feel distressed.

For example, progressively resume social activities — you could start from going to nearby gardens alone, meeting one or two friends, and then gradually dining out.

If you are helping a family member or friend to deal with their Fogo, offer to accompany them to situations they are anxious about and give them reassurance.

According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only when our safety needs are fulfilled, would we feel the need to connect with friends and family.

But, how do you gauge whether you are safe?

It is irrational to expect yourself to be in a 100 per cent safe environment. We are never entirely safe from any danger.

So those of us who have resumed our social activities need to be mindful of optimism bias — our tendency to believe that negative events are less likely to happen to us.

While we learn to live with the virus and its variants, it does not mean we underestimate the risk of infection and overestimate our control over the virus.

Our illusion of control may put us at risk.

For instance, you may feel that you would not be infected so long you wear your mask and sanitise your hands.

While personal hygiene is still key to preventing Covid-19 from spreading, you may overlook the times when you touch your face or instances where there is no social distancing with others (especially in crowded areas).

We do not want Covid-19 to dampen our celebratory mood during this festive season. But let’s not forget to be responsible — observe social distancing, mask up once you are done eating or drinking, keep gatherings small, and finally, do not go out if you are ill.

If you had asked me what I expected parenthood to be like two years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined raising a child during a pandemic, buying toddler masks as it becomes a necessity and struggling between Fogo and Fomo.

As parents, we should avoid catastrophic thinking that would deny our child from having fun and at the same time take appropriate caution to keep them sufficiently safe.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Sheryl Chua is a psychologist and a lecturer, Public Safety and Security Programme, at the School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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Covid-19 pandemic fear of missing out going out new normal Omicron

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