Health

How to Deal with Crushing Vaccine FOMO

After a long, lonely year, it can be hard to sit around, feeling like everyone you know is getting jabbed without you.
March 4, 2021, 1:00pm
Young women studying at home during pandemic isolation
Kemal Yildirim | Getty Images
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t long after healthcare workers began receiving their first shots that Alex Soybel started seeing the vaccine selfies. The 25-year-old is in the process of applying for medical school, so her feeds were especially rife with uplifting messages from healthcare workers urging their followers to get vaccinated. 

Soybel was conflicted. Getting shots into as many arms as possible is a good thing, she knew. But she couldn’t help feeling frustrated whenever she saw a politician or medical professional who didn’t interact with patients boast about their vaccination—and post-vaccine vacations—on social media when Soybel, who has a chronic illness, and her close friend, who is a cancer survivor, had to wait to get their vaccines.

Advertisement

“When I get on Instagram and see non-patient-facing medical professionals traveling out of the country post-vaccination, or going out to restaurants every night, it definitely is frustrating,” Soybel said. “My friend spent her teens with cancer, in the hospital, then isolating since she didn’t have an immune system, only to be forced back indoors from a pandemic that will almost certainly kill her. A vaccine is her life—it’s not an indoor dining experience or a trip overseas.”

Despite a rocky start, vaccine distribution is gaining momentum. With three vaccines currently available in the U.S. and a slowly widening pool of people eligible for a jab, some folks further down the list are feeling the sting of vaccine FOMO. As peers and family members resume normal life, they’re left in limbo, bitterly awaiting their chance to join the club.

While a typical fear of missing out hinges on the negative feelings, like regret and jealousy, associated with seeing other people having fun without you, vaccine FOMO includes a more complex range of emotions. For example, seeing that a friend was vaccinated can add to your own anxiety about potentially catching covid-19, or elicit sadness if you’ve lost someone to the virus. “You can probably experience, depending on your perspective, frustration, anger, and maybe even disgust,” Kevin Chapman, a therapist and founder of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders told VICE. 

Advertisement

Although these emotions can be uncomfortable, addressing them head-on is the way to go—otherwise, you’ll spend the next 3–6 months carrying around a mountain of frustration, which will start to gnaw away at your relationships and mental health. Here’s how to handle your vaccine FOMO while you wait your turn for a jab.

Accept your emotions—but don’t get stuck in them.

Sure, there are emotions that make us feel great and ones that bring us down, but this doesn’t mean some feelings are good and some are bad. All emotions, from grief to happiness, serve a purpose and aim to tell you something, Chapman said. Vaccine FOMO is no different. By accepting the frustration or even resentment at having not yet received the vaccine, you have more control over how you navigate those feelings.

However, try not to spend too much time ruminating on your negative emotions. Thoughts like “I’m never going to get vaccinated” are too rigid: You’ll continue to feel miserable because the future you’ve imagined is steeped in disappointment. Saying “I’m frustrated I can’t get vaccinated and that's OK—my time will come” instead gives you permission to feel shitty while remaining realistic, since by all accounts, vaccines will be available to anyone who wants them this summer.

If you feel ashamed of your anger or judgment toward those getting vaccinated, make a point to be extra compassionate with yourself, Moe Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told VICE. Vaccine FOMO “can feel like grief, it can feel like loss, it can feel like rejection,” they said. “I encourage people to practice compassion and gratitude, not just for the things that you have, but for the fact that your body has fared you up until this point, gratitude for all the ways you have been able to provide [during] this pandemic.”

Focus on what you can control in the present moment.

Vaccine FOMO became real for Jacob Shamsian, a senior legal reporter at Insider, once his wife (a teacher), his grandparents, and his friends who work in healthcare all got their shots. Contrary to regular FOMO, which he could control by accepting more concert or party invitations, doing anything about his vaccine status is out of his grasp. “It’s not up to me whether I get a vaccine today or tomorrow,” the 27-year-old told VICE. “It’s not like I have any way to change this, so I'm just going give myself permission to wallow in the delays here.”

Instead of thinking about all the things you can’t control, put your energy toward things you can, like getting better masks for this final stretch, planning some safe activities to look forward to this spring, staying off of social media, tackling your mounting reading list, and safely maintaining interpersonal relationships, Brown said. Even appreciating a good meal can be a way to keep you grounded in the moment. You can easily get bogged down thinking about events in the past or future, Chapman said, when what’s important is remaining vigilant—staying healthy and safe in the present so you can make it to that future.

Be open and honest about the ways in which you’re struggling.

After Brown’s partner was inoculated, leaving Brown to grapple with a touch of vaccine FOMO, the couple had a conversation to figure out what it meant to be in a half-vaccinated relationship. “I understand you have the vaccine, but this doesn't mean that I can now just change the course of how we live for the foreseeable future,” Brown told their partner. “I’m not able to change my habits. I can't travel.” 

If your vaccinated parents keep sending you Airbnb listings hinting at a summer vacation, you can ask them to hold off since you’re still unsure when you’ll get your shot. Or make a point to propose outdoor masked plans with your vaccinated friends, and let them know you’re worried about being left behind. It might feel awkward in the moment, but have the hard conversations and be honest about where your mix of frustration, jealousy, or resentment may stem from. 

One caveat: While it might feel therapeutic to commiserate with a friend who’s also feeling vaccine FOMO, don’t allow yourselves to constantly feed into each other’s misery, Chapman said. “Being around other people and having a community of friends is a way to facilitate positive emotions,” he said. “On the other hand, misery loves company. And that can backfire if I'm around the wrong people.” So be careful who you’re venting to, and seek out friends who will validate your FOMO but still assure you of the reality: You will get through this.

Remember, we’re all in the same boat.

When resources are scarce, those who are left out may feel unimportant or bitter—which are valid reactions—and quicker to make judgments about peers getting vaccinated, suspecting they didn’t wait their turn or perhaps don’t “deserve” it as much as other people. And given the reality of the pandemic, where rich and powerful people were the first to receive access to testing, adequate masks, and now, occasionally, vaccines, it’s natural to feel like the pandemic has created a new class system, Brown said.

When these thoughts arise, turn to compassion instead of criticism. Try drawing on similarities between you and the people you’re annoyed with by explicitly using the phrase “just like me,” Brown said. Just like me, this person has a family they are worried about. Just like me, they felt excited to get their vaccine and to share a selfie of it. Just like me, they’re a human who wants to feel safe in the pandemic.

A product of our ever-changing times, vaccine FOMO doesn’t have to be a mood killer. Soybel, the med school hopeful, said she counters her FOMO by virtually teaching students about the pandemic, answering any questions they have about the virus and vaccine. There are times when she gets frustrated by the inoculation process, but then she remembers there’s no perfect method for a phased rollout that doesn’t leave certain populations in the lurch. Someone has to be at the end of the list, after all. Until it’s her turn, Soybel is focusing on the positive side of staying home: “Just reminding myself that I know I’m doing my part.”

Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.