Here on day 5 million of the pandemic, some of us are getting a little antsy. Thanks to the internet, though, there are cute names for all the new kinds of anxiety that the pandemic has spawned. Judging by the number of memes they’ve inspired, FOGO (Fear of Going Out) and FONO (Fear of Normal), are pandemics in and of themselves. These acronyms may seem a bit playful to have any clinical validity, but many psychologists think that’s exactly why they can be a helpful way to understand our complicated emotional states.
If, for example, you’re nervous about going out and being around big groups of people right now, you could have FOGO. And if FOGO feels really extreme, it’s possible you have Cave Syndrome, which sounds decidedly less adorable. But maybe you’re not really scared to leave the house, you just don’t want to have to go back to the office. In that case, maybe you just have a little FONO? This feels like the Cosmo quiz you never wanted to take.
“FOGO is the perception that something scary is out there, even after being told the danger is no longer present,” says Sarah Gundle, a New York City-based psychologist in Manhattan. In other words, FOGO is when you’re scared of going out even when it’s safe. Most of us have experienced some degree of fear of being in public during the pandemic. It’s pretty easy to feel anxious when you can literally die from breathing the same air as an infected person. To be clear, psychologists find that this natural feeling of apprehension when you’re in a risky situation is different from FOGO. FOGO is a bit stronger of a feeling, and a little more distracting and disruptive.
The thing is, though, that even this heightened level of fear is pretty normal at this point, at least in the sense that so many people are experiencing it, says Gundle. “The fear of going out is directly related to the anxiety the pandemic cultivated in every single person,” she says. We’ve been living in a state of heightened awareness for so long that most of us can’t actually, “just let go” of our anxieties even if they are out of proportion with the risks we’re actually facing.
FOGO, however, is not a psychological term; it’s not in the DSM-5 and you don’t need a prescription if you have it. No one is exactly sure where the acronym came from, but my money is on memes. The fact that FOGO is basically a crowdsourced diagnosis doesn’t make it any less useful. People all over the world started using it on the internet to describe an experience many of us were having, and it caught on precisely because it resonated with so many of us. So the very ubiquity of FOGO might make us feel less alone in our anxieties, says Gundle.
It’s been around for a minute, though. “FOGO was something that individuals with social anxiety and agoraphobia dealt with long before the pandemic,” says Nikki Lacherza-Drew, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist. Now, as the world begins to open back up, we’re seeing people who never experienced it before.
Before the pandemic, if you felt scared of going outside, it was a bonafide pathology and you might need meds to treat it. One could hypothesize that the pandemic shifted the culture around this fear. Calling your anxiety about leaving the house “FOGO” instead of “agoraphobia” feels less shameful — even if you’re just talking to yourself — because instead of confessing that you have some stigmatized diagnosis, you’re just expressing the same anxieties that many others are experiencing too.
How is being scared of “normal” suddenly the new normal?
These pop-cultural acronyms for mental health experiences can also be really helpful in expressing what we may need from other people. “[They are] a way to understand the needs of people, but also the struggles that many people have,” says Lacherza-Drew. Having to explain why you’re masking even when other people aren’t can feel challenging, but because terms like FOGO are everywhere, they can act as shorthand explanations when you don’t feel safe or comfortable giving people all the details on your emotional state, says Lacherza-Drew.
What about FONO? How is being scared of “normal” suddenly the new normal? “We have been living in a very different world for the last 18 months,” says Lacherza-Drew, “Some people got used to virtual work and learning and don’t want to go back to the way things were pre-COVID.” Particularly when it comes to work, it seems clear from the high resignation rates that a lot of people don’t want to go back to the office. Trying to explain the ins and outs of your particular financial and professional situation may feel complicated and even shameful. Describing it as FONO can be concise was of expressing that the pandemic changed your priorities.
“Going back to normal is not as easy as it sounds when we were forced to quickly adapt to changes and get into a new routine,” says Lacherza-Drew. Some people got sober during the pandemic and they don’t want to go back to partying. Others had profound identity realizations that they want to be acknowledged. Some folx had a political awakening. And there are the people who just got used to waking up when they felt like it — they deserve a shout out too. The great thing about FONO is that it can be used to describe all of these different situations, and the underlying feeling of not wanting to regress is something we can all identify with.
Most of the psychologists I spoke with said that even though acronyms like FOGO and FONO aren’t “real” diagnoses, they can help you talk to therapists — and other humans you interact with — about your state of mind. “The best thing to do in struggling with any of these issues is to recognize that you are not alone and talk to others about what you are feeling,” says Gundle. But it’s also important to recognize the danger signs of when anxiety is severe and dangerous, says Gundle. If you feel physical symptoms — like chest pain or heart palpitations — or if you feel actually unable to leave the house or do normal things, skip the memes and seek medical care.
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