Personal Essay: The Intersection of FOMO and Anxiety

[Image Description: A person in a blue sweater sits on a bed behind a window, on either side are silhouettes of people at a party] 

 Article by Sophie Lyne

Art by Jazmin Diaz

CW: This article contains mentions of vomit, alcohol, and drugs

The Intersection of FOMO and Anxiety

When I was 7 years old my mum drove me and a friend to a birthday party, and the friend, very prone to travel sickness, vomited multiple times a metre away from me in the back seat. I was terrified, and I knew that I would do anything to avoid seeing something so disgusting again. Now here I am, 16, with a somewhat debilitating phobia of vomit - emetophobia. Funny how that happens.

Currently, as I struggle through my teenage years, I am faced every now and then with invitations to house parties and “piss ups”. As far as I can infer, these involve communing with other young people (many of whom you know, some of whom you don’t) in a house, or if nobody’s offering, a field, with enough alcohol and drugs to ensure someone ends up semi-unconscious on the floor. Because my brain draws a direct arrow between drunk people and vomit and subsequent utter terror, I’m not really a party-goer.

This results in a confusing predicament. I know that I will have a far less stressful, far more comfortable, and most likely more enjoyable evening if I stay at home and watch TV with my mum. Those with an anxiety disorder, and likely those without, can imagine and empathise with the on-edge, uncomfortable state I find myself in when at a party, or one of my other “red flag” situations (coach [train] and car journeys, boat trips, flu season … anything I have learned to associate with sickness). My skin crawls, I sweat, I struggle to focus on conversation, and above all a low, swirling, heavy feeling of dread settles and festers in my stomach. I know that, if I try to go to a party, I won’t have the fun, carefree night that others get to enjoy; sometimes I find myself resenting my peers for not appreciating their privilege in this.

However, underneath all of this, I am a teenager, and so I still buckle under the force of every sixteen year old’s Achilles heel: FOMO.

For the uninitiated, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. If you were ever on holiday while your friends were doing something exciting, and you felt miserable seeing pictures and Snapchat stories of all the fun they were having, that’s FOMO. It can control you – it’s the reason so many young people find themselves doing things that they don’t want to do, just because their friends are. Nobody wants to miss out on a fun day, and nobody wants to endure the jealous, lonely, forgotten feeling in the aftermath. For me, this means that even though I know that I don’t want to go to a party, I still feel rubbish the next day when I scroll through pictures of my friends having what I perceive to be much more fun than I have ever had.

Yes, a teenager’s brain is an ardent user of hyperbole.

Where does that leave me? I don’t want to go to parties because of a phobia I’ve had for over half of my life, and I don’t want to miss parties because other people seem to enjoy them so much. I can’t very well ask my friends to pretend that they had an awful time so I don’t feel so conflicted.

I went to one party when I was fourteen, and stayed carefully a few metres away from the single bottle of vodka (watered down) that was being passed around. And then I declined the next invitation, and every invitation that followed. For about a year and a half I was completely separate from the drinking/drugs scene and, as silly as it sounds, it truly limited my social life. Suddenly everyone knew cool people from different schools, and I could hardly keep up with conversations about “how far gone I was last night” or “getting home with double vision” or “mum smelling weed on me” or “who’s got ket for cheap”. I should clarify that although I personally don’t want to get drunk or take drugs (a decision that is both completely to do with and completely separate from my phobia), I don’t feel above those who do. I don’t look down on them. I’d be there if I could. And recently, I learned that I can.

I’ve missed a lot in the past few years: friends’ birthday parties, concerts, and most regrettably, a party at the end of year 10 which was attended by about a third of my school year, including almost all of my friends. And it probably wasn’t good for my progress working against my phobia to give in so strongly to avoidance behaviour (a dangerous indulgence). Which is why I am so proud to say that recently I went to a party. In a field. I didn’t drink and I only stayed for the first hour and a half, but I had some fun conversations and caught up with people I hadn’t seen for a while. I was there and it was not awful. I managed and I was, at times, happy. I had enough fun that a week later I went to another one!

It's slow going. Trying to fight this phobia, which has been part of me for so long, requires a lot of effort, and every day is a challenge. I am terrified for the day (which, although I don’t know when it will come, inches ever closer) when I next see someone vomit, or vomit myself. I don’t really know what it will do to me.

But I leave you with a message of hope: at the start of year 11 I wrote in my journal: “This summer my emetophobia has been worse than I can ever remember. I can’t believe I’m starting year 11 and I’m this bad”. I’m about to start year 12, at a new school, with new people, and I know it’s going to be fine. I recently began an exposure programme and I am already much more comfortable saying the words “sick” and “vomit” aloud, something I avoided for as long as I can remember. I’ve struggled this year and I’ll struggle more. But I went to two parties – how cool is that?

Sophie Lyne (she/her) is 16 and lives in Cambridge, England. With her writing she wants to share her experience with emetophobia, a vomit phobia, to promote awareness of mental illnesses like hers, and to show other phobics that they are not alone. She currently plans to study psychology in the future.