December 5, 2021

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Vaccine FOMO Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It

In a study led by Michael Dooley at Washington College, researchers studied three separate groups waiting in painful uncertainty. They recruited participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, recent PhD graduates looking for jobs, and law school graduates taking the bar exam, and they solicited open-ended responses about how they received social support.

Unsurprisingly, most people just wanted someone who would show up, whether that’s by answering the phone, listening to their frustrations, or, in this case, standing in physical proximity, 6 feet away in the yard, wearing a mask. But venting and looking for common ground online can also backfire if it makes you start ruminating on your negative thoughts.

“Different things work for different people in different moments. A lot of the time, we don’t know what we want ourselves,” Sweeny said. “It’s not about good or bad support, it’s really more about being responsive to a person’s needs in the moment.”

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If you’re not getting the support you need from your friends and family, be open and honest about what helps and doesn’t help. If you’re upset that you won’t be eligible for the vaccine for months, it probably won’t ease your distress to get a long lecture about how Uncle Weehoo deserved it first. “This is why I didn’t tell anyone on social media when I got the vaccine,” laughed Sweeny. “Judgments like that are pretty universally unappreciated.”

Find Your Flow

One of the most effective tips for assuaging the agony of painful uncertainty is to find ways to stop thinking about it. Sweeny’s work has shown that achieving a state of wonder helps a lot. You can become filled with awe by contemplating things that makes you feel small in the grand scheme—whether that’s by listening to a magnificent piano sonata, watching a few episodes of Planet Earth, or finding a random canyon to gaze into.

“Awe is a complex feeling, but as a result it’s pretty powerful,” Sweeny said. “It seems to be good at periods of uncertainty.”

Admittedly, though, some people are more open to the experience of awe than others. And not everyone can walk out on their back deck and look at the aurora borealis every time they need a mood boost. Mindful meditation has also been shown to be effective at breaking the cycle of anxious, obsessive thoughts, but likewise, not everyone is able to or wants to sit still and breathe for five to ten minutes every day.

Perhaps the most achievable way to distract yourself is by achieving a “flow state,” Sweeny describes the state of flow as complete immersion in an activity. Think of it as being “in the zone.” During the state of flow, time passes without your noticing, and your mind becomes quiet. Trying to achieve flow is probably why so many of us took up bread baking early in quarantine

Almost any activity that requires active engagement can become a flow activity. “The best kinds of activities for that challenge you a bit, but not too much—so you’re not frustrated, but you’re also not bored, and where you can see that you’re making progress towards a goal you set,” said Sweeny. Almost anything can be turned into a flow activity that fits these parameters, whether that’s cleaning, childcare, or my quarantine favorite, playing video games.

“Video games are perfect for flow,” said Sweeny. “It’s challenging, and it gets harder as you get better. You’re meeting concrete goals.”

Be Kind to Yourself

At this point, waiting for the vaccine seems like a straightforward matter. But it’s not. Waiting without any control over the outcome sucks.

“People often ask me what types of uncertainty are more stressful than others,” Sweeny said. “And honestly, people waiting for a cancer biopsy give me the same kinds of numbers as people dealing with infertility, or someone waiting to see if someone else finds them attractive. Uncertainty is just really stressful, no matter what the domain.”

What works for others may not work for you, but there are a variety of strategies you can try besides having your already-vaccinated friends tell you to try not to think about it. If all else fails, playing AC: Valhalla for hundreds of hours has worked wonders for me.


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