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

It’s late on a Tuesday night, and you’re running through your usual routine. You go through your social media, blocking everyone who has posted an ecstatic shot selfie. You check, and double-check, your state’s eligibility requirements. Maybe you monitor your state’s daily vaccine counts; maybe you have the page bookmarked.

If this describes you, you may have the symptoms of vaccine envy. This condition is characterized by jealousy, anger, or frustration at the fact that so many people—but not you!—have already received lifesaving protection from Covid-19. Yes, President Biden has announced that all Americans will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1. But after a year, waiting these last few weeks or months seems like the hardest of all.

Being stressed out is a normal response. Psychologists call this “painful uncertainty.” It’s a uniquely aggravating condition associated with life-changing situations where you have no control over the outcome. It’s also pretty common, as anyone who has waited for a positive pregnancy test or a call back from a job interview can tell you.

Dr. Kate Sweeny is a psychology researcher who leads the Life Events Lab at the University of California Riverside and studies waiting in painful uncertainty. “A lot of the aspects of this pandemic have been riddled with uncertainty,” she said in a phone call to WIRED. “Even if it doesn’t necessarily look exactly like waiting for a medical test result, uncertainty is uncertainty, and it’s challenging to cope with. The vaccine piece has just added another layer of uncertainty on what was already a very tall uncertainty sandwich.”

Manage Your Expectations

Most people believe that managing your expectations means either choosing to be optimistic or pessimistic—that you can only either believe in a positive outcome or brace yourself for bad news. But you don’t have to do one or the other. You can do both at the same time, or change how you feel over the course of time. Both positive and negative expectation management techniques have their benefits.

Positive expectation management, or being optimistic about when you might get the shot, is the strategy that most of your friends and family will hope you’ll pursue. If your hopes are high, you’ll probably pursue health-promoting behaviors, like eating well and getting into great shape in anticipation of a summer of sun, biking, and barbecues. However, if those positive expectations are dashed, then you might feel worse than before.

“People tend to alter their expectation management strategy over time, and it’s a good thing when we do that,” Sweeny said. “When you’re pretty far from a moment of truth, people are pretty optimistic on average. As we get closer, people start to brace for the worst.”

Everyone is living in their own separate pandemic, with their own family situations, jobs, and state guidelines. But at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll have the vaccine in a few months if you want it. If you’re starting to get aggravated, it’s for an understandable reason. “It feels pretty bad right now because we’re getting close to the end,” Sweeny said.

Seek Social Support Carefully

Effective vaccines may foretell the end of the pandemic. But there’s still uncertainty involved—will you be able to get an appointment? Will you suffer side effects? When will children get it, and when will herd immunity be reached? As a social human, I turn to my fellow human beings when I’m distressed. However, when you’re waiting in painful uncertainty, it’s hard to know what help you need.

Your friends and family may be able to help you when you’re grieving, or share your joy when you’re happy, but waiting in painful uncertainty doesn’t have an accepted social script. Do you want your friends to be upbeat and optimistic? Or would it help to have them be more realistic about when you’ll get the shot? The wrong social support can be ineffective, or worse.

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