COMMENTARY

How to Help Vaccinated Patients Navigate FOGO (Fear of Going Out)

Eva Ritvo, MD

May 26, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Remember FOMO (fear of missing out)? The pandemic cured most of us of that! In its place, many are suffering from a new syndrome that has been coined "FOGO" (fear of going out). As the COVID-19 vaccines roll out, restrictions lessen, and cases decline, we face new challenges. The pandemic showed us that "we are all in it together." Now our patients, family, friends — and even we, ourselves — may face similar anxieties as we transition back.

Our brains love routines. They save energy as we transverse the same pathway with ease. We created new patterns in the first 30 days of quarantine, and we spent more than a year engraining them. Many people remain reluctant to send their children back to school, don't want to return to the office, and are still avoiding travel and social situations. Many people are feeling even more anxiety as restrictions are lifting and expectations are rising. Those with preexisting anxiety disorders may have an even more difficult time resuming routine activities.

Since the virus is still among us, we need to maintain caution, so some degree of FOGO is wise. But when we limit our activities too much, we create a whole new host of issues. The pandemic gave us all a taste of the agoraphobic lifestyle. It is difficult to know where exactly to draw the line right now between healthy anxiety and anxiety that becomes the disease for ourselves, our families and friends — and our patients.

Recommendations for FOGO

  • Talk to your families, friends, and patients about what activities you recommend, which they might resume and which they should continue to avoid. People should make plans to optimize their physical and mental health while continuing to protect themselves from COVID-19. If anxiety is becoming the main problem, psychotherapy or medication may be necessary to treat their symptoms.

  • Continue to encourage those with FOGO to practice techniques to be calm. Suggest that they take deep breaths with long exhales. This breathing pattern activates the parasympathetic nervous system and will help them feel calmer. We have all been under chronic stress, and our sympathetic nervous system has been in overdrive. We need to be calm to make the best decisions so our frontal lobe can be in charge rather than our primitive, fear-based brain that has been running the show for more a year. Encourage calming activities, such as yoga, meditation, warm baths, spending time in nature, hugging a pet, and more.

  • Advise sufferers to start slowly. They should resume activities where they feel the safest. Walking outside with a friend is a good way to start. We now know that transmission is remarkably low or nonexistent if both parties are vaccinated. Exercise is a great way to combat many psychological issues, including FOGO.

  • FOGO sufferers should build confidence gradually. Recommend taking one day at a time and trying to find ways to enjoy new ventures out. Soon, our brains will adapt to the new routines and the days of COVID-19 will recede from our thoughts.

  • Respect whatever feelings emerge. The closer we and our patients were to trauma, the more challenging it may be to recover. If you or your patients suffered from COVID-19 or had a close family member or friend who did, be prepared to reemerge more slowly. Don't feel pressured by what others are doing. Go at your own pace. Only you can decide what is the right way to move forward in these times.

  • Look for signs of substance overuse or misuse. FOGO sufferers may turn to drugs or alcohol to mask their anxiety. This is a common pothole and should be avoided. Be alert for this problem and discuss it with patients, friends, or family members who may be making unhealthy choices.

Time is a great healer, and remind others that "this too shall pass." FOGO will give rise to another yet-to-be named syndrome. We seem to be moving in a very positive direction at a remarkable pace. As Alexander Pope so wisely wrote, "Hope springs eternal." Better times are ahead.

Ritvo, who has almost 30 years' experience in psychiatry, practices in Miami Beach, Fla. She is the author of "Bekindr – The Transformative Power of Kindness" (Hellertown, Pa. Momosa Publishing, 2018). Ritvo has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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