We all have different relationships with time. Some of us are extremely punctual (we might say “on time is already late”), while others are always running a few minutes behind, and some people hardly know what time it is at all, says Nicholas Farrell, PhD, licensed psychologist and Director of Clinical Development and Programming at NOCD. In fact, the term “time blindness” recently went viral when a TikToker shared her inability to perceive time and how it impacted her job prospects.
Often, being late plays out like this: You feel rushed, or apologize for missing an appointment or deadline. Then you shrug it off and regroup. It’s not a big deal. Maybe you’ll decide to give yourself a 10-minute buffer to avoid that stress the next time. But there’s also a condition called “time anxiety,” which can manifest in a variety of ways.
In this article, we’ll explain what it means to have time anxiety, the everyday and mental health causes behind it, and the most effective ways to overcome time anxiety.
What is time anxiety?
Time anxiety isn’t a clinical diagnosis—it’s really a symptom of a larger issue. And it doesn’t look the same for everyone. “Time anxiety can manifest in a seemingly endless variety of different ways,” says Dr. Farrell. They can include:
- Existential time anxiety: Am I making the best use of my time on Earth?
- Future-oriented time anxiety: Am I going to hit certain life milestones “in time”?
- Efficiency-oriented time anxiety: Am I managing my time on this specific task effectively?
- Productivity time anxiety: Am I wasting my time needlessly?
- Punctuality time anxiety: Am I going to be late?
- Time management anxiety: Why don’t I ever have enough time?
Each of these fears can have a different impact on your life. “For some, there is a tangible consequence if you misused or misjudged your time and now can’t meet a deadline. Other times, it may be difficult to pinpoint an actual consequence, but you can’t tolerate the feeling of distress that accompanies being behind on time. For example, it may be no big deal if you show up at a friend’s house 10 minutes after you said you’d get there, but you find it really uncomfortable—even unbearable—when it happens,” says Dr. Farrell. “Or maybe, it’s difficult to tolerate the feeling of not being maximally productive throughout the day because it makes you think you’re falling behind.”
What causes time anxiety?
The stress you feel might be the result of time-management issues, such as procrastination. Putting things off can lead to a time crunch or rush to get something done, which triggers anxiety. If you recognize that habit in yourself, you are certainly in good company: About 15 to 25% of adults in the workforce are estimated to chronically procrastinate, according to Fuschia Sirois, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Typically, procrastination is born from an avoidance of doing unenjoyable tasks that are associated with negative emotions, such as boredom or anxiety.
Maybe there are other everyday issues that affect your ability to manage your time, and create anxiety, such as scrolling Insta, being disorganized, managing tasks poorly, or trying to multitask, which slows down your productivity. But mental health issues can also cause time anxiety. They include:
OCD is a chronic mental health disorder that centers around obsessions (intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, and/or urges) and compulsions (things you do or think in order to neutralize the distress caused by your obsessions).
“I’ve treated many individuals with OCD who worry about not managing their time effectively, losing time, or not having enough time,” Dr. Farrell says.
One of the diagnostic criteria for OCD is that the symptoms you have take up at least an hour of time each day. So, for example, if you have to perform a specific ritual (compulsion) before you leave the house, it could make you late for work or school, which can contribute to time anxiety.
With GAD, time anxiety may be more about general concerns that you’ll fall behind, or not be as efficient as you could be, says Dr. Farrell.
Chronophobia is a type of anxiety disorder that involves an extreme fear of time or the passage of time, according to Cleveland Clinic. These fears may center around your mortality or lack of control of time, and may be especially potent if you are advancing in age, have an illness, or have experienced a traumatic event.
If you have depression, a common symptom is decreased energy and fatigue or a lack of interest in things that you once found enjoyable, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This can quash your motivation to go where you need to go, and do what you need to do. In addition, you may also feel foggy-headed—making appointments and other things easy to forget. Or you may ask yourself deeper questions about why you’re here, or why you’re wasting your time doing what you’re doing. All of these symptoms can contribute to issues with time.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a driving factor in chronophobia. There’s evidence, for example, that the quarantines during the COVID pandemic triggered fears related to the passage of time.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder often skews your perception of time. You may start and forget something you were doing, underestimate the time it will take to get something done, or become lost in a task, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). None of these things are done intentionally. It’s just how your brain is wired.
“While all of these mental health disorders can affect your relationship, perception, and worries about time, they can also negatively impact your ability to have proper time management—and take a pretty considerable toll on your ability to concentrate on a task,” says Dr. Farrell.
What’s the most effective way to overcome time anxiety?
First, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your problem with time. “There are many instances where your time anxiety may have validity to it,” says Dr. Farrell. Maybe you have very real issues with organization and time management. In that case, putting organizational systems in place can help you get things done without always racing against the clock.
Since procrastination often has emotional underpinnings—meaning that there are feelings associated with the task you’re actively trying to avoid—you might want to work with a therapist to identify what’s causing your time anxiety and find ways to create better coping strategies.
If you have depression, PTSD, or a phobia, it’s important to address the core mental health issue, rather than focusing on time explicitly. Once you begin to heal from depression, for instance, or address more existential worries in therapy, you may find that your relationship with time also improves.
Sometimes, though, the difficulty with timeliness is more imagined than real, says Dr. Farrell. If that is the case—like if you’re terrified of being late to anything—then the best approach may be to confront your fears head-on in order to shrink them and give them needed perspective.
Regardless of the cause, there are often real consequences for lateness. Your boss probably won’t appreciate it if you walk into a meeting after it starts. If your kid is late for her basketball game, she may have to sit out for a bit. And if you show up 15 minutes past your scheduled doctor’s appointment, you might have to reschedule. But the imagined consequences—like you’ll be fired, your kid will be kicked off the team, or you’ll be removed as a patient (and what if you have cancer!)—are typically overblown if you have time anxiety.
If you live with OCD or another mental health issue, exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) can help. “It can guide you toward confronting the distressing thoughts, ideas, or imagery around time,” says Dr. Farrell. “For example, if you live with OCD, you might practice avoiding compulsions like constantly checking and rechecking Google maps to make sure you’re finding the most time-efficient route to your destination. You may practice looking at this only once, and resist the urge to do follow-ups. An ERP-trained therapist can help determine the best course of treatment depending on what’s behind your time anxiety.”
To learn more about OCD or anxiety and how they may be a cause of your time anxiety, consider connecting with the therapists at NOCD. Through virtual, face-to-face therapy, NOCD offers therapists who are specially trained in treating both OCD and related conditions, such as anxiety disorders, with ERP therapy.