The fear of being late or not having enough time to complete a task is common for many people. It is called time anxiety, or more formally, chronophobia, and is a component of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects about 34% of the population. This article explains the causes and symptoms of time anxiety, who is at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder, and effective ways to treat and manage time anxiety.
Time anxiety is the fear of time, and increased stress over the thought of being late.
Time anxiety is part of a general anxiety disorder, and rooted in genetics and environmental stressors.
People-pleasing behaviors are often associated with increased anxiety.
Time anxiety can be treated and managed with common tools used to improve mental health outcomes.
What is time anxiety?
Time anxiety is the fear of time. Whether it's the fear of being late or an underlying fear that there is not enough time in the day to finish tasks or accomplish everything you want out of life, time anxiety can be debilitating.
While children can experience time anxiety, it is more prevalent in people over 30. It has been found to affect more women than men.
Doctors categorize time anxiety under the umbrella of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), including social anxiety, specific phobias, and separation anxiety. Many people assume that GAD is a newer disorder. However, it was first discussed in 1621 in "The Anatomy of Melancholy," showing that anxiety has always been a part of the human experience.
Anxiety can be a positive protective mechanism to process stressful life events, such as improving our performance on a big test or helping us to be more conscious of possible danger. However, when this anxiety continues even after the threat is gone, it can disrupt our quality of life.
Time anxiety symptoms
Time anxiety can overwhelm you and trigger your nervous system into high gear.
Symptoms that typically accompany time anxiety include the following:
The fear of being late
The fear of being late, also called responsibility OCD, is the extreme worry of being late to an appointment, meeting, or social engagement.
The underlying fear of time anxiety is being looked down upon by others, the belief that people will find you irresponsible, or even the extreme obsession that being late will change your life.
Feeling like time is passing you by
Chronophobia is the fear of time or the constant fear that time is passing you by.
The underlying cause of chronophobia may be:
- Scared of our mortality (fear of dying)
- Fear of getting older
- Being overwhelmed by the time
- Feeling like time is moving too slowly
Fear of wasting time
The fear of wasting time or not being productive is a common symptom in people with time anxiety.
Looming deadlines, an endless list of household chores, and the fear of being perceived as lazy can trigger worrying that there is not enough time to complete everything.
According to Psychology Today, our instinct is to be idle (not doing anything). Still, most people find being idle challenging to tolerate. People who believe that productivity and staying busy are signs of success often suffer from time anxiety because they fear that if they are not doing anything productive, people will judge them as lazy, especially in America's hustle culture.
People with time anxiety often get stuck in analysis paralysis or the inability to make a decision.
The overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start or what the next step should be can leave you feeling paralyzed.
The obsession with perfection can also trigger paralyzing anxiety and difficulty moving forward with a project or important decision.
Underlying causes of time anxiety
Time anxiety is considered a subcategory of GAD, which affects 1 in 6 adults. Many people with GAD can have multiple forms of anxiety, including social anxiety, time anxiety, and separation anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are rooted in several factors, including:
- Genetics. About 30% of people with GAD also have a family member with the condition.
- Codependency. Many people with codependency also suffer from anxiety.
- People-pleasing tendencies. People who seek constant approval typically have anxiety.
- Environmental factors. Chronic stress, traumatic events, and adverse childhood experiences can cause anxiety.
- Medical conditions. Chronic medical conditions can increase your chance of developing time anxiety.
Who is at a higher risk?
In addition to genetics, environment, and childhood experiences, other factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing time anxiety and chronophobia include:
As we age, the fear of losing time can become anxiety.
Reflection on life can leave people feeling dissatisfied and believing they are running out of time to fulfill their dreams and goals.
A chronic or terminal illness can magnify the fear that you are running out of time.
Grieving the loss of independence and pain-free mobility can trigger extreme anxiety and isolation.
People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have anxiety and an altered sense of time, especially when remembering their trauma.
Studies have shown that people experiencing high states of arousal while viewing negative images overestimated the lapse of time, while people in heightened states of arousal while viewing positive images underestimated the time.
Childhood emotional neglect
People who had parents that didn’t allow them to express their feelings are at a higher risk of developing anxiety.
Codependence and people-pleasing behaviors can trigger time anxiety by establishing the need to always be on time, avoid displeasing anyone, or make yourself the center of attention.
Signs that you have time anxiety
Specific signs and symptoms that you may have time anxiety or GAD include:
- Constantly thinking about your schedule and where you need to be
- Racing thoughts
- Dreading social engagements, meetings, and appointments
- Worrying about being late
- Feeling like there is never enough time in the day
- Feeling like you constantly need to be doing something
- Frustration when you don’t finish tasks on your to-do list
- Arriving at the airport hours before you need to be there
- Overplanning your trips
While these signs and symptoms are uncomfortable, if not managed properly, they can eventually lead to an anxiety or panic attack, which can seem like a life-threatening emergency the first time you experience an attack.
Signs you are having an acute anxiety attack include:
- Feeling like you may be having a heart attack
- Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
Most panic attacks last 5–10 minutes, and episodes may happen out of the blue, leaving you confused about what caused it. While anxiety and panic attacks are alarming, they are not dangerous and do not pose a physical threat. Visit your doctor if you are experiencing panic attacks frequently, as it may be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
Tips on how to manage time anxiety
Having chronic anxiety can cause extreme discomfort and affect your quality of life. However, the good news is that it can be treated and managed using well-researched tools.
Therapy can also help you get to the root cause of your anxiety and help you change your perspective going forward. The National Institute of Mental Health is an excellent resource for finding a psychotherapist.
Change your habits
Creating healthy habits and a structured daily routine can help reduce anxiety symptoms and give you a sense of control.
Healthy habits that have been shown to reduce anxiety include:
- Plan. Give yourself plenty of time to finish your task or get to your appointment.
- Sleep. Get adequate sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
- Hydrate. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Get active. Exercise or be active every day.
- Reach out. Connect with friends.
- Laugh. Laughter is a great stress reliever.
- Quit smoking and drinking. Stop or limit your use of tobacco and alcohol.
- Clean. Organize your personal spaces.
- Use a calendar. Keep a detailed calendar to keep your schedule on track.
Practicing mindfulness each day is a proven way to regulate emotions, and reduce anxiety symptoms, specifically rumination and worrying.
Mindfulness practice is the art of clearing your mind and letting thoughts and emotions come and go without judgment. Types of popular mindfulness techniques include:
- Breathing mantras
- Vipassana meditation (to see things how they really are)
- Visualization techniques
- Observation of body sensations (yoga, tai chi)
- Compassion-based mindfulness
- Doing daily activities in a mindful way
- Mindfulness apps on your phone
Positive affect journaling about your thoughts, feelings, and gratitude can decrease depression and anxiety symptoms and improve well-being.
Participants of one study completed 15 minutes of journaling three times a week for 12 weeks, resulting in decreased anxiety and better resilience after one month of writing.
Expressive writing about a traumatic event can help clear your mind and release built up tension.
Deep breathing exercises are another well-documented intervention to relieve stress and anxiety and calm your nervous system. Deep breathing is an easy exercise you can do anywhere when you feel stressed or anxious.
Box breathing is a popular deep breathing technique that includes the following steps:
- Breathe in slowly and count to four.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Slowly exhale out of your mouth for four seconds.
- Repeat until you feel calmer and grounded.
Grounding techniques are a very effective way of calming your nervous system, especially if you are experiencing a panic attack. It enables you to refocus your attention on your basic senses.
The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 coping technique for anxiety is routinely prescribed to bring people down from a high-anxiety state. This technique includes:
- Acknowledge four things around you that you can touch.
- Acknowledge five things you see around you.
- Acknowledge one thing that you can taste.
- Acknowledge three things you can hear.
- Acknowledge two things you can smell.
Time anxiety is a standard part of general anxiety disorders. While having occasional anxiety is a healthy part of life, having chronic anxiety about being late, wasting time, or the fear of not having enough time can be debilitating to your quality of life. The good news is that there are ways to treat and manage time anxiety so it doesn’t rule your life or cause self-isolation.
- Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century.
- CDC. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder among adults: United States, 2019.
- Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits.
- Scientific Reports. Slower time estimation in post-traumatic stress disorder.
- JMIR Mental Health. Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: a preliminary randomized controlled trial.