How To Cope With Time Anxiety as an HSP

A stressed-out woman next to a big pink clock.

For HSPs, time anxiety can mean always showing up early, constantly feeling rushed, or never *quite* relaxing. Here’s how to slow things down. 

I realize that 6:30 a.m. isn’t the best time to check my calendar, but I need to know what my day holds for me. The little colored squares on my phone tell me that not only do I have three work meetings, I also have a dentist appointment and a friend’s birthday present to deliver. This is when a heavy blanket of dread settles onto my shoulders. And I’m barely even awake yet.

I realize I haven’t breathed out — not deeply anyway — so I let out a deliberate long breath. I feel my stomach squeeze and I hardly know how to begin my day. This is me in the grip of time anxiety. 

We’ve all felt a little rushed before, when reaching the end of a to-do list seems like an impossible task, but usually these anxious feelings are short-lived. Time is finite and we all have the same number of hours, minutes, and seconds in a day. But when time brings with it a feeling of dread and panic, you may be experiencing time anxiety. And if you’re a highly sensitive person, time anxiety probably affects you more than others since we hate being rushed.

What Is Time Anxiety? 

Time anxiety is characterized as an “ongoing sense of dread and unease around the passage of time.” If my time anxiety were a character, it would take the form of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland who is caught in a perpetual hurry and carries a pocket watch with him as a reminder of his tardiness. 

For me, time anxiety  feels as though time is spooling away and gathering pace as I hurry to keep up. I find myself rushing at every opportunity, which only serves to increase this inner sense of urgency. With this constant sense of urgency comes an inability to relax, especially when I have unfinished tasks.

Why HSPs Are More Likely to Suffer from Time Anxiety

It’s not unusual for highly sensitive people to experience some form of anxiety in their lives. HSPs have sensory processing sensitivity, which means that they process things more deeply than non-HSPs. Sights, smells, and interactions with the world can leave them feeling overwhelmed. 

With a heightened and sensitive nervous system, HSPs may find that the slightest time pressure triggers feelings of time anxiety. Time anxiety is a form of stimulation, which is why HSPs may be prone to responding to time in a negative way; time is another stimulus for the sensitive nervous system. But the good thing is, there are ways to alleviate time anxiety. 

How To Cope With Time Anxiety as an HSP

1. Start scheduling your down time.

If you struggle with time anxiety, chances are you have a constant to-do list looming large in your mind, but do you ever include down time on your list? Scheduling my down time was a game-changer. Before I did this, on my busiest days, I’d never “find” alone time to decompress. As HSPs need more alone time than others, scheduling this will make sure it happens. 

When I don’t schedule down time, I often end up with 15 minutes before bed in which to read a book — which means I struggle to sleep due to all the stress hormones rushing around my body. These days, I always schedule the hour before bedtime for reading, which helps me to wind down. 

2. Make sure to schedule your non-down-time, too.

This is different from the above because this is all about scheduling your non-down-time tasks. Don’t worry, you don’t have to map out every minute of your day! Instead I’ve found that it’s helpful to list all of the things that need to happen that day, things that don’t have flexibility, such as appointments, work meetings, and deadlines. That way, I don’t forget, and I can better see where there are gaps in my day for rest or breaks.

Mapping out my day is important to me, but I’ve learned that detailed to-do lists only serve to increase my time anxiety. Instead, for my work to-do lists, I use the Eisenhower Urgent/Important Principle to ask myself exactly what it sounds like: What are the things that are urgent and important that need to be done that day? 

This technique helps me reduce overwhelm and increases my focus on the activities that are most important. For example, paying the rent may go under Urgent/Important while booking a hair appointment might be able to wait. 

When I simplify my tasks in this way, I find I end up achieving more than the items on my list, most likely because my brain had space to function at its best without the threat of a ticking clock looming in the background. 

Remember, if you are scheduling your day in this way, the aim is to help reduce your anxiety, not increase it. If you start to feel the physical symptoms of anxiety, pull back and simplify your list again.  

3. Try slow movement.

There’s significant research that physical exercise is effective in reducing anxiety. Yet rather than torching your physical symptoms of anxiety with another punishing cardio session at the gym, why not try slow movement instead?  In Dr. Rangan Chaterjee’sFeel Better, Live More podcast episode with Dr. David Hamilton, they discuss the benefits of slow movement. Dr. Hamilton says that “stress is felt in our muscles; and by moving our bodies in a slow way, and even slowing down our speech, sends the signal to our brain that all is well” — and we’re in control. We don’t have to slow down our speech or our walking drastically if we don’t want to, particularly if this may not be practical at the time. 

Instead, by slowing down slightly, or pausing between our movements instead of rushing, we aim to halt (or redirect) the panicked feelings we might experience with time anxiety. You may wish to try a mindful walk in nature (which is healing for HSPs anyway) or a yoga session. Or, if you’re at work, you could try pausing to take a long breath between sentences or by mindfully drinking a glass of water before you reply to a colleague. Anything to divert time anxiety’s haste.

Physical expression goes back to a time before language, when our ancestors used movement to express themselves. We use our bodies to respond to the sights we see around us. And if our bodies move slowly, our brains will catch on.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, the idea of mindfully slowing down may be a scary prospect. But by doing so, we move with intention, our focus on the present moment. I’ve found that in the height of anxiety, my mind doesn’t feel comfortable with silence, so I take a mindful walk. 

Walking mindfully means to notice every step of our walk. We can engage the senses; the crunch of leaves beneath our feet or the scent of seaweed on the sand. You may want to try a guided walk with audio like Murray Hidary’s slow-motion walking meditation.

No matter what, be patient and gentle with yourself, and try slowing down in whatever way feels best to you, even just for three or five minutes at a time, until you feel comfortable doing it longer.

Walking and moving slower can also actually improve productivity, too. Personally, when I move slower throughout my day, I feel less rushed, less anxious, less frantic, more focused, and more present in the moment. By slowing down our breathing, taking time out for ourselves, or by taking breaks, we are able to move our bodies out of the “fight-or-flight” function and into the restorative stage. Although this doesn’t cure all of our problems, it does allow us to have a bit of respite for our body and mind. 

4. Be mindful of your environment.

Have you ever been affected by a colleague whose presence in the office is comparable to a hurricane? They’re the type of colleague who’s always in a rush, complains that they’re very busy, and whose negative mood infects the whole office. 

There is evidence to suggest that we are affected by the emotions and behavior of others, a concept called emotional contagion. Some people are so affected by their environment that they mimic the pace around them. As someone who finds their morning commute to a busy city quite stressful,  it’s no wonder I’ve felt rushed and found myself matching the fast, hurried pace of others.

We can’t always avoid busy places and situations that might lead to emotional contagion and  trigger time anxiety, but knowing your symptoms are because of a finely tuned physiological response can take the pressure off. In his blog, Dr. Hamilton offers ways to deflect negative emotion. I choose to avoid the busiest travel times, for instance, by catching an earlier bus. You  might use headphones to block out noisy, highly stimulating environments or perhaps listen to music — whatever brings you more peace.

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5. Reevaluate your boundaries.

Although time anxiety often brings additional pressure to our days, it may also be a signal that one of your boundaries isn’t working as well as it could. (And boundary-setting can be a challenge for us HSPs anyway!) Ask yourself when you most feel time anxiety’s presence: Does it show up at work? Is it a constant at home with your family? Once you’ve identified a potential source, consider the boundaries you have in place. Do you need to adjust them? 

For example, during busy periods, such as holidays and celebrations, can you review your boundaries so that they align with your HSP needs during these more stressful times? Do you need to say “no” more to allow yourself time to rest? Could you make sure you take a lunch break and block out this precious time in your work day instead of working right through it?

Boundaries are unique to each individual — and as we change and grow, they, too, need to shift along with us.

6. Ditch the multitasking and opt for single-tasking instead.

For some of us, modern living means juggling family and home life with work and social events, and multi-tasking is the only way to get things done. I rarely do one thing at a time. When I make lunch, I’ll also prepare for dinner. While watching Netflix, I’ll browse my phone for a friend’s birthday gift. 

For years, we’ve viewed multitasking as a standard to reach, something to aim for, but there is evidence to suggest that multitasking affects our brain and may make us feel more stressed. 

It appears that by having multiple goals, more pressure is placed on certain parts of our brain. The effect of switching between tasks places greater strain on our brain’s attention and control areas, which makes us less efficient. Instead, we should try single-tasking, which has us focus on one thing at a time and which is ideal for HSPs.

Realistically, we might not be able to stop multitasking all together, but we could try to add more focus to our hobbies and time with our family and friends. By leaving my phone in a different room, I can now watch a film uninterrupted, which gives my body a chance to fully relax. 

7. Journal to better manage your time anxiety.

One of the ways I manage time anxiety is by journaling regularly. Particularly in times of high stress, I’ll spend 15 minutes journaling about my day. 

There’s no right or wrong way to journal, although I find that having a series of prompts helps me to understand why I might be feeling so anxious. Prompts for understanding time anxiety could include: 

  • How has the day been so far? 
  • What one thing have I done that was good today, and how do I feel about that? 
  • If I didn’t manage to do X thing, how does that make me feel? 
  • Where do I need extra support in my life? 

Some weeks, I choose to write about the same prompt so that I can look back and reflect on how I’ve changed or improved over that time. Doing this can also highlight patterns of thinking or behavior that we might not have realized was unhelpful until we see it in black and white. 

Remember that journaling helps us make sense of emotions — and this may be useful in identifying where time anxiety’s roots lie. But it is not the only goal. Supporting ourselves through these challenging times is the aim, and a journaling practice can be a simple way of nurturing our anxious minds. 

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