How to Be at Peace with the Passage of Time — Not Scared of It

Luke Whelan Fact Checked
Collage of blue clocks
© Giada Canu / Stocksy United

If you felt like the first few years of the pandemic were a time warp, you’re not alone. Without being able to celebrate holidays with family and friends or go on vacations to new places or even eat out at restaurants, the days and weeks blended together. 

As normal life began to resume, you likely felt some anxiety about the fact that valuable years of your life just went poof. All of a sudden, you were a few years older and hadn’t made progress on the life goals or experienced the things you wanted to.  

Being anxious about time slipping away is common. Its extreme form is called chronophobia, a condition in which a person becomes so obsessed with the passage of time that it can seriously impair their relationships, careers and sense of self-worth. Someone who is incarcerated or facing terminal illness might experience this level of phobia, for example.  

But even milder preoccupations with the passage of time can lead to anxiety and depression. Here’s how to work towards finding peace with time, instead of resisting its onward march, no matter what life stage you’re in. 

Times when you have anxiety about… time 

Douglas Lane, a clinical psychologist and professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is familiar with anxiety about time. He specializes in geriatric psychology and sees many patients who are close to death struggle with their relationship with time.   

This kind of anxiety is often also especially acute during a life transition, Lane says, like graduating from school, facing the end of an athletic career, reaching a milestone birthday, leaving a job you’ve been in for a long time or losing a loved one like a friend or a parent. 

“It stands as a marker of the passage of time, and that can evoke all kinds of feelings — time is moving on, life is about to transition,” says Lane. 

Different kinds of anxieties at different ages 

He also points out that your relationship with time is likely going to be very different depending on what life stage you’re in.  

“I have a teenage daughter who is totally living for the future and dreaming about when she's 18 and can make her own life and have her own rules,” says Lane. “As we age, especially as we get into late life, our relationship with time is much more immediate.” 

An 85-year-old, for example, might not be thinking about ten years from now, because they likely won’t be here then. Instead, they might be feeling anxious about the things they’ve run out of time to do or the fact they haven’t yet dealt with the reality that they’re not going to be on earth forever.  

“The dominant society in America is pretty averse to dealing with some of those realities and in some ways dedicated to fending off getting older,” says Lane. “You certainly see people who just try to keep it at arm's length, as long as they possibly can.” 

While he hasn’t seen many people who’ve been totally at peace with dying, he has found that some are more successful at accepting it. He has some tips on how to do this:  

Grieve missed opportunities, but don’t stop there 

It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll feel like you’ve missed opportunities and can no longer do certain things given where you are in life.   

“There's the anxiety of, have I missed this time? Because we don't control time, that's the one thing about it, it passes no matter what,” says Lane. 

It’s important to let yourself grieve those moments, but not get stuck in them. Try not to think only about what you wanted to do, but also about why you wanted to do it. Maybe you’ve got some arthritis in your hips, and it’s no longer in the cards to run a full marathon. Instead, you could stay active and push your physical limits by training for a 10K, getting into swimming or committing to walking 30 minutes every day. 

“We all maintain these little flickers somehow, and then we just kind of realize, I guess it's not going to happen,” says Lane. “That could be the person who's 40 or 50, and they're saying, my gosh, I guess I'm not going to have a child, and having to grieve that passage of time.” 

Maybe adoption could honor those same values, says Lane, or playing a role in the life of a niece, nephew or friend’s child.  

Learn when anxiety is helpful or unhealthy 

While an older person might feel anxiety about what they no longer can do, someone in an earlier life stage might have angst about not getting going on things that are important to them.  

"I'm stalled, it's the anxiety of time leaving without me,” says Lane. “The things that I should be out there doing, I'm not doing, so I need to get caught up.” 

Lane says to some degree, this kind of anxiety can be a healthy emotion, when it signals to you that there is something important you need to attend to or get moving on. If the anxiety motivates you to, say, move out of your parents' house, if you find yourself living there after college and don’t want to anymore, then that could be a good thing. If anxiety about not having seen an aging grandparent in a long time inspires you to plan a visit to see them, then that’s great.  

But this kind of anxiety can also be unhealthy.  

“Sometimes the anxiety gets out of control and it shuts you down,” says Lane. It could make you feel even more stuck. At that point, it might be time to find a mental health professional who can help you deal with it.  

Focus on what gives your life meaning 

Anxiety about time passing might also come up when life is so full of chores, errands and busywork that you aren’t able to make space for the things that give you the most meaning, like spending quality time with loved ones, immersing yourself in creative pursuits or even just finding time to reflect and meditate on life’s bigger questions.  

Lane says this is an area where it helps to take inspiration from people closer to the end of life.  

“Older people, they get very good at focusing on the meaningful parts of life,” says Lane. “They get really good at living for today and asking: What happened that was valuable to me? This combats that abject fear of having a lot fewer tomorrows than yesterdays.” 

Lane recommends proactively thinking about the meaning of what you’re doing with your day, and asking: Why is it that I'm doing what I'm doing? 

He remembers driving to his daughter’s volleyball game straight from a long day at work, and not getting home until after 8 p.m. He was exhausted but he reminded himself of why he made sure to be there.  

“I said, so why am I doing this? Because I have a kid there and because I want my kid to look back and say my dad was there on the sidelines watching me play,” says Lane. 

It’s important to apply this to other things in your life that you’re spending time on. If you’ve been working on an email late at night, why is that a valuable use of your time? 

“Maybe it’s because I want to support these colleagues and be somebody who they can rely on if they need my help,” says Lane. 

Know when to call it quits 

On the other hand, if something is not bringing you meaning — or sapping your time and energy from doing the things you want to be doing — it might be time to call it quits

If your job is no longer feeling meaningful or aligning with your values, for example, it could be time to try to make a change.  

"Maybe there's a role within my organization that would be more meaningful to me and make me feel like my time was being better invested versus just frittered way,” says Lane. “Or maybe I need to move to a whole different organization or a different job.” 

This doesn’t mean jumping ship at the first sign of a rough patch — overcoming adversity can actually make you stronger and provide an opportunity to bond with the people around you. But a toxic environment or relationship can tear you down and limit you. 

"If I realize there is just no sense of meaning in this, then that's toxic,” says Lane.  

View the time that has passed as a gift 

The effort to focus on what’s meaningful in your life can also be applied to your past. Many traditions view your past as a gift in the form of the strength and wisdom you gain from enduring and learning from the ups and downs of life, Lane says. 

This perspective can help you discern what is meaningful to you. You can then use that to make decisions in the present that will steer you towards spending your time in the future on things that are valuable to you. If time with family is important to you, and you felt too far away from loved ones during the pandemic, maybe a move to be closer to family is in order. If time in nature gives you meaning, maybe it’s time to save up for a car that will enable you to get into the mountains.  

“No one is a master of their fate, so we live for today for its own sake and do our best to navigate where we hope to go in the future,” says Lane.  

You’re not always going to succeed in having a life in which everything you do is meaningful, but striving for that is an antidote to being afraid of the passage of time. 

“I think what gives people the sense of peace in their relationship with time when they reach the end of their life is to be able to say, I did the best I could to live as fully as I could,” says Lane.