Lately I’ve been structuring my whole day in Google Calendar, dedicating each neatly segmented block of time to writing a story, exercising, and even things like “find and order new duvet cover.” I’ve been making these actions into “events” not because I’m particularly organized (I tend to vacillate between hyper-organized Virgo and “chaotic is my middle name” depending on the day, task, and mood), but instead because I’ve been feeling increasingly like I’m losing my grip on time, and thus reality. I schedule everything for similar reasons that others who are in their homes almost 24/7 during the pandemic have tried to get a handle on their lives by putting on work clothes or having a designated “office space” in their house: This ritual has actually helped me feel more grounded. Whereas previous months felt like they lasted a million years, March has felt relatively normal because I’ve developed a method through which I can literally see the passage of time in front of me. Otherwise, I would have continued to have the disorienting sense that time is fake, slippery.
We’ve been in the COVID-19 pandemic for exactly a year now, with many of us having given up daily routines such as a morning commute and coffee, exercise classes, and after-work drinks. We’ve also been having the conversation about how time has felt distorted ever since the pandemic started. “March 2020 feels like it was yesterday but also 100 years ago,” said a recent tweet, one of many attesting to the fact that for a lot of us, time seems to be simultaneously flying by and crawling along at tortoise speed. Who hasn’t found themselves saying — often to themselves: “How is it already 4 p.m. when I just had breakfast?” “Is it really March??”
With fewer daily routines and significant events to mark the days, weeks, and seasons, it makes sense that people are feeling like their sense of time is off, experts say. “As people are extracted from their usual routines, they are not experiencing the usual transitional time which also helps signal changes and the passage of time,” Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City, told Refinery29. “As many people work from home, they do not have the physical and emotional separations between their work and home time. Thus, the daily rituals, unconscious and conscious signals — like departing from one's home, commuting to the workplace, interacting with people other than those with whom you live, leaving the office, and reentering home — are not present. We are not experiencing the subtle or implicit indicators of time. Similarly, and on a larger scale, the usual seasonal rituals which reflect time like holidays, vacations, and celebrations have also been muted. This impacts our sense of time.”
E. Alison Holman, PhD, a psychologist and an associate professor at the University of California Irvine who has written about the public health implications of distorted time perception during the pandemic, says many of us are feeling this way because we are no longer “moving through time,” explaining that “as we stop moving through a life physically, psychologically time feels like it has stopped, too.” At the very same time, she added, time can feel like it has sped up because so much has happened in the U.S. in the past year: hundreds of thousands of people have died, there were major protests for racial justice, we held a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic, the sitting president tried to steal the election, there was an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, and now we have a new president and a confusing vaccination rollout and very uncertain future. This constant barrage of major news events has made it feel like we’re fast-forwarding through life because there is so much to take in. (No wonder I also block out time in my Google Cal when I must not look at the news or Twitter.)
After an entire year of this (it was 10 months ago that journalist Helen Rosner tweeted about her therapist’s thoughts on the “infinite present”), people’s distorted sense of time is taking a big toll on their mental health. Dr. Holman says that there’s a major link between the trauma many people are living through — whether it is racial trauma, economic trauma, or the grief of having lost a loved one — and the loss of a sense of time. Trauma keeps us in the present. “I don't know that I would say everybody is traumatized,” she cautioned. “But, I would say that everybody's coping with a major stressor right now. That stressor is the fear and ambiguity that surrounds the spread of this deadly virus that killed over a half a million Americans. And when we face a very real threat, in order to deal with it, human beings naturally focus on the here and now. So we narrow our view of the world; we're not thinking about things that happened in the past or what we're trying to do in the future. That's why we see a link between major stress trauma and ‘temporal disintegration.’”
Dr. Holman is currently in the process of working on a paper that addresses the link between temporal disintegration — that feeling of distorted time perception — and loneliness. “I can tell you right now that we do see that they are associated with each other very closely, that loneliness and distorted time go hand-in-hand. This is important because [this has] implications for our mental health. Your engagement in social relationships is related to your sense of time, and we’re seeing this in the pandemic as well.”
"When we face a very real threat, in order to deal with it, human beings naturally focus on the here and now. That's why we see a link between major stress trauma and 'temporal disintegration.'"
DR. E. Alison holman, Psychologist
Ruth Ogden, PhD, an experimental psychologist specializing in time perception, reports finding a similar link. A survey of 604 people she conducted back in April 2020 found that 80% of people felt their sense of time was distorted, with half of them feeling like time had slowed down and the other half like it had sped up. But she also found that the days seemed to pass more quickly for people who were more socially satisfied, busier, and had less stress, which she found were primarily younger people. The days seemed to pass slower for those who were experiencing more stress and had fewer tasks, which in this survey were mostly older people.
From a neuroscience perspective, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely why temporal disintegration happens. “Unlike other senses, we don’t have an obvious organ for time,” Dr. Ogden wrote in an article on Neuroscience News. “Instead, time is experienced as part of other sensory inputs, such as sight and hearing, and this has made it difficult to identify precisely how the brain processes it.”
Dr. Ogden does have a hypothesis for why a perception that time is moving at a glacial pace has been linked to negative emotions: “One possibility is that when we are bored and socially dissatisfied we have lots of spare cognitive capacity and that we then use some of that capacity to increase our monitoring of time. This increased monitoring then results in time passing more slowly than normal, simply because we are more aware of time than normal. Another possibility is that the emotional consequence of lockdown altered the way the brain processes time. In particular, the negative emotions associated with isolation, boredom, sadness, and stress may have contributed to a slowing of time.”
However, she notes, various studies suggest that the effect of emotions on the perception of time is complex. This is likely why so many people are perceiving time differently in different contexts — at times slower, at times faster, at times a confusing mix of both. To get out of our current Groundhog Day-like state, experts recommend introducing routine back into our lives — sort of what I’m doing with my Google Cal. (Although, truth be told, I may not be able to keep it up for that long. My chaotic side might take over.)
“I would encourage people to continue to engage in some of the routines they had before the pandemic,” Dr. Holman said. “For example, get up and get dressed for work even if you are not going anywhere to do that work. Then, walk some in-between meetings or activities. Be sure to go outside (with a mask on) and get a change of scenery. Changing up one's physical environment can help normalize the passing of time.”
Dr. Holman also recommends setting realistic, short-term goals that “allow you to feel like you are getting back on track with your life,” rewarding yourself for achieving them — and then setting new goals. “Keeping even a short-term future that you are working towards can help.”
Dr. Dorfman, too, encourages people to maintain a routine as much as they can: going to bed around the same time and waking up at the same time every day, as well as eating regular meals. She also suggests maintaining holiday traditions you may have had before the pandemic to the best of your ability. “We can serve and enjoy the traditional foods, even if the entire extended family cannot be together. Decorating one's home, acknowledging the change of seasons, and ‘dressing up’ for holidays may be helpful. Celebrations do not have to be ‘all or nothing.’”
But, despite our best efforts to ground ourselves in routine, experts caution that things might not feel “normal” for a while — and so we should be kind to ourselves in the meantime.
“It is okay not to be okay,” Dr. Dorfman said. “The chronic uncertainty, the ever-changing restrictions, and the extensive loss are sad and anxiety-producing. In order to rise above these emotions, one must acknowledge, validate, and accept them as opposed to denying or repressing them. Given the chronic stress, one should be generously compassionate with oneself, treating oneself with extra kindness, flexibility, allowances, and sources of relaxation.”