Time hasn’t made much sense since the spring of 2020 for many people, myself included. In February 2020, during Before Times, my family traveled to Barcelona, a relatively carefree trip that now feels like it has been a lifetime. Other times, I feel like I blinked and three years disappeared. How can my child be starting fifth grade? He was a second grader just a minute ago.
Welcome to “blurry day”. When the pandemic started, the term hit the zeitgeist. The word captured that sense of time disintegrating like our worlds and routines. upside down (Serial number: 09/14/20). The days melted together, then the weeks, then the years.
As people began to wonder why the weather felt so out of control, Simon Grondin, a psychologist at Université Laval in Quebec City, and his colleagues wrote a theoretical paper that sought to explain the phenomenon. Our time is usually marked by events, such as dinner dates or daily commutes, Grondin and his team wrote in October 2020 at Frontiers in Psychology. Such events provide temporary milestones. When those landmarks disappear, the days lose their identity. Time loses its definition.
Since the initial closures, cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists have struggled to document people’s changing relationship with the clock. Early findings from those efforts now confirm that the pandemic led many people around the world to experience distortions in their perception of time.
For example, two surveys of more than 5,600 people conducted during the first six months of the pandemic in the United States showed that roughly two-thirds of respondents reported feeling strangely out of sync. The days felt like they were blurring, the present seemed too big, and the future seemed uncertain, the researchers reported in August in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.
“Suddenly everything stopped… We couldn’t be the people we were used to being in the world anymore,” says health psychologist Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.
To some people, time warps may feel like a strange and somewhat unsettling phenomenon, but they can shake it off. For others, the trauma of the past few years combined with this strange perception of time is a worrying combination: They could be at risk for lingering mental health issues, says Holman.
Those who reported higher feelings of time distortion, and thus may be at higher risk of developing mental health problems, included participants aged 18 to 29 and women. Previous life experience, including pre-existing mental health problems and high levels of stress or trauma throughout life, also increased the likelihood of feeling out of whack.
Holman first observed how a warped sense of time can harm people’s well-being when he was a graduate student in the 1990s. For his dissertation, he interviewed survivors of the 1993 Southern California fires within days of the start of fires. She found that two years later, people who had lost their sense of time during the fires still reported greater distress than those who had largely maintained their time orientation.
“The people who experienced the temporary disintegration… got stuck in that past experience. They couldn’t put together the flow from past to present to future,” she says.
Now, Holman hopes that measuring how much people feel like time is falling apart during the pandemic could provide an early indicator of who might need help with recovery.
Other recent research during the pandemic suggests that those who experience time moving more slowly appear to have greater mental distress than those who experience time moving more quickly. For example, respondents who reported that time felt like it was passing very slowly also reported higher levels of lonelinessthe researchers reported in August Nature Human Behavior.
In a similar line of work, experimental psychologist Ruth Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University in England and her colleagues are seeking to understand how people might remember the pandemic and what that might mean for recovery. Ogden and her team asked nearly 800 respondents in the UK to reflect on the start of the pandemic a year after it began.
Only 9 percent said the previous 12 months felt exactly like a year, while 34 percent said the time felt shorter, the researchers wrote in July in plus one. The majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said that the The previous 12 months felt longer than a year..
When a traumatic event seems long in hindsight, people may feel like the trauma is much closer in the rearview mirror than it really is. Those negative emotions could prolong people’s recovery from the pandemic, Ogden and his team suspect. Remember that “a longer pandemic may seem more recent and therefore more present,” the team writes.
mindfulness training that brings people back to the present is a promising way to overcome distortions in the perception of time, says Olivier Bourdon, a psychologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal (Serial number: 09/26/22).
But unlike more finite traumas like wildfires and mass shootings, the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror. Many people are not trapped in the past but in a kind of liminal present. While the answers on how to treat people in this case are far from clear, Bourdon says the key is to help people bridge their past, present and future. “If you’re stuck in a specific time perspective, it’s bad for your health,” he says.
Helping people rebuild a new vision for the future is especially crucial for well-being, research suggests. People must, Holman says, “have some sense of tomorrow.”