How living in a pandemic distorts our sense of time

Being stuck in a specific perspective of time isn’t healthy, scientists say

image showing a semi-transparent clock overlayed over a photos of a city sidewalk scene and a handshake

Many people’s perception of time has been distorted during the pandemic. Some people report that time feels as if it’s moving faster than before while others say it’s moving slower.

coffeekai/istock/getty images plus

Time hasn’t made much sense since spring 2020 for many people, myself included. In February 2020, during the Before Times, my family traveled to Barcelona, a relatively carefree trip that now feels like a lifetime ago. Other times, I feel like I blinked, and three years vanished. How can my son be starting fifth grade? He was a second grader just a minute ago. 

Welcome to “blursday.” Back when the pandemic started, the term hit the zeitgeist. The word captured that sense of time disintegrating as our worlds and routines turned upside down (SN: 9/14/20). Days melted together, then weeks, then years. 

As people began wondering about why time felt so out of whack, Simon Grondin, a psychologist at Laval University in Quebec City, and colleagues penned a theory paper seeking to explain the phenomenon. Our time is typically punctuated by events, such as dinner dates or daily commutes, Grondin and his team wrote in October 2020 in Frontiers in Psychology. Such events provide temporal landmarks. When those landmarks disappear, days lose their identities. Time loses its definition.

Since the initial shutdowns, cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists have been scrambling to document people’s changing relationship with the clock. Early findings from those efforts now confirm that the pandemic did lead many people worldwide to experience distortions in their perception of time.

For instance, two surveys of more than 5,600 people taken 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. Days felt as if they were blurring together, the present loomed overly large and the future felt uncertain, researchers reported in August in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.

“All of a sudden everything went on stop.… We could not be the people we were used to being in the world anymore,” says health psychologist Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.

For some people, distortions in time may feel like a strange, somewhat unsettling phenomenon, but one they can shake off. For others, the trauma of the past few years combined with this weird perception of time is a worrisome mix: They could be at risk of lingering mental health problems, Holman says.

Those who reported greater feelings of time distortion, and thus may be at higher risk of developing mental health problems, included participants ages 18 to 29 and women. Previous life experience, including preexisting mental health challenges and high levels of lifetime stress or trauma, also heightened one’s likelihood of feeling out of sync. 

Holman first observed how a warped sense of time can hurt people’s well-being as a graduate student in the 1990s. For her dissertation, she interviewed survivors of the southern California fires of 1993 within days of the fires’ onset. She found that two years later, the individuals who had lost their sense of time during the fires still reported feeling greater distress than those who had largely kept their temporal bearings. 

“People who experienced temporal 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 might provide an early indicator of who might need help with recovery. 

Other recent research during the pandemic suggests that those experiencing time as moving more slowly seem to struggle with greater mental distress than those who experience time as moving fast. For instance, respondents who reported that time felt like it was going very slowly also reported higher levels of loneliness, researchers reported in August in Nature Human Behaviour. 

In a similar line of work, experimental psychologist Ruth Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University in England and colleagues are seeking to understand how people might eventually remember the pandemic, and what that could mean for recovery. Ogden and her team asked almost 800 respondents in the United Kingdom to reflect on the start of the pandemic a year after it started. 

Only 9 percent said the preceding 12 months felt precisely like a year, while 34 percent said that time felt shorter, the researchers wrote in July in PLOS One. Most respondents, 57 percent, said that the preceding 12 months felt longer than a year

When a traumatic event feels long in hindsight, people may feel that the trauma is much closer in the rearview mirror than it is in reality. Such negative emotions could lengthen people’s recovery from the pandemic, Ogden and her team suspect. Remembering “a longer pandemic may feel more recent and thus more present,” the team writes. 

Mindfulness training that brings people back to the present is one promising way to overcome distortions in time perception, says Olivier Bourdon, a psychologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal (SN: 9/26/22). 

But unlike more finite traumas, such as wildfires and mass shootings, the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror. Many people are stuck not in the past but a sort of liminal present. While the answers for how to treat people in this instance are far from clear, Bourdon says the key is helping people knit together their past, present and future selves. “If you’re stuck in a specific time perspective, it’s bad for 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.”

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine