- Periods of stress can distort your perception of time.
- Emotions contribute to how fast and slow time passes.
- There are ways to take control of time perception during the pandemic.
Feeling like you landed in a time warp the last few months?
You’re not alone.
A survey conducted at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom found that physical or social distancing during the pandemic has affected people’s perception of time.
“Prior to my research, I had assumed that lockdown passed slowly for everyone. I know it did for me. My research has shown that this isn’t really true,” Ruth S. Ogden, PhD, lead researcher of the survey, told Healthline.
Ogden created an online questionnaire that asked 604 participants in the United Kingdom to rate on a sliding scale how fast they felt time was passing compared to normal, both over the course of a single day and over a full week, between April 7 and April 30, 2020.
The questionnaire also asked participants about their emotional state, task load, and their feelings about their social interaction during this time.
Ogden discovered that about 20 percent of the participants experienced time as normal during lockdown, 40 percent experienced it as slower than normal, and 40 percent faster than normal.
“When I looked at what made time pass slowly, I found that being older (above 65) and having low levels of satisfaction with current levels of social interaction and high levels of stress were likely to make someone feel like lockdown was passing slowly. Conversely, being young, busy, and socially satisfied made lockdown pass more quickly,” she said.
Dr. Michael N. Shadlen, principal investigator at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, says these findings correlate with concepts from the neuroscience of time perception.
How human brains and emotions track time
As the brain evolved over time, Shadlen says its parts that involve thought and cognitive function, such as planning and executive control, developed the ability to keep track and control of time.
“Everything we do has to be controlled in time, otherwise we’d be simple creatures that react in the moment,” he said.
When it comes to time perception, emotions play a part.
“People assign an emotional valence to every experience, including the passage of time. We color our experiences in ways that reflect our enjoyment or repulsion,” Shadlen said.
For example, if we enjoy going to a concert or playing in a basketball game, we might wish they lasted longer. However, if we dislike these events, we might feel like they took too long.
Emotion is one of the primary causes of distortion to the passage of time, adds Ogden.
“So, when we experience fear, we experience a sensation of more time passing than normal. This is because our perception of time is affected by our level of arousal,” she said.
Ogden explains that increases in activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response, are associated with lengthening of time.
On the other hand, increases in activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body, are associated with a slowing or shortening of time.
Shadlen compares the lengthening of time to retellings of near-death experiences.
“This is speculation, but people who have near-death experiences [will often report that] things seemed to slow down. That’s probably because they were so fully aware of every detail of the events. The adrenaline lets them process more events quickly, but the brain can only form internal reports at the normal frame rate, so to speak, so the conscious experience is like slow motion,” he said.
Similar effects are seen in people with mental health conditions, notes Ogden.
“People with depression will often report that during periods of depression, the days drag by. This is reflected in our lockdown experience: Being socially unfulfilled (which is associated with depression) is associated with a slowing of time,” she said.
However, Shadlen points out that the association with pleasant and unpleasant experiences doesn’t always correlate with fast and slow passages of time, respectively.
“I used to work with patients in the hospital. When I was busy in the emergency room, time flew by, but that doesn’t mean it was fun. I might have been dealing with some pretty horrible things,” he said.
“So, it’s not that everything you experience negatively means the time will feel slow; it’s more about the punctuation. If you’re in a zone, concentrating, there are few distracting events. To paraphrase the Mad Hatter, ‘the report started, got to the end, and stopped,’” Shadlen said.
4 ways to help you turn time on your side
To cope with distortion of time during the pandemic, consider the following tips.
1. Create structure
If time during the pandemic is going slowly for you, creating a routine may help.
“Normal life is highly structured for most people. This is because of the routine of going to work, social interactions, and alike. The loss of these rhythms means that we are almost ‘lost in time’ because we don’t have our usual cues to what day it is, or even what time of day it is,” Ogden said.
For example, you may find no clear distinction between Monday and Friday if you’re at home for homeschooling, work, or no longer able to participate in daily activities outside the home.
“We therefore need to create new structures in our lives to help us to regain control of time,” Ogden said.
Setting consistent hours for work during the day, as well as times to wake up, go to bed, eat meals, and exercise, can establish structure to your day.
2. Connect with others
Research shows that during times of stress, people need to engage with people they love to spend time with.
“This helps us to feel like periods of stress are passing more quickly than normal,” Ogden said.
With physical distancing measures in place, finding new forms of social interaction, such as video chats, walks with friends, and creating “social bubbles,” can help accelerate the passage of time.
3. Stay the right amount of busy
Finding a good balance between stress and boredom can help make time pass.
“My research shows that time is more likely to pass quickly if you are busy and have a lower level of stress. So, we need to keep ourselves active enough that we aren’t bored, but not so busy that we become burdened with stress,” Ogden said.
Practicing techniques that help reduce stress, such as mindfulness and exercise, can help create balance.
4. Allow yourself to feel
During these times, Shadlen says it’s understandable to experience negative feelings and psychological distress.
“This is a time that we are not prepared for. If you are bothered and frustrated, there are probably good reasons why. Many are experiencing a high level of psychological stress right now. People should feel licensed to feel uncomfortable,” he said.
However, if your level of mental distress is affecting your ability to function, he says reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional.