How the coronavirus pandemic twists our perception of time

Rachel Grumman Bender

A new study shows that being in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic is affecting people’s perception of how slowly — or quickly — time is passing by.

The U.K. study, published in PLOS ONE, found that several factors — including age — affects how people view the passage of time during lockdown. People over the age of 60 reported feeling that time was going by slowly, compared to younger people. Other factors that made time slow down included high levels of stress, feeling unsatisfied with the amount of social interactions and not having as many tasks to do.

On the flip side, people who were busy — which likely includes parents who are juggling both their jobs and children — found that time was flying by.

“From previous research, we may have expected time to pass slowly during lockdown because lockdown is boring and depressing,” the study’s author, Ruth Ogden, PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., tells Yahoo Life. “Boredom is associated with a slowing of time, and people who are depressed often report the days dragging by. We would therefore assume that time would be experienced as universally slow during lockdown. However, my research shows that this isn't really the case.”

While about 20 percent of people in the study experienced time as normal during lockdown, Ogden found that 40 percent experienced it as slower than normal and 40 percent felt it was faster than usual. “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.”

David Spiegel, MD, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, tells Yahoo Life that one of the ways we mark the passage of time is through our daily routines, which have changed significantly during lockdown. “You get dressed and go to work and see different people — those tend to be temporal markers, many of which we’ve lost,” Spiegel says. “Mood is another factor. If you're feeling good and enjoying what’s happening, you generally want time to slow down. Conversely, if you’re feeling down and not getting things done or not seeing people you know or like, days can seem very long and tedious. Mood and engagement in what you're doing are important factors.”

Ogden says that, while a slowing of time is associated with negative mood, “we don't know whether the slowing of time is a consequence of negative mood or a cause of negative mood.” She adds: “Regardless, we can imagine that because lockdown has been stressful and has impaired people's mental health, anything which makes this period seem ‘longer’ is perhaps likely to worsen these effects. So we could imagine that experiencing the lockdown as artificially slow or long may worsen feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness. But we really need more research to tell us this for sure.”

So what can you do if it feels like time is passing by too slowly? “Routines really help,” says Ogden. “One problem with lockdown is that we are sort of lost in time. We have lost all of our daily and weekly temporal markers. So prior to lockdown, our rhythm of life enabled us to know what day it was and also what time of day it was, i.e. ‘It’s Monday because I am at work,’ and ‘It is lunchtime because I am hungry.’ Now these routines are gone, and there is nothing to help us mark the hours, days and weeks. This contributes to a slowing of time.”

Creating a routine and sticking to it will help to stop these “temporal distortions” from occurring, says Ogden. “And engaging in rewarding social activity and exercise to lift our mood should facilitate time passing more quickly.”

Spiegel agrees, saying: “You need to be more proactive at adhering to a schedule because life itself is not going to do that anymore.”

Along with getting physical exercise, prioritizing sleep, and “disconnecting from the constant barrage of news,” which can negatively impact mood, Spiegel suggests that people find ways to engage in activities that make them feel good. For example, “reviewing memories of relationships that have meant a lot to you and reaching out to people you haven’t been in touch with for a while,” he says. “It means taking charge in a way you don’t have time to normally.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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