Perception of Time Has Shifted During COVID-19, New Survey Reports


Key Takeaways

  • The sameness of each day, combined with a loss of routine, is changing our perception of time.
  • A recent survey from the UK found that more than 80% of people experienced changes to how quickly they perceived time passing during lockdown compared to pre-lockdown.

Just about everyone agrees that time is passing very strangely since COVID-19 took hold in early 2020. Some days take forever, while months are flying by, partly because there is so much “sameness” in being stuck at home every day. A survey conducted in the UK revealed more than 80% of participants felt like their perception of time had shifted during the past few months of lockdown restrictions compared to pre-quarantine times.

If days seem to blend together and time is something you often forget about, you might be wondering why it feels this way, what it means for your brain, and how you can adjust. 

Do We Perceive Time Differently During the Pandemic? 

How participants experience the distortion of time is really the key to these findings. According to the authors, higher stress levels, increasing age, reduced task load, and decreasing satisfaction with less socialization is linked to feeling a slower passage of time during the day. Younger, more socially satisfied participants seem more likely to experience time passing more quickly. 

Why Time Is Passing So Strangely

To really understand this phenomenon, remember how quickly things changed. “The novel coronavirus appeared late last year but didn’t become a prominent topic here in the U.S. until halfway through February and into March,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty member at Columbia University. 

“There was so little understanding of what was to come or the severity of the problem we had before us,” she says. Plus, initially, many people viewed Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, shutdowns, and quarantines as a two-week precaution. 

But now, months and months later, Hafeez says we’ve all gone through so much disappointment as economic instability, health-related anxieties, and isolation have become our new reality. “This abrupt change, combined with the prolonged effort to isolate and flatten the curve, has put us through many weeks of the same anxiety.”

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Alarming news, social isolation, constant stress and worry about losing a job, or missing out on milestone moments like birthdays, graduations, or weddings make these months feel like a monotonously unpleasant challenge.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

We also have our memory to thank for this strange passing of time. According to Pavan Madan, MD, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, the more new experiences we have, the longer time feels. For example, time seems to pass slowly when you’re on vacation exploring new-to-you cities or interesting tourist attractions. 

Over the last several months, he says there has been a significant drop in novel experiences like eating at a restaurant or going for a trip. Even small experiences, like stopping at a gas station, occur less often, which Madan says can make time go by extra slowly.

“The more emotions a situation generates, the more we remember it,” says Madan. And since many of us are not leaving home, he says we are experiencing less range of emotions, which also reduces the landmarks of time stored into our memory, skewing the perception of time. 

Additionally, Madan says the transition from weekdays at work and weekends at home is no longer the same. “As the hallmarks of our workweek change, it makes it more difficult to feel the amount of time that has passed.” 

What This Means for Your Brain

One of the main issues the brain has is the loss of routine. “Many people throughout this pandemic have experienced some level of insomnia, anxiety, and even depression symptoms from lack of socialization, lack of time outside, and a general feeling that all of our goals are at a standstill at the moment,” says Hafeez.

The brain has different ways of reacting to this. Many people can adapt, but for others, it can be a very trying time specific to the loss of routine. 

When your days start looking the same, and you aren’t leaving the house to go to work, school, or even grocery shopping or the gym, Hafeez says you can begin to feel trapped in your own circumstances. She suggests we try to find meaningful and fulfilling ways to work towards goals and learn new things as we get through what have become such trying times.

The concerns about time are about both sides of the coin, says Moe Gelbart, PhD, psychologist and director of practice development at Community Psychiatry. 

Moe Gelbart, PhD

Some people feel that time is creeping along, while others feel it is whizzing by at lightning speed. But mostly, I hear both from the same person: That day-to-day time all feels to be in slow motion, but larger chunks of time, like looking back at a week, go by fast.

— Moe Gelbart, PhD

Our brain is trying to process a pandemic, which makes the concept of time confusing since most routines are not the same. Adding to this confusion is the uncertainty of the future, and not knowing when this will end. 

“Anxiety comes with fear of the unknown and coping with job and economic loss, concern over whether our children will go to school, and apprehension about whether we can stay safe and healthy,” says Gelbart.

As we struggle to find a “new normal,” Gelbart points out that our brains are in the process of adjusting—and needing to do so with little certainty. “Since we cannot rely on old patterns to fill our days, each day requires new thought and planning, which can make the day feel like it is creeping by.”

Tips to Help Reset Your Clock

Commit to a Routine

While it may seem that life is so far removed from where it was before, Hafeez says that thanks to technology, we are not as disconnected as we may feel. “Get up every morning and make sure light is entering the house, eat breakfast, work out (and track your progress), and get everything ready for the day,” she says.

If you’re working from home or doing remote learning, make sure you are not staying in bed. “Getting ready and having a designated work station can help signal to the brain that it is focus time.”

Get Outdoors Often

Most cities are in some variation of an opening plan, which means it’s time to get outside. Hafeez says if you’re able to go for walks and take brain breaks, fresh air is one of the most important things you can do for your body and mental health.

Stay Connected to Friends and Family

“Social distance does not have to mean social loneliness,” says Hafeez. Making it a point to connect with friends and family daily can help you feel supported and give you a way to fill some time.

Manage Your Sleep Schedule

We’re all dealing with a disruption in our sleep cycle. But Hafeez says sleeping in, as tempting as it may be, is not the answer. “A more productive choice is getting up as you would under more normal circumstances and if you have extra time, using it productively.” This way, she says, the 20 minutes you would have used on your drive to work is now going into learning about a new interest.

Include Meaningful Events in Your Day

Whether these events are new experiences or old traditions, Gelbart says having purposeful and intentional life behaviors helps to normalize our sense of being and time. Madan suggests introducing new landmarks in both your weekdays and weekends, such as a Tuesday morning coffee walk or Friday evening Zoom happy hour with friends, so that they can set the tone for time passing.

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

A solution to combat this weird situation regarding time, says Madan, is to start by practicing mindfulness. “Try to introduce 15 minutes of a mindfulness activity each day—this will help you be more self-aware of your emotions and judgments, and to help you stay calm about the passing of time,” he says.

What This Means For You

If days feel slow, but weeks seem to pass you by, consider yourself part of this unique pandemic phenomenon. Although we don’t have control over when COVID-19 will slow down, we can find balance and change how we experience and perceive time.

That said, it’s also perfectly okay to let this passing of time feel different, and maybe even strange until we move beyond lockdowns and closures and resume our routines. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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