What is time anymore? Do you find yourself unsure what day it is? What month? Or even what year? Well, it’s not just you; our perception of time has changed.
A recent study from the UK from Ruth Ogden found that over 80% of participants surveyed reported experiencing a distortion of time during COVID-19 lockdown. This distortion in time was more prominent for those who were under greater stress, had lower levels of social interaction, and increased with age.
Altered perceptions of time and its passing are actually quite common experiences of people facing trauma, such as the collective trauma we’ve all been experiencing over the last year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the broadest sense, trauma refers to the response to an overwhelmingly distressing or disturbing event that can cause feelings of helplessness.
Trauma alters our sense of time because it peels away the expectations that we normally set on the future as it forces us to live in the present moment, and expands the traumatic experience so that it fills our conscious awareness. That is, the experience takes over our every waking thought and action. I don’t know about you, but I find myself anxious I forgot my mask before I go inside the local grocery store, am always aware of the amount of hand sanitizer I have left, and sing my ABC’s along with my small children to make sure I’m washing my hands for at least 20 seconds. The collective trauma of COVID-19 has absolutely taken over my “conscious awareness.”
This shift in time is not only disorienting but problematic, because having a future orientation is essential for well-being and morale. It is difficult to look towards the future in the middle of a pandemic with seemingly no end in sight, even if things are starting to look a bit more optimistic now with the vaccine rollout.
So how can we try to readjust our perception of time and return a bit more to a new “normal’? We do it by bringing back the novel activities used to help break up time.
I like to use the analogy of the holiday season during our childhood. Think about how slow time would seemingly go in our childhood when waiting for holidays to come. It seemed like an eternity. This is because as children, we had lots of new and novel activities throughout the year to look forward to in the short and long-term. Sports tournaments, birthday parties, tests at school… the list goes on.
As we get older, the holiday season seems to whip around the corner much more quickly. This is because, generally speaking, we have less of those novel events throughout the year to break up our perception of time.
For the last year we have all basically had none of these kinds of activities. This has contributed to our time disorientation and seemingly simultaneously given us the perception that March 2020 was just yesterday but also a decade ago. So how can we start to get back to “normal” perceptions of time? We start building in new and novel activities… within our new “normal” constraints of the COVID “after times”. Perhaps a Saturday afternoon board game (virtual) get-together? Or maybe committing to Taco Tuesday every Tuesday night? Getting back to fun and novel activities can help us return to our sense of normalcy.
Until then, be reassured that is not just you losing track of the days and weeks. Hopefully, our “new normal” will start to look more like “normal normal” as we continue to make strides with our global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.