Why our perception of time changes during times of crisis

man struggling with the passing of time

Time always moves in mysterious ways.

In theory, it’s a basic concept and a fundamental part of life that we should all be familiar with – AKA 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day and so on. 

Of course, it never feels quite as straightforward as that. Sometimes weekends drag, sometimes they fly. A single hour can feel like forever, or it can disappear in an instant. 

But never has our perception of time felt so out of sync than since the start of the pandemic.

We’ve all been going through a collective crisis since March 2020, with the onset of the lockdown, and the first real sign that the virus we’d been hearing about might be more than just a bit of over-amplified panic. 

It’s now been 21 months. But doesn’t it feel as though we have been referring to the pandemic as the last ‘18 months’ for a really long time? 

Calling this chunk of time ‘the last 18 months’ was accurate in June 2021. But we were using this phrasing to describe – and perhaps to try and understand – what we’d been going through well before then.

What’s more, we’ve been using it ever since and we’re still saying it now – so why is this? 

Stuck in an extended crisis point

According to Katherine Templar Lewis, lead scientist at Uncertainty Experts, one thing people have struggled with during this period of time has been a lack of advice and leadership they can trust. 

‘We are living in a panic-inducing sea of fake news and mistrust,’ Katherine tells Metro.co.uk.

‘We know we need a “new normal” – we can’t go back to the time before as it exposed too many cracks and flaws in the systems that underpinned us, but we haven’t found a solution yet, or where we go from here.’

Explaining why we seem to be comfortable with 18 months as a descriptor, she says: ‘We know it’s been longer than a year, but two years would imply we should have found a way forward. 

‘18 months is a culturally accepted “long” time scale, but not too long to make us utterly depressed that we have not necessarily achieved or grown in the way we want.

‘Research we have been running has revealed that we – and our leader – haven’t yet developed the skills to handle this exposed uncertainty, and so until we work our way out out of the fog we are in, we are in stasis – an extended crisis point.’

So, we are living in ongoing turmoil, with no real idea of when it might end – and very unclear expectations of what might come next. Therefore, our brain tries to categorise this period of time the best way that it can.

But, of course, us attempting to compartmentalise many months of our life then alters how time passes – and contributes to whether it feels fast, or slow. 

This has to do with our own individual experiences of lockdown and how we look back at it.

‘We use events as markers for time,’ explains Katherine. ‘From regular ones such as weekends and birthdays, going out to dinner, the cinema or meeting with friends, days out. We even use the changes of scenery and pace throughout our day, such as our commute to mark time. 

‘For some people, this was completely lost. Working from home, or even furlough, as well as no social events means every day became very much the same.’

Time passing is different for everyone

The perception of time passing is different for everyone, based on their lived experiences.

‘We know logically that time is a constant,’ says Danielle Haig, director and principal business psychologist at DH Consulting. ‘However, depending on our emotions, work and diaries, time can speed up and slow down. 

‘For many it feels like “the last 18-months” almost didn’t happen, it feels like that chunk of our lives was in vacuum.

‘All the changes that were forced upon us without debate or choice, along with the fear-inducing daily “death numbers” and scaremongering on social media caused many to go into “survival mode.”‘

When we lose autonomy, humans respond to unrequested change with a primal fear response (which exhausts us over time and resulted in mass anxiety and burnout).

‘When we’re in survival mode we become hyper-vigilant and hyper-aware of negative information. When we are stressed, isolated, bored or scared then time slows down,’ adds Danielle.

But why did lockdown feel like the slowest time ever – yet reflecting now, it feels like it didn’t even happen? 

Danielle says: ‘For those who got stuck devoid of things they would normally do, time could drag in the moment. Especially if it was a time of anxiety. 

‘But when we look back on the year – with no markers or events dotted through – the year appears to have raced by. 

‘We simply can’t divide the year up well in our memory so in hindsight it seems to be done in a flash. Those thinking about moments may feel it dragged whereas those who tend to view the year from a zoomed out perspective trying to think what they did may feel it zoomed by.’

As we return to our ‘normal’ lives, it’s hard to measure it against what we were doing this time last year. Since life has come back, it has altered our perception of the last 21 months dramatically.

‘Our lives are now busy again and we’re probably feeling socially satisfied again with lots of events to look forward to. Consequently, time will seem to have sped up and now, in the blink of an eye, it’s the end of another year,’ adds Danielle.

Trauma alters perception of time

‘For people in lockdown, working from home on Zoom calls, the past year might be something like a “watched pot,”‘ says Dr Warrick Roseboom, lecturer in psychology and informatics at the University of Sussex.

‘It feels interminable while doing it, and you have one eye on when it will end, but in later reflecting on what has happened there isn’t much there at all.

‘Just the same walls, same screen, and same people on the same Zoom calls.’ 

However, he explains that for people working in frontline services, people who have battled illness, or people who have lost family or friends, the past year may be quite the opposite: full of trauma, events of note, and things to remember. 

He continues: ‘While some people might reflect on this past year for many years to come and remember very little other than that it involved a Zoom call or two (little content remembered, little time accumulated and so in retrospect seems like a short period), people who had the most challenging years of their life might reflect and view the recent past as full of events and experiences that won’t seem all that short at all.’

The bigger implications of this 

It’s not only confusion over where the year has gone that we have to content with. The impact of an altered perception of time affects us in many ways.

‘This suspended crisis of uncertainty is terrible for our anxiety,’ says Katherine.  ‘Elevated stress hormones, such as cortisol, not only make time drag but impact our mental and physical health.

‘Brain fog is real and isolation increases the chance of many major diseases.’

Her suggestion for moving forward is that we need a mental shift – and a realistic one – in how we approach uncertainty, changing it from something to ‘run from’ or be afraid of, to something that we see as new opportunities and possibilities.

She says: ‘Once we grasp that we will (hopefully) catapult ourself forward into a new world (with a more normal perception of time again). There is currently a pause button in our head which comes from extended anxiety, confusion and anticipation.’

‘I think that we’ve compartmentalised the lockdown,’ adds Danielle. ‘For many there was an unspoken trauma, and the survival mode that we were in reduced our ability to remember as clearly – resulting in a brain fog.

‘Trauma, stress, anxiety and a lack of sleep can all have an impact on our memory formation and recall functions in the brain.’

All in all, it’s fair to say that the last 21 months (not 18) have taken their toll on us, mentally and physically – and our attempt to compartmentalise has had a huge affect on our perception of reality.

And the long-term effect of this isn’t yet known.

How to be more aware of time passing

In general, we’ve been spending far too much time thinking about the future – wondering when the pandemic will be over, when we’ll be able to go on holiday, when will we be able to stop wearing masks, etc.

We’re also guilty of (understandably) reflecting on our past lives and, while this is understandable, it has meant we are not spending enough of our energy focusing on where we are now.

Attempting to feel more present and more in control of of time passing may go some way to help with our day-to-day lives – and, therefore, the bigger picture of our existence.

As this is related to our emotions, there are several practical things that we can do.

How to feel more in control of time passing – according to Katherine Templar Lewis, lead scientist at UncertaintyExperts.com:

Create a new routine: If you are working from home, this can even be changing your clothes at the end of the day.

Get into a sleep routine: This can help us boost our mood and get a better grip on our daily schedule and time perception. 

Mindfulness and meditation: This has been seen to change the structures in the brain to increase emotional resilience which will also lower activity. 

Create more meaningful moments: Celebrate events, be kind to yourself. Any way to do something different – now really is a time to take up a new skill.

Socialise as much as possible (or is safe to): Even if it is digital on zoom or a phone call, socialising makes us happier and actively healthier, and can counteract the time drag. 

Get out into nature: This is a known way to clear brain fog and restore attention, helping to bring colour to your routine.

Try to reframe this time of uncertainty: Research has shown that by reframing your relationship with uncertainty, looking for the positives and opportunity rather than the negatives, we start to become excited rather than anxious faced with possibility.

This reduces the stress in our body and mind and helps us get back into the flow of time again.

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