Why 2020 Is Warping Your Perception of Time
The science and psychology behind why time feels "off" for so many.
Posted Oct 26, 2020
Have you noticed that since March, our conversations no longer begin with the weather but rather how weird time feels? Every day can feel like Groundhog Day, as tedious as the one that preceded it. Or, perhaps it feels that life is spinning so fast. Maybe you’re finding the moments ticking by all too slowly as you await the upcoming presidential election. You know it’s now the fall and that seasons have passed, but do you really feel it?
Our sense of time is off. It may seem dissolved even though the structure of minutes-hours-days has remained the same. Suspended as it moves, why does the present seem isolated from the continuity of time? The reasons go beyond the changes to our daily routines and structures that COVID-19 has wrought.
The invisible threat of COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election are a one-two punch to our felt sense of security. We no longer have our illusory assumptions that the future is knowable and predictable. Who will get sick? What will happen to our democracy? Will there be a peaceful transition of power? Researchers have found that without illusions of a knowable future, we tend to live more in the present moment. And our present moment—the very thing that is filling the gap of the unknown future—is riddled with stress.
Altered time perception has been termed "temporal disintegration" or "temporal discontinuity," and has been shown to be related to mood state. People who are depressed are temporally desynchronized and often experience life at half its standard speed. A felt sense of slowed time is also experienced in everyday life; when we feel bored, time feels slow as molasses. The opposite is also true, as when we are in a creative flow, time seems to fly.
Have you ever been really frightened, and it felt like time stretched on and on, when in fact it was just a couple of minutes? This is because when exposed to threatening stimuli, people increase their time estimates. Daily, we are bombarded by news of rising COVID-19 deaths while at the same time subjected to unrelenting political advertisements alerting us to the disasters that may lie ahead if the other candidate wins. Is it any wonder then that time seems to move so slowly?
There is a downward spiral during stressful waiting periods. Distress makes time seem to slow down, which in turn exacerbates distress. It is a spiral of distress and time perception, making us feel ever the more like we are living in a time warp.
Time is a unique sense, and this may contribute to time distortion’s powerful effect. Unlike hearing, seeing, or tasting, the sense of time is not mediated by a specific sense organ but rather is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way. It has been shown to be encoded in body signals governed by the insula, a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain. Time sense fully embraces us because it lives throughout our brain.
Unconscious psychological defenses, too, can contribute to our altered sense of time. In a state of overwhelm, the psychological defense of dissociation often unconsciously kicks in. Dissociation is a feeling of being here and not being here simultaneously. This unreal feeling of time is analogous to an electrical system that gets overheated when overloaded. In a functioning system, the overheating trips the circuit breaker before it gets too hot. Dissociation helps us in times of powerful stress—overload—to remain as functional as possible.
Given that we are living a collective trauma, is it any wonder so many of us are experiencing temporal discontinuity? As noted previously, when the future is unknown and the stakes so very high, we tend to abandon a sense of the future and live more in the present. And this present moment? This is a moment infused with the stress of COVID-19 and the election of a lifetime. It is no wonder, then, that many of us feel as if we’re living in a time warp. We check out because it’s too overwhelming to check in.
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Holman, E.A., Grisham, E.L. (2020). When time falls apart: The public health implications of distorted time perception in the age of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 12 (51), 563-565.
Rankin, K., Sweeny, K., Xu. S. (2019). Associations between subjective time perception and well-being during stressful waiting periods. Stress and Health 35 (4).
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