Why Our Sense of Time Is Distorted During the Pandemic

An interview with Dr. E. Alison Holman on distorted time perception in COVID-19.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

Alison Holman, used with permission
Source: Alison Holman, used with permission

If the hours, days, and months in 2020 have all become a blur to you, you are not alone. Dr. E. Alison Holman discusses the implications of distorted time perception for our collective health.  

Dr. E. Alison Holman, Ph.D., FNP is a Professor of Nursing at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing and Department of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her research incorporates multiple methodologies including national surveys, clinical studies, and laboratory studies to identify early predictors (genetic susceptibility, acute stress, media exposure) of long-term trauma-related mental and physical health ailments. Her team started a prospective longitudinal study addressing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic among a national sample of Americans in March 2020.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally describe time perception amidst COVID-19?

Alison Holman: The Coronavirus pandemic has become an unfolding, chronic, collective trauma that has ushered in an era of profound uncertainty and fear about the future. As an ambiguous, invisible threat, it has laid bare our illusory assumptions that the future is knowable, controllable, and guaranteed, and replaced them with a future that feels unsafe and uncertain, a combination sure to trigger stress and anxiety. Add to that the compounding traumas of an economic crisis, systemic anti-black racism, and climate-related disasters, and you have a perfect storm for people feeling like they are living in a time warp—like the flow of time itself is distorted.

Altered perceptions of time and its passing are common experiences of people facing trauma, as trauma can peel away the façade of the future, and interrupt the flow of time. This creates perceptual distortions such as feeling like time has stopped or that everything is in slow motion, experiencing a sense of timelessness, confusing the order of time and days, and perceiving a foreshortened future. My research suggests that these changes in perceptions of time and our views of the future may have significant implications for our health and well-being.

JA: What are some ways understanding time perception can help us live more resiliently?

AH: Time is the window through which we see our lives unfold, build our identities, define future ambitions, and maintain our sense of morale. It helps people to feel as though they have some control over their future—that they can help shape their futures, that it isn’t gone. Similarly, being anchored in a past that provides a meaningful sense of identity is also important for mental health and well-being. In essence, maintaining a balanced time perspective that incorporates awareness of the past, present, and future is important for promoting mental health. Learning how to draw strength from the past, live consciously in the present, and believe in your ability to shape your future can help people experience resilience in the face of challenges.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience during this pandemic?

AH: Cultivating resilience is a social process, not just an individual one. When there is so much ambiguity, it is important to help people find something they can control, they can do to shape their futures—even if that future is one to two days away. Helping people identify and draw upon their coping strengths (from past experiences) and use them to achieve even a small baby step toward a future goal can help build strength and resilience among family and friends, and in neighborhoods. Acknowledging and rewarding the accomplishment of these small baby steps can boost confidence in one’s ability to accomplish their goals.

But this takes community—caring for and about each other, feeling a strong sense of social responsibility is critical for building resilience in individuals, families, communities, etc. as we all cope with the pandemic and the cascade of collective traumas we are now facing. At the societal level, it is incumbent upon all of us to support public policies that foster resilience by providing communities with the resources needed to cope with the pandemic. This means identifying the hardest-hit communities and prioritizing allocation of resources to those communities.

JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

AH: We know from my work on time perspective when coping with trauma that people’s social networks can play an important role in helping people retain a positive sense of the future. Supportive social relationships help people feel connected to the future, whereas conflictual or emotionally constraining social interactions (e.g., where a person gets the feeling that their social ties don’t want to hear about their experience) can similarly constrain a person’s sense of the future. Conflictual or constrained social interactions can also leave individuals focused on a painful past experience as that difficult life situation moves into the past over time. 

Being an active, non-judgmental listener when people want to talk, offering support, and not making assumptions about what they should or should not be experiencing may facilitate healing as it would allow the individual to retain a sense of connectedness to the continuity of his/her life.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

AH: We are currently in the field collecting Wave 2 data for our COVID-19 study and I will examine in detail the experiences of time and time perception and their links to mental and physical health, well-being, health behaviors, etc. in this study.

We are also looking at people’s sense of the future, how it has shifted (or not) over time since the pandemic began, and the implications of those shifts (or not) on well-being.

References

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 (S1), S63-S65. https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2020-40854-001.pdf

Holman, E. A., Thompson, R. R., Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C. (2020). The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic: A probability-based, nationally representative study of mental health in the U.S. Science Advances, eabd5390 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd5390. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/09/18/sciadv.abd5390.full