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Remembering Pandemic Time

What will we recall from this time that seems unending?

Key points

  • The pandemic can distort people's sense of time. Events may be remembered as hazy and undifferentiated.
  • Emerging data indicates that the way people narrate their pandemic experience may influence mental health.
  • Processing the experience in more detail may lead to greater meaning-making over time.

While the pandemic continues to hold our lives at bay, we mourn the loss of social interaction, of freely moving about the world from our favorite local restaurant to our most faraway bucket-list trip. What will we recall of this time that seems unending?

Melissa Fay Greene, an award-winning author, just published an article in The Atlantic speculating about how we may remember the pandemic. I enjoyed multiple engaging conversations with Melissa over the past several months, as she interviewed me and other memory experts, and delved into the personal stories of Alex, an ER doctor who almost died of COVID-19, and his wife, Lynn, who gave birth to their second child during the pandemic.

Alex and Lynn have dramatic pandemic experiences. But what will most of us remember? One of the common laments is the distortion of time, how time seems both endless and unmarked, each day like the one before it, yet also fleeting: How can it possibly be the end of another week? Month? A whole year? As we sit in front of the same computer screen, in the same room, in the same house, day after day, we no longer have the external markers, movement from home to workplace, from our afternoon gardening to an evening at a friend’s house, or a weekend jaunt to visit relatives in another state.

Time is undifferentiated, and thus makes all the events that occur during this time hazy and undifferentiated as well. When the lockdown started, we thought, “OK, a couple of months”, really just a blip in a lifetime, but no one thought it would last this long. What will this mean for how we remember this time of our lives and why does it even matter?

Deeper Processing May Boost Well-Being

I blogged earlier about a study that my colleagues, Jordan Booker (University of Missouri), Andrea Follmer Greenhoot (University of Kansas), Kate McLean (Western Washington University), and Monisha Pasupathi and Cecelia Wainryb (University of Utah, who provided the seed money for this research project) started within weeks of universities closing last spring semester. We were especially concerned about how the pandemic lockdown might affect vulnerable college freshman, just starting out on their independent life journey, suddenly swept back up into family homes and routines, and having to make a difficult transition to complete the semester online.

At that time, we planned to follow the 600+ freshmen participants in our study through their sophomore year, as they returned to their dorms and a normal college experience. We did not expect to be collecting our fourth wave of data on these students this spring as we are still teaching remotely to students located in their homes around the world.

How are these students recalling their experiences? What are they telling us as they narrate what impact the pandemic has had on their lives? Perhaps it is not surprising that, as a group, across all students who participated, we are seeing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and academic distress, and lower levels of well-being, even a year later, as compared to levels in typical pre-pandemic samples. Their stories focus on feelings of loneliness and isolation, lack of motivation and feelings of disorganization. And, of course, there are also many stressors related to the health of friends and family, financial stress and goal disruption: How will they be able to complete their college goals under these conditions?

But their narratives also contain hope. And the way these students narrate matters. I reported in my previous blog post about this study that students who narrated COVID-19 events in more elaborated, detailed ways when we assessed them last spring showed higher levels of depression and anxiety. We thought this might be a sign of rumination.

But these same students are actually coping better now. Those who told more elaborated narratives last spring show less depression and more feelings of autonomy over the summer and into the fall semester. And those who were able to find some aspects of personal growth in their first narratives, talking about positive things that they have learned such as the importance of family relationships, or their ability to be self-motivated, are now showing higher levels of self-efficacy, the idea that they have some control over their lives.

So students who initially processed what was happening in more detail, focusing on their thoughts and emotions, and were able to find some silver lining in the dark cloud overhanging all of us, were able to create more meaning for themselves as time went on. Indeed, many of the students in my own classrooms have commented on the fact that the timelessness of the pandemic allowed the space for deeper reflection on what is important and meaningful in their lives. We will be following these students through next year at least, and hope to discover ways in which we can better help students successfully return to campus and complete their college journey.

All of us will remember the pandemic as a time we endured, mostly as an undifferentiated period of timelessness marked by poignant moments that pierced the tedium. For Melissa Fay Greene’s interviewees, Alex and Lynn, the pandemic will be marked by specific health events, both positive and negative. For college students, the pandemic will be remembered as a time that disrupted their life journey. But for those who are able to process and narrate these experiences in more reflective and elaborated detail, perhaps we can emerge from pandemic life with resilience and self-understanding.

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