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The pandemic ruined time

The endless march through an endless March

I’m told that March lasted 31 days this year, just like it did last year. Each of those days supposedly had 24 hours, like every other day this year, and those hours each held the same number of minutes. The seconds allegedly ticked by, methodically, one by one.

The calendar for 2020 is made up of uniform blocks, but that’s not what my mental map of the year looks like. In my head, the year looks like the calendar version of a homunculus — a distorted version of the human body, where each part is sized based on how much of the brain is devoted to controlling it. The hands on a homunculus are enormous, and the elbow is disproportionately miniature. In my mental map of the year, the summer is compressed and small; the week of the election balloons off the page; and March swells to crowd out February, April, and May.

March is when the full weight of the COVID-19 pandemic first settled on the United States. Watching the virus take hold was sudden and scary, and watching the world snap shut was disorienting. March set the tone for a year characterized by uncertainty, confusion, stress, and anxiety — all of which mess with the way we experience the passage of time.

“It’s very common for people in the midst of a traumatic experience to report that they feel like time is slowing down or stopping,” says Alison Holman, who studies trauma and time perception at the University of California, Irvine. “All of a sudden, everything is just at a snail’s pace.”

Many people who are in accidents like car crashes say that the incident felt longer than it actually was. First-time skydivers who report high levels of fear before their jump say that they feel like they’re falling for longer than divers who are less scared. Those anecdotes are backed up by more objective experiments: researchers show that when people see pictures in the lab for the same amount of time, they still think that they’re looking at scary images (like of snakes) for longer than they’re looking at neutral images. People given a mild shock between two clicks of a stopwatch think the stretch of time covered is longer than people who don’t get the shock.

“Emotions distort perceptions of time,” says Kyla Rankin, who studies uncertainty and well-being in the University of California, Riverside department of psychology. A network of regions in the brain govern how we feel the seconds tick by, and researchers are starting to understand how the circuits involved in feelings like surprise, fear, or stress interact with them. While the mechanics are still under investigation, the subjective experience is more well known.

Rankin, for instance, tracks disturbances in how people perceive time over longer stretches than are covered in lab experiments — months, rather than minutes — by following college students waiting for exam results or lawyers waiting to find out if they passed the bar exam.

“That’s four months,” Rankin says. “We took more of a subjective approach to ask about the amount of time — do you feel like it’s going to be forever? Or do you feel like you’re going to get your results before you know it?” People who were more worried about their bar exam results felt like time was passing more slowly, she found. The two spiral together: people who are worried feel like time is moving more slowly, and the more slowly time seems to be passing, the worse they say they’re coping.

For that reason, Rankin says people who had more pandemic-related distress might have experienced more time distortion this year. People working on the front lines of the pandemic in hospitals, or who lost friends or family to COVID-19, might have a more unstable sense of time than people who were able to work from home and didn’t lose loved ones. “Time perception is affected by stress, and stress affects time perception,” she says.

Stress has also robbed us of another anchor that grounds us in time: a conception of the future. When jobs are unstable, school schedules are up in the air, and rules regularly shift, it’s hard to envision what might happen next.

A sense of the future is central to our ability to get up in the morning and confidently go about the day, Holman says. “What we’re doing today, what we’re doing tonight, what we’re doing tomorrow, we have a sense of that — and those things motivate us and keep us going,” she says. “When you mess with a person’s sense of time, and just chop off a future, you’ve disrupted the whole balance.”

When people experience this ‘temporal disintegration’ in response to a traumatic event, they run the risk of getting mentally stuck on that point in time. “Time isn’t moving forward for them in the same way it normally does,” she says. “That ends up making them more distressed, because they stay focused on this negative event.”

This year is unlike any other traumatic event, she says — it’s a chronic stressor, extended over a long period of time and punctuated by moments of intensity. “People may be going through their lockdown, or whatever they’re going through, and then someone in their family gets sick, or gets hospitalized, or dies. And that’s an acute stress,” she says. That may distort time in unique ways, and Holman is conducting research to try to understand how.

The constant, unrelenting stress meant that for some people, the disintegrated state of time could have lingered through the year. “I would expect that the distorted perceptions of time would likely persist as the chronic stressors persist, if they’re really serious, like the pandemic,” she says. It could be similar to the way people living with chronic depression tend to feel changes in time perception for as long as they’re having symptoms.

It’s December now, and I’m still feeling unmoored. That won’t last forever — eventually, things should recalibrate, Holman says. Once a stressor ends, people usually regain their footing in time. After a car crash, time can recalibrate within a few hours or days.

That will carry into the future but won’t retroactively modify the memories we have from the year. Mine are few and far between — March is vivid, but the rest feels blurry and punctuated by moments that feel like they might have happened in another lifetime. The strange way time passed this year could give our recollections of it a disorienting glare, as well. “I would guess that for this year, it’ll be hard to remember the details,” Holman says.

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