Why 2020 Is Warping Your Perception of Time

Source: Andrey Grushnikov

Have you been wondering why time sometimes drags and sometimes flies by during COVID? Cindy Baum-Baicker, a clinical psychologist based out of Philadelphia, explains why this is in her piece that was originally published in Psychology Today:

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.article continues after advertisement

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.

References

Dawson, J. and Sleek, S. (2018) The fluidity of time: Scientists uncover how emotions alter time perception. Association for Psychological Science September 28, 2018.

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).

Guest Blogger: Five Things I Do Every Day to Defuse and Prevent Toddler Tantrums

From time to time we’ll have a parent chime in as a guest blogger. Below are thoughts from Liz Hartman, the mom of a 2-year-old boy (plus another on the way!). She lives in upstate New York and does consulting for small businesses and community outreach work.

Five Things I Do Every Day to Defuse and Prevent Toddler Tantrums

As an active stay-at-home parent of a 2 year old, I spend a lot of time around children.  People I know often wistfully acknowledge how mellow and even-tempered my son is.  He rarely tantrums and, when he does, the tantrums are typically over in less than a minute.  My friends are right, I am extremely lucky to have a son who inherited his father’s even temperament.  However, I also give credit to the following strategies and habits I’ve adopted over time.  I really believe they work because when I stray from them, my toddler’s Zen-like attitude can fly right out the window!

1.  Always carry plenty of snacks. When children are hungry, it’s much more difficult to cope with life’s little frustrations.  I always make sure to have plenty of healthy snacks when I leave home.  Often, when my son is having trouble keeping it together, I’ll realize it’s been a while since he last ate. Offering a little snack is usually just what he needs to get back on track.

2.  Respect naptime. We’ve all seen children start to fall apart when they get overtired. Although the occasional late bedtime or missed nap is unavoidable, I find that life is much easier when I stick to a regular sleep schedule and plan errands and outings around naptime.

3.  Acknowledge feelings and avoid distraction. I remember the times well when my son was a little baby and it was so easy to handle distress by distracting him.  After he turned about a year old though, those formerly fail safe methods often frustrated him even more!  Now when he’s upset because he can’t have what he wants, I do the opposite. I acknowledge his feelings by naming them and talking to him about them. If he wants to keep playing instead of napping, I’ll tell him I agree it would be great if he could play all day and never stop.  I tell him I hear that he doesn’t want to stop what he’s doing.  Often, just feeling like he’s been heard is all he needs to cope with something upsetting or frustrating.

4.  Give limited choices. I try to remember that from when my son wakes up until he goes to sleep, so much of his life is out of his control.  Whenever possible, I give him a choice between two things – does he want to wear the red shirt or blue?  Eat his banana whole or cut into pieces?  Have his diaper changed now or when he’s done playing with his cars?  In the same vein, I’ve taken great care to move breakables and other hazards out of reach so that I don’t have to tell my son “no” frequently throughout the day.

5. Be predictable and proactive. Keeping to a somewhat regular schedule helps my son know what to expect.  For us, that typically means getting dressed, breakfast, some kind of outing in the morning and snack, lunch, naptime, an afternoon outing or playtime, dinner, time with Daddy and then bedtime.  I tell him in advance about things we’re going to do and am especially careful to warn him ahead of time when we have a transition coming up.  If I notice he’s struggling at any point in his daily routine, I’ll take a few minutes to connect over a story or sing a song together to help him get back on track.  This proactive approach helps to defuse any potentially bigger struggles before they take hold.

No matter what, all children will have their good and bad moments.  But, I’ve found the good vastly outnumber the bad when I stick to these tried and true tips!