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Here’s why quarantine screws up your perception of time

If time feels weird to you right now, you’re not alone.

On social media platforms all over the web, feeds and timelines are filled with people talking about how their perception of time seems to have altered during COVID-19 lockdown and quarantine. But why is this? What’s causing this strange, shared psychological experience? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The first thing to note is that, no, it’s not just you. The current lockdown scenarios playing out around the world are affecting people in all sorts of different ways, and, while the physical health risks of coronavirus are rightfully promoted, the mental health ramifications of what we’re collectively going through can’t be understated.

Learning like children

Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

One reason that time may seemingly be going slower for you is that, in the past month or so, large numbers of people have suddenly had the routine of their lives shattered. Structure and routine speed up our perception of the march of time. Both of those have suddenly suffered a brutal disruption.

Many people are working from home for the first time. Alternatively, large numbers have been furloughed or, in the case of 16 million Americans so far, laid off entirely. Even if you’re still doing your old job from the same place you always have, your day-to-day lived experiences have almost certainly changed in a big way.

There’s also the fact that our days, while superficially emptier, are freshly packed with new information and experiences. Becoming amateur epidemiologists and virologists by following the 24/7 news cycle and trying to decipher government briefings and medical journal articles takes a lot of learning, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. So does figuring out how to calm worried aging parents or to help our kids make sense of a scary situation we aren’t able to make sense of ourselves.

There is some evidence to suggest that absorbing new experiences can affect the way we perceive time. Remember those summers growing up that felt like they lasted forever? That might be a far sunnier, more optimistic, version of what we’re going through right now, but the effects are the same. Children and adolescents are experiencing everything for the first time. Perceptions are heightened as they soak up every detail of life. Time seems to stretch on for longer as a result.

It’s not just kids who feel these effects. An experiment carried out in the 1960s by psychologist Robert Ornstein involved playing tapes to participants containing a variety of different everyday sounds. Participants who listened to tapes with double the number of noises in the same timeframe estimated more time had elapsed than those who listened to tapes with fewer sounds. Similar effects were observed when participants were asked to view drawings of different complexities. The people who observed the more complex images estimated that they had spent longer doing so than people asked to observe simple images.

You might not have to think about your commute or what time to leave the office to beat the traffic, but your mind is busier than ever.

Time drags when you’re not having fun

Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

Anxiety can also explain some of what’s happening with our time perception. You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying “time flies when you’re having fun.” The opposite appears to be true as well. A 2015 paper in the Journal of Affective Disorders, titled “Time perception in depression: A meta-analysis,” looked at subjective time perception on the part of people suffering from depression. The results suggested that some people with depression perceive time moving more slowly than non-depressed individuals. For all the talk of impending economic depression, many people are already feeling an emotional depression.

“Our research focuses on time perception and the relevant factors influencing it,” Sven Thönes, assistant professor in psychology at Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz in Germany, told Digital Trends. “Based on anecdotal as well as on experimental evidence, we know that, subjectively, the passage of time slows down in a negative mood and when feeling bored. We, therefore, assume that a significant slowing of the speed of time passage should be experienced during the COVID-19-related lockdown.”

Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel, Thönes’ colleague on the 2015 paper, said that studies on time perception indicate that negative mood is likely to decrease the perceived speed of time passage during a crisis.

“This is attributed to the fact that, in [a] negative mood, one’s attention is directed to oneself rather than to others or to external events,” Oberfeld-Twistel told Digital Trends. “In contrast, the large number of new and important events like rapidly increasing numbers of infected people, people dying, the lockdown, losing one’s job, [and more] could be the reason for why for many of us normal life before the crisis feels like a long time ago. Cognitive theories on retrospective time perception, such as the contextual-change model, posit that the number of events encountered during a given time span affects the perceived duration of the time span. If much happens during this time span, we perceive its duration to be longer compared to when only few important and challenging events occur.”

Aided by fellow researchers Marlene Wessels and Robin Welsch, the investigators are currently carrying out work on this subject directly related to the COVID-19 crisis and its effects on the perception of time. They believe that effects such as the ones mentioned will become stronger the longer the pandemic persists. “So far, our data support this hypothesis, although the study is still in progress,” Wessels said.

Can’t sleep, COVID-19 will get me

Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

One other significant factor when it comes to our current perception of time relates to sleep — or lack thereof. While our days might suddenly feel longer, it’s actually the nights that could be largely to blame for this. That’s because regular sleep patterns get disturbed during periods of crisis.

“We live in a time of threat,” Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford and chief medical officer of Big Health, told Digital Trends. “The way the brain responds to threat is to place us on alert. We become more hyper-aroused, attentive to information, and focused on trying to find solutions. That’s not just human behavior; that’s animal instinct. [As a result], it is harder to sleep, harder to ‘down-regulate,’ to switch off not just mentally and emotionally, but also physiologically. Even during our sleep, we might be more likely to awaken easily, and can experience this as a lighter form of sleep.”

Espie likens it to a world full of people behaving like parents with a new baby at home. Although they might sleep, they are constantly focused on listening out for alerts. He said that people are reporting difficulty in falling asleep, tossing and turning with minds racing. When they do wake up, they have trouble getting back to sleep. This, understandably, has an impact on our days.

“People are waking up poorly rested and in a poorer frame of mind,” he said. “This is because sleep is hugely important for the regulation of our emotion, so when people are sleeping poorly there is an increased risk of becoming depressed, anxious, and unproductive.”

Restoring normal time

Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends

Reversing these effects isn’t easy. So much of what makes the current coronavirus pandemic scary is that it is out of our control. There are a few things that you can do to boost your positive mental health, however. Moderating the amount of news media that you expose yourself to is a healthy step. While it’s crucial to stay informed, spending hour after hour freaking yourself out while staring at screens does no one any favors.

Although social contact, exercise, and outdoor activities are currently limited, ensuring that you incorporate an allowable version of these into your daily life is important. On the sleep front, trying to stick to routines such as when you go to bed and when you get up can also be a positive factor. Addressing hyper-arousal by learning relaxation methods like mindful breathing is another step that can help.

Put all of these into place and try to maintain a positive outlook. There is plenty of reason to be worried about the direct and secondary impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But this, too, will pass. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before some semblance of life as we knew it before can begin to return. And regular time perception right along with it.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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