It is normal to lose track of time or need to consult a calendar to know what day it is once in a while. During the Coronavirus pandemic, however, it may seem like almost every day is one of those days. This reaction is completely normal as it is ingrained in human psychology.
Increased Stress Levels
The idea that “time flies when you’re having fun” is not just an expression. The brain is wired to feel the passage of time more quickly when people feel happy and more slowly when they are unhappy or stressed. This is the most common pattern in people’s sense of the passage of time, although there are exceptions in which stress makes time seem to move more quickly. The pandemic is not one of these exceptions for most people.
Pleasurable activities require a lot less work from a psychological standpoint. They encourage the nervous system to relax instead of being hyper aware of their surroundings. Most of the time, pleasurable activities seem to end too quickly.
During periods of stress, however, the brain kicks into survival mode. People’s senses become sharper, leading to an increased awareness of what is going on around them. Since there is so much incoming information at a fast rate, the brain must process it more slowly. This process makes each second feel longer, which makes the days drag on and can lead people to become tired earlier in the day. The pandemic comes with stressors such as worrying about health, financial difficulties and complete lifestyle overhauls, so it is natural that time seems to move a little slower under the stay-at-home orders.
Loss of Routine
In normal times, even if every day is not exactly the same, people operate according to a structure that breaks up both the day and the week. Chores, going to and returning from work and time for leisure activities can all create separation in the day, so the body has a sense of what time it is without looking at the exact hour. Special activities on different days such as designated shopping days, standing coffee dates or exercise classes also help people know what day of the week it is without needing a calendar.
COVID-19 has stripped people of their internal rhythms. It is hard to find separation in the day when working from home and leaving the house as infrequently as possible. Especially for those experiencing increased stress levels, this loss of routine can be disorienting. It may be hard to tell 10am from 2pm. At the same time, shelter-in-place orders make it impossible to maintain a weekly routine since exercise classes and social activities are out of the question. Without this variation to punctuate the week, a Wednesday and a Saturday can feel exactly the same.
Those who are unable to work at all may feel the loss of routines even more. In many cases, taking time off work can lead people to abandon regular sleep and eating patterns, eliminating regular checkpoints throughout the day. This system can lead a person to feel lost in a chaotic vortex of time.
Lack of Social Connection
Humans need social contact. Even for introverts, the loss of basic interactions with people such as coworkers or baristas can negatively impact mental health. Social connections can be a way to break up days and weeks. They also make up a large part of the pleasurable activities that “speed up” time to balance out the “slowed down” moments. To make matters worse, isolation can lead to new or increased symptoms of depression, which make days feel even longer. Depression makes it hard to feel pleasure, often comes with a stress response and leads to lethargy. It can also result in a cloudier mind, which may contribute to feelings of disorientation.
The human sense of time developed as cognitive functions evolved to increase planning abilities. People keep track of time in order to know when to do things and what to expect at what time. Whether or not people are fully conscious of this fact, everyone’s lives operate according to a planned-out schedule, even if it is as simple as getting off work at 5 or eating dinner at 6:30.
The pandemic makes it almost impossible to plan. Working from home makes it harder to plan a day structure since breaks and end times are no longer as strict as they might be in an office environment. Some people also might have no desire to plan. While taking advantage of the increased flexibility sounds appealing at first, it ultimately leads to a decreased sense of the passage of time.
On a larger scale, no one knows what will happen in the near future, so planning for events and vacations is unrealistic. Looking forward to these larger events helps people pay attention to time in terms of days, weeks and months. Without the ability to make plans, it is much easier to get disoriented and allow the days and weeks to bleed into one another. The uncertainty also creates additional stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed basic lifestyle structures. People have lost their rhythms, social interactions and ability to plan. It has also created several new stressors in people’s lives. Since humans are creatures of structure, the loss of routine has increased feelings of disorientation. Lower moods such as anxiety and depression can also distort the perception of time to make the days and weeks seem longer.