This Is Why You Have No Idea What Day It Is Anymore
It's not just you: Time moves differently during the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the oddest and most universal aspects of life during the coronavirus pandemic is that you might feel like you've been social distancing forever—or that you just started yesterday. If it seems that time has lost all meaning, to the extent that you're often not even sure what day it is anymore, you're not the only one. In fact, our changing feelings about time over the past few months have been well documented and studied by experts trying to make sense of our collective confusion. As it turns out, it's not just your imagination: Time moves differently during the pandemic.
OK, that's not entirely accurate, but our perception of time certainly changes during periods of massive anxiety and upheaval. In some cases, it might feel like the days are flying by, and at other times, it might seem like every hour is dragging. Often, paradoxically, we experience both feelings at the same time. This can be disorienting, but it's actually very common. One big reason for this confusion: A negative state makes time seem to pass more slowly, while a positive state makes time seem to pass more quickly.
"If you felt like time slowed down during the early days of the pandemic, you weren't alone," Philip Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, writes for The Conversation. That's because we were in an "avoidance situation," where we were "trying to avoid a range of potentially harmful situations." When the "avoidance motivation" is triggered, Gable explains, our internal clocks slow down. "If time seems like it's dragging when you're frightened or disgusted, you'll act more quickly to get yourself out of harm's way," he writes.
On the other hand, when you start to feel more calm and relaxed, time appears to move more quickly. That's why, for many people, the second month of quarantine felt like it whizzed by, especially in relation to the first.
Along with a research team at the University of Alabama, Gable surveyed people's emotional responses to the coronavirus pandemic. "Whether time slowed or sped up was most closely related to people's emotions," he writes in The Conversation. "Those who reported that they were most nervous or stressed also indicated that time passed more slowly, while those who felt happy or glad tended to experience time passing more quickly."
There are other factors at play that make time extra confusing. As Adrian Bardon, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University and the author of the book A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, explains in an interview with Vox, being relaxed and having a routine means you are in "flow." Our pandemic lives have broken us out of that, and forced negative thoughts, which distorts our perception of time. "This state of rumination is closely associated with subjective reports of time slowing down and dragging by," he says.
But simultaneously, doing fewer things can also make you feel like time is moving faster. "We feel that time is dragging, but it's also flying by. That comes out of the same situation. We're out of our routine," he notes. "We're treading water or trying to deal with situations we don't want to deal with. And then in our retrospective judgment of the passage of time, it seems like things went by really quickly because we didn't really accomplish anything."
And when time is alternately speeding up and slowing down—not to mention the fact that so many of our lives are still on hold—the days start to lose distinction. If you can't seem to get a handle on what day it is, or how long you've been wearing a face mask, or even when you last saw your friends in person, try to go easy on yourself. Consult a calendar, and keep in mind that the more things settle into normalcy, the less wonky your internal clock will be. And for ways to keep calm, learn 5 Ways to Manage Stress From "Pandemic Panic" According to a Doctor.