Pandemics and the Perception of Time

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Source: Anass Bachar/Getty Images

By Amanda Ojeda

Have you ever wondered why for some people the same time span “can fly right by”, but for others, it’s like watching a kettle come to boil? Well, with the COVID-19 pandemic, these differences were highlighted due to the long period of isolation and missed experiences.

Blursday is a term that circulated during the pandemic, to provide some comfort, and in a way self-diagnose, people who essentially felt time slipping through their fingers. Days become weeks, weeks become months, and months become… well, 1 ½ years. As someone who is very nostalgic, “I try to capture every minute, the feeling in it” (if you got the ABBA reference, stop by Newspaper Club on Wednesdays to get a taste of arguably the best club at East). So, imagine my surprise when reflecting on the past two years, and seeing a blip of time usually spent sitting at a desk and trying to understand people through their WiFi issues, in conjunction with my own.

Our time is usually punctuated by daily events, and memories often surround what made those events distinctive. This could be associated with an emotion, the meeting of a new person, or accomplishments. These distinctive events then provide temporal landmarks, forming our very own timeline, essentially of life, within our subconscious. But, these landmarks can disappear, because getting 9 hours of sleep might’ve been memorable for a day, heck, even a week. However, as years go by, that one event probably will be of little importance to me. When these landmarks disappear, days lose their identities, thus time loses its definition.

Two surveys of more than 5,600 people taken during the first six months of the pandemic in the United States showed that roughly two-thirds of respondents reported feeling strangely out of sync. While this strange phenomenon of our perception of time may not be all too impactful for some individuals. Scientists are fearful for the aftereffects of blursday and mental health, specifically on ages 18 to 29 and women, based on the survey responses.

Those who felt time moved slowly may stress over productivity and how much they got done. While individuals who felt like time moved in an instant during the pandemic, are more likely to feel they had a lot of missed experiences and could’ve done so much within that time frame. Thus, this induces a lot of stress solely due to thinking about what could’ve been. 

Alison Holman, a health psychologist at the University of California Irvine, said “People who experienced temporal disintegration … got stuck in that past experience. They couldn’t put together the flow from past to present to future.” 

When a traumatic event feels long in hindsight, people may feel that the trauma is much closer in the rearview mirror than it is in reality. It is also fair to say that this pandemic hasn’t even reached the rearview mirror, and we are only living in a different chapter of the greater event. But, not all hope is lost; the fact that we’ve experienced isolation for about a year means psychologists are actively looking for ways to help treat and transition people out of getting stuck in a singular time perspective. In fact, many schools and workplaces are placing emphasis on mindfulness and mental health. 

Holman added, “Have some sense of tomorrow”, and I would also like to add “have some sense of today”. Live in the moment, and maybe in the future you will make some temporal landmarks to last you years on end.