Healthy Mind

The Psychological Phenomenon That Explains Why You Still Feel Like 2019 Was Last Year

Graphic: W+G Creative
Something has happened to time. It’s always been a bit tricky, flying by “when you’re having fun” and crawling like between 3 and 6 p.m. on workdays (when you’re presumably not having fun). But ever since March of 2020, time has felt more slippery than ever.

Maybe you've inadvertently referred to events that occurred in 2019 as having happened “last year,” and everything that’s happened since as taking place in the same (strange) year. If time feels unusually distorted to you—whether by passing either super fast or achingly slow—you're likely not alone.

While data supporting this phenomenon is limited, a small study conducted in April of 2020 by an experimental psychologist at the Liverpool John Moores University did find that 80 percent of participants felt effects of time distortion during COVID lockdown periods. And in France, two studies also conducted at different points in 2020 found that participants’ experience of time had changed since the pandemic’s onset. Not much additional research has been published since, but that doesn’t mean things have returned to the way they were before the onset of the pandemic.

Of course, time distortion isn’t a universal experience, and whether or not it’s happening to you likely depends upon distinction in your life between pre-pandemic life and the present day, along with whether or not you feel life has returned to “normal” at any point. (In fact, research shows that different populations have experienced time distortion in unique ways.) Still, mental health experts say that if you have experienced or continue to experience time distortion during COVID, it’s for good reason(s):

5 reasons time feels distorted since the onset of COVID-19

1. You entered survival mode

Initially, time distortion may have resulted from experiencing a sense of emergency, and the accompanying knee-jerk adaptation responses. “In survival mode, our perception of time can be distorted, slowing down to give us a chance to cope with the perceived threat,” says psychotherapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Then something ‘normal’ happens, and time rushes by in comparison because you’ve stepped out of survival mode for a while.”

Memory plays a role in this experience, too, she says: In survival mode, memories are processed by a different part of the brain than they are in normal times, and by different processes. “The memories don’t link up as smoothly and may not feel like they’re happening in the same reality,” she says.

2. You’re unusually stressed out

Ongoing and elevated stress associated with living through the pandemic likely hasn’t helped the distorted sense of time, either. “There hasn’t been a lot of research on COVID stress and time perception but in general, we know that stress does affect those things,” says Dr. Daramus.

3. Time-markers beyond clocks have gone missing

The concept of time as we’ve known it our entire lives is relatively new, says Dr. Daramus. She points out that clocks and watches are novel technology in the context of human history, and other time-tracking means were actually used for most of our species’ time on Earth, such as sunrise, moon phases, hunger pangs, and tasks that can only be done in a specific season.

"It can be disorienting when clock time and events aren’t syncing up because the events in our lives aren’t happening. That disorientation can show up as time distortion.” —Aimee Daramus, PsyD, psychotherapist

Today, most modern humans measure time in two different ways: We still utilize subjective measures, such as the passing of events, but we’ve added the use of objective measures, such as clocks, as well. “Both have advantages, but it can be disorienting when clock time and events aren’t syncing up because the events in our lives aren’t happening,” Dr. Daramus says. “That disorientation can show up as time distortion.”

So while one form of time is marching on as always—the sun rises and sets as it always did, and seasons continue to change—other ways we’ve become accustomed to marking time have not necessarily remained the same. Many celebrations and events were canceled in the first year of the pandemic, and some remain on hold even now, for instance.

“As humans, we tend to mark the passage of time by holidays and celebratory events such as graduations, birthdays, and Thanksgiving. Yet, given the isolating nature of the pandemic, many of these cherished events have been muted or skipped altogether,” says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD. “As a result, many of the traditional mental markers that give our days and months meaning have not really registered on a significant level.”

4. Lack of novelty

Some experts say that the experience of time is impacted by the amount of novelty experienced, and for at least some parts of the pandemic, newness was extremely limited. In 2020, many of us narrowed our lives down to extremely predictable interactions and experiences in order to avoid getting sick. Some of us continue to limit novel experiences to this day for the same reason and without them, time can feel distorted.

5. The purgatory effect

Another potential cause of time distortion is what Dr. Manly calls “the purgatory effect.” Some of us were waiting, and even continue to wait, for life to return to normal. “This chronic waiting mentality is much like being stuck in a hospital waiting room, where time seems to stand still,” she says. “Although life is really continuing to happen all around us, it’s the perception of stuckness and stagnancy that makes us feel fixed in time.”

Time distortion can affect your mental health—here’s what can help

Unfortunately, time distortion catalyzed by COVID can have mental-health consequences. “For example, when time feels as if it’s moving too slowly, we can feel stuck, depressed, and anxious,” says Dr. Manly. “On the other hand, if time is perceived as flying by too quickly, we can feel depressed and anxious due to the perception that we are missing out on life itself. When time distortion occurs too often, we can actually feel as if we are out of touch with our very selves and the experience of our own lives; this can lead to feelings of alienation, confusion, and even grief.”

While you can’t simply snap yourself out of this—and for many of us normalcy as we knew it in 2019 may never return—both experts say there are practices you can adopt which may help the associated discomfort.

“When we intentionally slow down to experience life, we are naturally more attuned to the moment as well as the passage of time." —Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

The first is mindfulness. “When we intentionally slow down to experience life—our feelings, personal exchanges, and daily rituals—we are naturally more attuned to the moment as well as the passage of time,” says Dr. Manly. “For example, if I take a morning walk but tune out as I doom-scroll, the experience itself will melt away as if it didn’t occur. However, if I take that same walk with mindful attention to my surroundings, connecting with those I pass, and enjoying the movement of my physical body, the experience will be registered in my brain and psyche.” Distraction-free walks are one idea, but there are a number of concrete ways to practice mindfulness, and some only take five minutes.

In addition to adopting such practices, Dr. Manly recommends trying two specific exercises that can help to combat time distortion. The first is to have a notebook handy. “Start keeping a short journal of events to see if it helps the passing of time feel more real,” she says. You can use visuals to help mark the passage of time, too. She recommends framing photos of events, creating a scrapbook or dated photo album, or even making a vision board that is marked with dates.

It can also be helpful to start restoring lost rituals if you haven’t yet done so, says Dr. Daramus. For example, if you shifted your wedding plans to be lower-key in compliance with pandemic safety concerns, consider having a bigger wedding when you feel it’s safe to do so. If you used to commute to work but now exclusively work from home, try bookending your days with walks instead. “Try to get your subjective perception of time to sync up with clock time by creating events that link the two different time streams,” she says.

It’s also important to practice stress management. “In addition to its other benefits, it will help reduce stress-related changes to time and memory,” says Dr. Daramus. Those aforementioned mindfulness exercises can help here, too, as can lifestyle choices like eating chocolate, exercising, and even having sex.

The good news about all of this is that humans are extremely adaptable. Even though the 2019 definition of normal may never return, we will eventually adjust to the way life looks now. This means that time should, eventually, start to make sense to us again, even if that means we evolve new ways of marking it, as well as novel coping mechanisms to deal with other things, like stress, which affects our experience of it. The knowledge that we do have some control over how we experience time should be at least somewhat empowering, too. It will, as they say, “march on” regardless, but how fast or how slow it does so is, at least to some degree, up to you.

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