Mental Health

No, it’s not (just) your imagination: why the stress of the pandemic appears to slow down time

Posted by
Anna Brech
Published
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites
Woman looks at clock in bed as she fights insomnia

A striking new essay reveals why the pandemic appears to have slowed down time for many people, with the stress and uncertainty of coronavirus sparking “speed bumps” in our memories

For many people, time has entered a strange kind of vortex over the past 20 months. There was that surreal period midway through the first lockdown when we struggled to remember what day of the week it was – let alone when our next meal was (please, no more banana bread) – or how long we had to stay looking rapt for on yet another Zoom call

Even now, as more seasoned pandemic wearers, it’s hard to look back on 2021 with any real sense of clarity. Days have rolled into weeks and months, interrupted only by the occasional marker of “freedom day” (19 July), a snatched holiday, or those rare and cherished catch-ups with loved ones

You may also like

Brain fog: how to cope when your mind feels like it’s moving in slow motion

Partly, this muddied distortion of time is down to brain fog, and the fact that it’s a struggle to think clearly and process information as we normally would amid the immense, ongoing stress of Covid. 

Yet it’s also due to new and unfamiliar changes that have the effect of filling up our memories more densely, thereby leading to a perception of time that slows or drags. 

In a new article for Psychology Today, Professor Berit Brogaard, the director of the Brogaard Lab for multisensory research at the University of Miami, explains how the “arousal-inducing events” of the pandemic have resulted in more “temporal markers” in our memories. 

alarm clock by a bed
The stress of the pandemic has slowed down the perception of time for many people.

Professor Brogaard uses the example of a holiday to explain how this process works. In the first few days of an escape somewhere new, she writes, “a break in our routine has an arousal effect on us” meaning that “we tend to form memories whose content is more densely populated by temporal markers”. These extra temporal markers mean that the first part of a getaway generally seems to last longer than it actually did. 

However “once we become familiar with a location and form a new kind of routine, the events we experience are less arousing and therefore less likely to lay down as many temporal markers”. So, time appears to speed up again when you’ve adapted to your new surroundings, or are more used to events that happen in any given day. 

You may also like

Christmas burnout: Here’s how to tackle festive anxiety if you’re feeling overwhelmed

Of course, the pandemic has been anything but a holiday for most of us. But the research that Professor Brogaard highlights shows that time is similarly distorted whether we are experiencing a great adventure or something new and uniquely stressful in nature. 

“Temporal markers slow down how fast your brain replays the narrative content of your memories,” she explains in the Psychology Today essay. “These markers thus serve as speed bumps on our ride down memory lane. Accordingly, we often remember time as having passed more slowly when looking back on particularly stressful, joyful, disruptive, or adventurous periods in our lives.”

From redundancies to bereavement or sudden lifestyle changes, it’s not hard to see how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our daily lives and routines. The endless string of new announcements alone has caused widespread fatigue, with each fresh pivot or uncertainty laying down a “speed bump” in our memories. 

Female furniture designer drawing at a desk in a workshop
Could "flow" activities help to ease the impact of uncertain events?

Little wonder, then, that – as our minds feel more cluttered with changes – time also feels slower and hazier. 

The good news is, time is not just a two-way street split between either the hours flying by, or dragging into eternity. You could also access a type of consciousness that happiness researcher and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as “flow”

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. 

When you get into a state of flow, whether you’re playing the piano or learning how to kickbox, you lose all track of time. It’s a break not only from pandemic anxiety but time itself. Amid time slowing and stuttering throughout these long winter months, flow – in other words – is a glorious escape.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty

Topics

Share this article

Author

Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.