Distorted Time Perception During the Pandemic – Neuroscience News

Summary: Many people report their perception of time felt distorted during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, including problems in tracking the day of the week or feeling as though time was passing slower. Researchers say this temporal disintegration was, in part, associated with pandemic-related stressors.

Source: UC Irvine

The passage of time was altered for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from difficulty in keeping track of days of the week to feeling that the hours themselves rushed by or slowed down.

In prior work, these distortions have been associated with persistent negative mental outcomes such as depression and anxiety following trauma, making them an important risk factor to target with early interventions, according to a study by University of California, Irvine researchers.

The study, recently published online in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, documents how pervasive the experience, known as “temporal disintegration” in psychiatric literature, was in the first six months of the pandemic.

The team also found that pandemic-related secondary stresses such as daily COVID-19-related media exposure, school closures, lockdowns and financial difficulties were predictors of distortions in perceived time.

“Continuity between past experiences, present life and future hopes is critical to one’s well-being, and disruption of that synergy presents mental health challenges,” said corresponding author E. Alison Holman, UCI professor of nursing.

This shows a head made of clocksThe team also found that pandemic-related secondary stresses such as daily COVID-19-related media exposure, school closures, lockdowns and financial difficulties were predictors of distortions in perceived time. Image is in the public domain

“We were able to measure this in a nationally representative sample of Americans as they were experiencing a protracted collective trauma, which has never been done before. This study is the first to document the prevalence and early predictors of these time distortions.

“There are relatively new therapies that can be used to help people regain a more balanced sense of time, but if we don’t know who is in need of those services, we can’t provide that support.”

Researchers assessed results of responses regarding distorted time perceptions and other pandemic related experiences from a probability-based national sample of 5,661 participants from the National Opinion Online Research Center AmericaSpeak panel. Surveys were conducted during March 18-April 18, 2020 and Sept. 26-Oct. 26, 2020 with respondents who had completed a mental and physical health survey prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Given that distortions in time perception are a risk factor for mental health problems, our findings have potential implications for public health. We are now looking at temporal disintegration, loneliness, and mental health outcomes over 18 months into the pandemic,” Holman said.

“This will help us gain insight into how these common experiences during the pandemic work together, so we can better understand how to help people struggling with these challenges.”


Distortions in time perception during collective trauma: Insights from a national longitudinal study during the COVID-19 pandemic

Objective: During the protracted collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, lay of distorted perceptions of time (e.g., time slowing, days blurring together, uncertainty about the future) have been widespread. Known as “temporal disintegration” in psychiatric literature, these distortions are associated with negative mental health consequences. However, the prevalence and predictors of temporal disintegration are poorly understood. We examined perceptions of time passing and their associations with lifetime stress and trauma and pandemic-related secondary stress as COVID-19 spread across the United States. 

Method: A probability-based national sample (N = 5,661) from the NORC AmeriSpeak online panel, which had completed a mental and physical health survey prior to the pandemic, completed two surveys online during March 18–April 18, 2020, and September 26–October 16, 2020. Distorted time perceptions and other pandemic-related experiences were assessed. 

Results: Present focus, blurring weekdays and weekdays together, and uncertainty about the future were common experiences reported by over 65% of the sample 6 months into the pandemic. Half of the sample reported time speeding up or slowing down. Predictors of temporal disintegration include prepandemic mental health diagnoses, daily pandemic-related media exposure and secondary stress (e.g., school closures, lockdown), financial stress, and lifetime stress and trauma exposure. 

Conclusion: During the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, distortions in time perception were very common and associated with prepandemic mental health, lifetime stress and trauma exposure, and pandemic-related media exposure and stressors. Given that temporal disintegration is a risk factor for mental health challenges, these findings have potential implications for public mental health.


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