Distorted Time Perception During the Pandemic Tied to Stress, Poor Mental Health

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

August 29, 2022

The passage of time felt altered for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from difficulty keeping track of the days of the week to feeling that the hours either crawled by or sped up, new research suggests.

Results showed the sense of present focus, blurring weekdays and weekends together, and uncertainly about the future were reported by over 65% of the 5661 survey respondents. And more than half reported the experience of feeling "time speeding up or slowing down," report the investigators, led by E. Alison Holman, PhD, professor at the Gross School of Nursing, University of California, Irvine.

Significant predictors of these time distortions included being exposed to daily pandemic-related media and having a mental health diagnosis prior to the pandemic; secondary stress such as school closures and lockdown; financial stress; lifetime stress; and lifetime trauma exposure.

"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 Holman in a news release.

"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, and this study is the first to document the prevalence and early predictors of these time distortions," added Holman.

The findings were published online August 4 in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.

Unique Opportunity

During the pandemic, many people's time perspective (TP), defined as "our view of time as it spans from our past into the future," shifted as they "focused on the immediate, present danger of the COVID-19 pandemic and future plans became uncertain," the investigators write.

Studies of convenience samples "suggested that many people experienced time slowing down, stopping, and/or speeding up as they coped with the challenges of the pandemic" — a phenomenon known as temporal disintegration (TD) in psychiatric literature.

Holman told Medscape Medical News that she researched TD after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

"We found that people who experienced that early sense of TD, the sense of 'time falling apart,' were more prone to getting stuck in the past and staying focused on the past event," which led to feeling "more distress over time," she said.

Research examining the prevalence of and psychosocial factors predicting TD are "quite rare" and studies examining TD "during an unfolding, protracted collective trauma are even rarer," the researchers note. The COVID pandemic "presented a unique opportunity to conduct such a study," they add.

For their study, the investigators surveyed participants in the NORC AmeriSpeak online panel, a "probability-based panel" of 35,000 US households selected at random from across the country.

The study was conducted in two waves: the first survey was administered March–April 2020, the second in September­–October of that same year.

Speeding Up, Slowing Down

At Wave 2, participants completed a 7-item index of TD symptoms experienced over the previous 6 months. To adjust for psychological processes that may have predisposed individuals to experience TD during the pandemic, the researchers included a Wave 1 measure of future uncertainty as a covariate.

Pre-pandemic health data had been collected prior to the current study.

Wave 1 participants completed a checklist reporting personal, work, and community-wide exposure to the COVID outbreak, including contracting the virus, sheltering in place, and experiencing secondary stressors. The extent and type of pandemic-related media exposure were also assessed.

At Wave 2, they reported the extent of exposure to the coronavirus, financial exposures, and secondary stressors. They also completed a non–COVID-related stress/trauma exposure checklist and were asked to indicate whether the trauma, disaster, or bereavement took place prior to or during the pandemic.

The final sample consisted of 5661 adults (52% female) who completed the Wave 2 survey. Participants were divided into four age groups: 18-34, 35-49, 50-64, and 65 and older.

The most common experiences (reported by more than 65% of respondents) included being focused on the present moment, feeling that weekdays and weekends were the same, and feeling uncertain about the future.

Over half of respondents (50.4%) reported feeling as though time was speeding up, and 55.2% reported feeling as though time was slowing down. Some also reported feeling uncertain about the time of day (46.4%) and forgetting events they had just experienced (35.2%).

When the researchers controlled for feeling uncertain about the future, they found that women reported more TD than men (b = .11; 95% CI, .07 - .14; P < .001).

At Wave 1, associations were found between TD and COVID-related media exposure, pre-pandemic mental health diagnoses, and pre-pandemic non–COVID-related stress and trauma. At Wave 2, associations were found between TD and COVID-related secondary and financial stressors (all Ps, < .001).

Variable (95% CI)
Pre-pandemic mental health diagnosis .08 (.04 - .11)
Pre-pandemic lifetime stress/trauma .06 (.03 - .09) 
Media exposure .08 (.04 - .12)
Financial stressors .11 (.08 - .15)
Personal secondary stressors .21 (.17 - .24)

In contrast, COVID-related work exposure at Wave 1, being 45-59 years old, and living in the Midwest region were negatively associated with TD.

"The sense of the flow of the past into the present, and the present into the future is important for our mental health," Holman said. "We need to remember who we have been, how that shaped who we are today, and where we want to go with our lives."

Staying in the present moment is "good, when you're doing it mindfully. But you still need to feel you can shape and work toward the future and have some sense of control," she added.

Homan also recommended time-perspective therapy, which helps patients with posttraumatic stress disorder to "build continuity across time — to understand and learn from the past, live in the present, and move toward the future."

Widespread Distortion

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Ruth Ogden, PhD, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom, said the findings "confirm those reported in Europe, South America, and the Middle East, that widespread distortion to time was common during the pandemic and that distortions to time were greatest amongst those most negatively affected by the pandemic."

The results also support her own recent research in the UK "suggesting that distortions to time during the pandemic extend to our memory for the length of the pandemic, with most people believing that lockdowns lasted far longer than they actually did," said Ogden, who was not involved with Holman and colleagues' current study.

"This type of subjective lengthening of the pandemic may reinforce trauma by making the traumatic period seem longer, further damaging health and well-being," she noted.

 "As the negative fallouts of the pandemic continue, it is important to establish the long-term effects of time distortions during the pandemic on mental health and well-being," she added.

The study was funded by US National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The investigators report no relevant financial relationships. Ogden receives funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Psychol Trauma. Published online August 4, 2022. Full text

Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW is a freelance writer with a counseling practice in Teaneck, NJ. She is a regular contributor to numerous medical publications, including Medscape and WebMD, and is the author of several consumer-oriented health books as well as Behind the Burqa: Our Lives in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom (the memoir of two brave Afghan sisters who told her their story).

For more Medscape Psychiatry news, join us on Twitter and Facebook


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.