Science explains why time is so disorienting and mind-numbing these days

If the thousands of tweets referencing the movie Groundhog Day are any indication, those Americans under stay-at-home directives are feeling the dull weight of monotony pressing down on their shoulders. Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s also the substance of memory. Without novel experiences to demarcate one day or week from the next, the shape of time can bend and stretch in disorienting ways.

“When we look back at those days and weeks where not much happened — where it’s the same every day — not much is stored in memory and time feels [as though it has] passed very quickly,” says Marc Wittmann, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.

Wittmann has written extensively about “felt time.” He says that while monotony can compress the brain’s perception of time over long periods, boredom can slow down the perception of time’s passage “in the here and now” — meaning minutes or hours seem to drag on and on.

Along with boredom, anxiousness can also make time appear to slow to a snail’s pace, he says. While the overlapping Covid-19-related threats of sickness, economic hardship, and social instability are enough to make anyone feel uneasy, experts who study social isolation say that too little face-to-face interaction can be a potent promoter of anxiety in and of itself.

Without novel experiences to demarcate one day or week from the next, the shape of time can bend and stretch in disorienting ways.

Paranoia, missing routines, and disorientation

“Human beings by their nature are social animals, and when you deprive them of social interaction, that has massive repercussions,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California.

Much of Kupers’ work has examined the psychological effects of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. “The situation of a prisoner in solitary confinement is qualitatively different and much more dire than that of a citizen in shelter-in-place,” he says. “But I think people who are sheltering in place can experience some of the same psychological symptoms as people in solitary confinement.” That may be especially true for those Americans who live alone and are not able to connect face-to-face with friends and loved ones.

“One of the first symptoms to emerge is anxiety,” Kupers says. “People who are isolated have panic attacks and feel very anxious.” Paranoia is another common emotion.

“When you don’t have other people to talk to, thoughts and ideas can get very jumbled.” He says that human beings seem to be somewhat hardwired for paranoid thinking, and that spending time in the company of others tends to moderate this emotion. When that kind of interaction is denied or limited, thoughts can wander into irrational places.

Zoom calls and FaceTime chats — as well as regular phone calls, text exchanges, and other digital interactions — are surely better than nothing, Kupers says. “When that’s the only way [to connect], I think it’s important to do that,” he adds. “But I think [these are] nowhere near the same as the contact we would have if we were together in a room.”

Finally, he says besides missing social interactions, the lack of a regular routine can cause issues. “A disorientation comes from not having markers associated with a daily schedule,” he says. To avoid this disorientation, it’s helpful to get up at the same time each day, and to follow a regular schedule of work, chores, exercise, and other activities.

“Creating a schedule that approximates normal life can help one from falling into disorientation and confusion,” he says. Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day can also help calibrate the body’s internal clocks in ways that promote deep sleep and prevent daytime grogginess and other cognitive symptoms.

“When you don’t have other people to talk to, thoughts and ideas can get very jumbled.”

The anxious brain craves “flow activities”

While distraction is normally viewed as a bad thing, it can be helpful in certain situations — like when a person is anxious and trying to avoid unconstructive thoughts.

“There are things the anxious brain wants to do, and those are not necessarily helpful things,” says Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Worrying is one of them, she says. Fretting about Covid-19 or the challenges it presents is useful if a person can take steps to address those concerns. “But if you’ve done what you can, your goal should be to actively engage in activities that distract your brain from those anxious thoughts,” she says.

Some of her research has examined how different forms of distraction can help people weather periods of uncertainty and anxiety — like when someone is awaiting the results of a biopsy. She says that the most helpful activities are ones that induce “flow,” or the experience of complete enjoyment or absorption.

A riveting film or TV show could fit the bill nicely, which helps explain why a lot of Americans fell hard for the misfit intrigue of Tiger King. But Sweeny says that the most flow-y pursuits tend to have elements of personal challenge and feedback.

Baking bread — another activity that seems to have caught the fancy of cooped-up Americans — checks these boxes. So do video games. One of Sweeny’s studies, published last year in the journal Emotion, found that Tetris was broadly effective at inducing flow, and the same is surely true of newer, more advanced video games. (The attention-grabbing, flow-inducing power of video games is so well established that “gamification” is now a popular approach to UX design in apps and online platforms — from language-learning programs to social media sites.)

“I’m not saying everyone should play video games to manage their worry,” she says. “But if you’re feeling overwhelmed with worry, there’s some inherent utility in turning that down, and flow activities can do that.”


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