How the election, pandemic affects people’s perception of time: ‘You can’t stop thinking about it’

Rachel Grumman Bender
·5 min read

As we wait for the final results of the 2020 presidential election, many Americans are lamenting over how stressful — and long — the past few days have been.

For some, the anxiety and anticipation is similar to what it feels like to wait on the results of an important test. As Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffrey tweeted, “The entire country is awaiting a biopsy result.”

On Twitter, some have said that this week alone has felt eternal, while others are sharing memes from the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray’s character finds himself reliving the same day. “From the year that brought you ‘Six Months of April,’ welcome to ‘Tuesday, Part 3,’” tweeted actress and producer Amy Dallen.

There’s a reason it feels like time has slowed down during this election season. “Normally by midnight or 1 a.m., you know what the story is [with the election],” Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, tells Yahoo Life. With the race not yet called, it’s “frustrating,” he adds. “You can’t stop thinking about it and how it’s hijacked the whole week, wondering when exactly the results are in.”

The uncertainty can leave people feeling “immobilized” and unsure of what to do. “That tends to drag time out,” he says. “You need the information before you can do anything.”

Spiegel suggests a tool that is used in hypnosis: Plan out what you would do if either scenario happens, which can help give you a greater sense of control. “It’s good to think it through either way,” Spiegel says. “If it turns out to be good, celebrate. If it’s bad, how are you going to address the problem?

Waiting on the election isn’t the only event that affected our sense of time. A July 2020 study found that experiencing lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic changed people’s perception of how slowly — or quickly — time is passed.

The U.K. study, published in PLOS ONE, found that several factors — including age — affects how people view the passage of time during lockdown. People over the age of 60 reported feeling that time was going by slowly, compared to younger people. Other factors that made time slow down included high levels of stress, feeling unsatisfied with the amount of social interactions and not having as many tasks to do.

On the flip side, people who were busy — which likely includes parents who are juggling both their jobs and children — found that time was flying by.

“From previous research, we may have expected time to pass slowly during lockdown because lockdown is boring and depressing,” the study’s author, Ruth Ogden, a senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., tells Yahoo Life. “Boredom is associated with a slowing of time, and people who are depressed often report the days dragging by. We would therefore assume that time would be experienced as universally slow during lockdown. However, my research shows that this isn't really the case.”

While about 20 percent of people in the study experienced time as normal during lockdown, Ogden found that 40 percent experienced it as slower than normal and 40 percent felt it was faster than usual. “When I looked at what made time pass slowly, I found that being older (above 65) and having low levels of satisfaction with current levels of social interaction and high levels of stress were likely to make someone feel like lockdown was passing slowly. Conversely, being young, busy and socially satisfied made lockdown pass more quickly.”

Spiegel says that one of the ways we mark the passage of time is through our daily routines, which changed significantly during lockdown. “You get dressed and go to work and see different people — those tend to be temporal markers, many of which we’ve lost,” Spiegel says. “Mood is another factor. If you're feeling good and enjoying what’s happening, you generally want time to slow down. Conversely, if you’re feeling down and not getting things done or not seeing people you know or like, days can seem very long and tedious. Mood and engagement in what you're doing are important factors.”

Ogden says that, while a slowing of time is associated with negative mood, “we don't know whether the slowing of time is a consequence of negative mood or a cause of negative mood.” She adds: “Regardless, we can imagine that because lockdown has been stressful and has impaired people's mental health, anything which makes this period seem ‘longer’ is perhaps likely to worsen these effects. So we could imagine that experiencing the lockdown as artificially slow or long may worsen feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness. But we really need more research to tell us this for sure.”

So what can you do if it feels like time is passing by too slowly? “Routines really help,” says Ogden adding that losing daily or weekly temporary markers contributes to a feeling that time is standing still.

Creating a routine and sticking to it will help to stop these “temporal distortions” from occurring, says Ogden. “And engaging in rewarding social activity and exercise to lift our mood should facilitate time passing more quickly.”

Spiegel agrees, saying: “You need to be more proactive at adhering to a schedule because life itself is not going to do that anymore.”

Along with getting physical exercise, prioritizing sleep, and “disconnecting from the constant barrage of news,” which can negatively impact mood, Spiegel suggests that people find ways to engage in activities that make them feel good. For example, “reviewing memories of relationships that have meant a lot to you and reaching out to people you haven’t been in touch with for a while,” he says. “It means taking charge in a way you don’t have time to normally.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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