Pause, Blink, and It’s 2023: The Distorted Time Perception During and After The Covid-19 Pandemic

Time paused in 2020, and ever since, someone has been pressing the fast-forward button for a bit too long to the extent that the last three years felt more like a blur. Isn’t it weird how three years have never felt so long while you were experiencing it, but now it all seems like it’s flying away so fast once it ended?

How we perceive and experience time, or time perception, is often mind-boggling. Even when the “duration” of time itself is the same for everyone (e.g. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, etc), it was proved in the 2010 research by Sackett and Meyvis that some days may feel longer or shorter based on several factors, such as our emotions or the number of activities that differ from our routines, because time is subjective. Fear and happiness could make time goes faster, while boredom may slow it down. When we stick to a certain routine, after a while, time will go quicker without us noticing. But spruce things up a little, and at that moment, time wouldn’t go as hurriedly. 

However, the way these last three years went is more extreme than just an hour flying by or a day slipping away. Instead of flying by or slipping away, time was distorted, with it feeling both very fast and very slow simultaneously. In this case, our time perception during the pandemic could be more accurately defined by another keyword: Temporal disintegration. 

Following this article to try and understand what temporal disintegration is, let’s imagine that time is like a window through which we could see how our lives went and predict what is going to happen in the future. In an ideal situation, every day when we look at that window, we’re going to see a similar view. A couple of trees, several cars being parked down the road, a blue house across your street, grey clouds hanging in the sky, you name it. Sometimes there will still be changes. Perhaps your neighbour decided to paint their house yellow, or perhaps there was rain so your yard is cluttered with fallen leaves. Small, predictive changes like these are still fine and normal–after all, from the grey clouds, you may have concluded that there could be rain. 

But what if after a day that is unassumingly bright and sunny, you are struck with a heavy thunderstorm that seems to last for days or weeks, even? It doesn’t make sense, does it? How could a storm that grave happens after a day which shows no sign of it? What is worse is that there are warnings of high tides and floods. The past and present do not look connected at all. And you could no longer conclude anything about the future as it is turning uncertain.

From that example, it can be summed up that temporal disintegration is when a present moment turns too different compared to how the rest of our lives went in the past, causing that certain moment to feel detached or disconnected until our minds could not comprehend it properly. The factors which give rise to it generally have to do with traumatic events, which as we know is something that happened collectively to all of us due to the pandemic. From losing our jobs to losing our loved ones. From fearing that we might get infected by Covid-19, to adapting to the health and social complications if we were infected.

According to researchers from the University of California, these layers upon layers of traumatic events and stressors continuously add up. It was revealed that the more stressors there were in the early 6 months of the pandemic, time perception also became distorted, at least until 18 months into the pandemic. The signs of it vary from not being aware of the hours that have gone by or forgetting what day of the week it is or struggling in differentiating weekdays and weekends.

When temporal disintegration happened for a significant amount of time, soon enough, our lives may get back on track again. Similar to how it went after the pandemic. A lot of us have been coming to school or work offline again, and we are sorting things out, piece by piece, to try and go back to how our lives were before the pandemic.

Although the problem is now, we could never truly go back, couldn’t we?

The biggest misconception that most of us believe is the idea that after temporal disintegration, things will be normal again and they will be exactly as it was before. We like the idea that the whole pandemic with its temporal disintegration is just a blip, a vivid dream, or an error in the system that we can easily move on from because we want to feel the familiarity of the pre-Covid world again.

It is only after our lives go on again that we have the time to comprehend how much things have changed. A ninth grader before the pandemic is now most likely stressing out about college applications, already having a driver’s license, and spending their last year in high school. A second-year college student before the pandemic now probably has a job, is learning to adult and pay taxes, or starting a master’s degree. 

Three years have passed, and in just a blink of an eye, we have arrived at 2023. Time is still finite and unpredictable, and in every moment, we would still need to adapt to its highs and lows. However, something that is different now after the pandemic, is the fact that we realized how strong we truly are. No matter how time seems to be messed up and so many things are changing, the truth is, we are still here today, living a life. Even when we feel that we didn’t get to accomplish extraordinary things because of the unbelievably fast years, the most important thing is that we have survived. And that is more than enough.

So, the best we could do is learn how to ride the flow of time. We may never know where it would take us, or how much of its waves are going to crash us down, over and over again. But from our experience, we already know that we have enough strength to go through it and still cherish every moment and put an effort to make the best of what we are given.

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