This year, Halloween crept up on me. One morning, it was suddenly the end of October though I could have sworn it was still August. Two weeks later, my son’s birthday would have also crept up on me if not for his thrice daily countdown announcement.
The other morning I spent a good twenty minutes trying to remember what I had cooked and eaten for dinner the night before. I had no memory of the night at all. Which could just be overwhelmed mom brain—even before the pandemic I might not be able to recall what I had cooked the night before—but this wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember. This was more intense, a complete inability to even find a moment to recall. There was a void in my mind, a blank space where memory—or at least a few threads of memory—should have been.
These experiences are disturbing, to say the least. This year has been unprecedented in essentially every way, noteworthy and memorable for sure, and yet, everything after March is more or less a blur.
I thought, at first, that maybe this strange way of experiencing pandemic time was a function of solo parenting during a pandemic. But as it turns out, the days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic have been a blur for many folks.
Without the usual mix of work dinners and birthday parties and vacations and giant life celebrations to plan for, look forward to, and participate in, the brain’s ability to process and catalog memories is affected. Lucy Cheke, a psychologist and lecturer at Cambridge University who is researching the effects of the pandemic on memory, notes that the mind has trouble differentiating between memories when it’s not afforded breaks from repetitive routines.
At the same time that the days are unremarkable and indistinguishable, the days are also filled with an absurd amount of stressors. 2020 has been one crisis after another, which “can lead to a collapse of the reassuring sense that our lives move in orderly fashion,” reports Alex Williams of the New York Times. The idea of a past, present, and future is hard to keep straight when the present is so…well, present…and the future is this murky idea that will emerge when the dust of COVID settles, whenever that happens.
The combination of boredom—from too many days that all look virtually identical—and anxiety—that’s all the anxieties: health, economic, social, political—works together to make it seem as if time is moving in slow and disorienting ways, and every day feels like the movie Groundhog Day.
Fortunately, there are ways to restore your sense of time. “It doesn’t have to be Groundhog Day every day,” says social worker and holistic therapist Maura Lipinski, LISW-S in an article for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness newsletter.
Follow A Regular Schedule
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California notes that “creating a schedule that approximates normal life can help one from falling into disorientation and confusion.” Not only will a regular schedule help avoid disorientation, but waking up and going to bed at the same time each day will help your internal clock.
Lipinski takes that advice one step further and suggests scheduling events to make sure Tuesday doesn’t look like Thursday. Singling out Tuesdays for tacos and Thursdays for laundry can help anchor your days and keep them separate.
Setting goals, both short term and long term, can be helpful to keep the days from blending together. While it’s tricky to set long-term goals right now (because who knows what else 2020 has in store for us), it could be useful to “have a direction for the future,” says Lipinski.
Engage Your Brain In Activities That Distract From Anxiety
Anxiety makes it feel as if time is slowing down. Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, suggests engaging in “flow activities,”—the kind that draw you in wholly and completely—to help distract from anxious thoughts. A flow activity could be something as engrossing as a movie or a TV show (Tiger King, anyone?) but is more effective when there’s an element of “personal challenge or feedback,”–which explains why for a while, everyone was baking bread.
Find Social Activities
While social distancing and staying home, it’s important to still find ways to socialize—particularly if you live alone. Dr. Kupers notes that “when you don’t have other people to talk to, thoughts and ideas can get very jumbled.”
Zoom fatigue is real, but keeping up with social interactions, even virtual ones, is important to keep the mind from wandering into irrational and paranoid places.
Control What You Can And Go Easy On Yourself
There is no playbook for living through 2020, and so much is simply out of our control. But sticking to a routine will help. Controlling what you can control—what time you go to bed, when and how you fit in self-care—will help give the days structure.
But, if there’s a day that goes sideways, if that neatly scheduled routine is thrown off for whatever reason, it’s just as important to give yourself some grace and space. “If you notice a negative thought come up, try to change your perspective. We need some of that hopefulness during this time,” says Lipinski.
The COVID-19 crisis will come to an end—the ultra-positive vaccine news feels like a light at the end of the tunnel—and time will return to normal. And when it does, I hope I never again take for granted the tiny markers that help separate one day from the next. Until then, from my family to yours: happy March 265th.