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Trauma, time and mental health — new study unpacks pandemic phenomenon


Did you lose track of time during the early days of the pandemic?

If so, you’re not alone. A new study says a majority of Americans experienced time distortions at the beginning of the pandemic, which are common during traumatic times.

Researchers say those who lost their time sense could be at greater risk for mental health disorders — such as depression and anxiety — and screening for time distortions could help get treatment to those who need it.

In a study published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,661 U.S. adults about their mental health in March-April and September-October 2020. Participants answered questions about their experiences with the coronavirus, their history of stressful life events, and their financial and life stressors related to the virus.

When the participants were asked about their perception of time, over 65 percent reported distortions, even six months after the pandemic began. Over half said they felt time was speeding up or slowing down. About 46 percent reported that they were uncertain about what time or day it was, and 35 percent reported short-term memory problems.

More women than men reported these distortions, and the same was true for people who had been exposed to trauma earlier in life. Higher media exposure was associated with distorted time perception, too.

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The pandemic was “an unprecedented, protracted collective trauma,” the researchers write. Though more research is needed, they conclude that time distortion is probably associated with mental health symptoms in the pandemic.

Looking to the future is associated with better mental health outcomes.

“There are relatively new therapies that can be used to help people regain a more balanced sense of time,” E. Alison Holman, a professor of nursing at the University of California at Irvine and a co-author of the study, says in a news release. “But if we don’t know who is in need of those services, we can’t provide that support.”

With a better sense of who’s at risk, providers can get treatment to those who need them — and know what to look for in future traumatic moments.