What Day Is It Again? Overcoming Pandemic Time Warp

If your sense of time has become skewed, here’s how to reclaim your grip on the calendar.

melting clock

Updated on June 4, 2020.

What day is it again?”

It happened: Jokes and memes about the blurring of time during the COVID-19 pandemic have finally lost their luster. And now, many of us are simply looking for solutions. So, how can we change that disconcerting feeling of time speeding up or slowing down and reclaim control over the calendar?

“When there’s uncertainty, time feels elastic,” says Mike Dow, PsyD, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of The Brain Fog Fix. “With the pandemic, we don’t know when it will end, when there will be a vaccine.”

That free-floating feeling can give rise to anxiety—which, in turn, can lead to elevated levels of stress hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine (aka epinephrine, and also a neurotransmitter) and cortisol. “Adrenaline makes the heart beat fast, norepinephrine sharpens the mind and cortisol presses the gas pedal of our stress response to the floor,” explains Dow.

In most real-life scenarios—say, you have a deadline at 5 p.m. this afternoon or, thinking about your primordial self, you have to sprint from a hungry saber-toothed tiger—this hormonal activation enables us to move quickly from a calm “rest and digest” mode to an energized “fight or flight” state, Dow says. And that can distort one’s sense of time.

“While ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’ it can seem to pass much more slowly when you’re in a high-stress-hormone state,” Dow says. Add that gnawing stress to being unchallenged or bored for long stretches of time—a familiar feeling during home lockdown—and the days and weeks can drag on. Meanwhile, many of us suddenly have enough leisure to rip through entire series of Netflix binges, which can cause us to lose track of the hours (“It’s 3 a.m., again?!”).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that half of respondents in a recent survey led by Ruth Ogden at Liverpool John Moores University in England reported that time was running fast during the COVID-19 lockdown, while the other half have experienced it as slowing down, according to preliminary data from more than 800 respondents.

If the loss of routines ordinarily set by work, school, social events and weekends have left you unmoored, try these tactics to make the passing days feel a little more normal.

Find your flow

When you’re feeling relaxed while doing something, whether it’s work, a creative project or being physically active, it’s much easier to achieve what Dow describes as “a magical space where your intelligence, training and interests are challenged at just the right level and time just floats away.”

That state is known as “flow,” a name given by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, in his best-selling book of the same name. Accessing that feeling—also described as being “in the zone”—brings focus to whatever you’re doing and has the added benefit of making the hours fly, in a good way.

But if you feel like losing yourself in immersive experience is impossible to attain these days, you’re not alone. Between telecommuting, home schooling and making sense of social distancing guidelines, there are so many things tugging at our attention, says Dow. “We know from brain scans that when people are ‘multi-tasking,’ they’re actually rapidly ‘single-tasking’ and the brain is switching back and forth between tasks,” he notes.

So, when you’re trying to finish a virtual meeting, scheduling a delivery and your child or significant other wants your attention—remember that trying to do these things simultaneously is likely preventing you from entering that state of relaxed focus.

As much as possible, try to attend to one thing at a time. Doing so will help you not only regain more control over your schedule, it will improve your productivity, which some researchers suggest drops by as much as 40 percent when you’re trying to do several things at once. It may even help you lower your stress levels.

Keep your Saturday and Sunday

“Our weekends aren’t what they used to be,” concedes Dow, “but you can figure out something to make them feel like weekends again.”

Try adopting versions of the rituals you used to follow, like joining pals for a Friday night happy hour (now on Zoom) or having a nice Saturday restaurant dinner with your partner (via curbside pickup). It might also help to develop new routines that make weekends special and ease the stress of pandemic living. That might include setting aside time for reflection, prayer or meditation, or taking a calming walk in nature.

Drawing that clear line between Monday-Friday and your days “off” can make the lines on your calendar seem more distinct. “That could mean getting out of your PJs during the week. Or reminding yourself, ‘After I come back from walking the dog in the morning, I’m in work mode,’” suggests Dow. “As silly as it sounds, you could even get in your car, drive around the block, and pull back into the garage, saying when you get home, ‘I’m crossing the threshold to the work ‘me.’”

It’s important, ultimately, to remember the purpose of weekends. Between working from home, taking care of children or loved ones—even simply taking care of yourself—you are working hard and deserve downtime. “There’s a reason we oscillate between work and recovery,” Dow says. “Having a weekend to look forward to allows your body to recharge.”

Get back to basics

Whether work or that Netflix binge is keeping you up later than before, try to revert back to your previous (earlier) bedtime routine. Preparing your body for a good night’s rest means ensuring that cortisol decreases and melatonin, the hormone that encourages sleep, increases.

“If you’ve been chronically stressed during the pandemic, you’ll see cortisol levels rising at night,” notes Dow. Catching up with the news at the end of the day can be a double whammy working against good sleep: Not only do cortisol levels climb when you’re anxious, the blue light released by devices depresses the sleep-inducing effects of melatonin. The triple whammy? Poor sleep may, in turn, increase cortisol levels, setting off a vicious cycle.

A good pre-sleep plan starts during daylight hours:

  • Get outside into natural light when possible.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and nicotine at any time; both interfere with sleep.
  • Forgo daytime naps, or stick to a 20-to-30-minute catnap in the afternoon.
  • Put away the phone at least a couple of hours before you head to bed.

While you’re out getting some sunlight, work in physical activity. Raising your heart rate delivers more oxygen to the brain, improves memory and thinking and stimulates the growth of brain cells, not to mention reduces stress levels and sets you up for a better night’s sleep. Even 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise like brisk walking is useful, and you can break it into smaller chunks of 10 or 15 minutes if need be.

Just as important is curtailing other kinds of binges, particularly alcohol. While a drink or two at night may seem to take the edge off, the truth is that alcohol interferes with sleep and causes the brain to secrete more cortisol, which hampers the ability to rest and is also a culprit in depleting immunity, raising blood pressure and increasing weight gain.

At the end of the day, we can only do so much to control the craziness in the world around us. But by reinforcing healthy habits and applying extra intention to the way we structure our days, we can have an impact on the way the clock ticks within our walls.

Article sources open article sources

Joshua Bote. “Don’t know what day it is today? There’s a psychological reason why.” USA Today. April 17, 2020.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Understanding the stress response.” May 1, 2018.
K Van Hedger, EA Necka, AK Barakzai, GJ Norman. “The influence of social stress on time perception and psychophysiological activity.” Psychophysiology. May 2017.
The Endocrine Society. “What is Adrenaline?” “Norepinephrine.” “What is Cortisol?”
Dr. Ruth Ogden. “Study: The experience of time during Covid-19 lockdown.” Liverpool John Moores University.
PW Burgess. “Strategy application disorder: The role of the frontal lobes in human multitasking.” Psychological Research. August 2000.
C Hirotsu, S Tufik, ML Andersen. “Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions.” Sleep Science. 2015 Nov; 8(3): 143–152.
Q Zhang, M Roche, KW Gheres, et. al. “Cerebral oxygenation during locomotion is modulated by respiration.” Nature Communications. December 4, 2019.
L Mandolesi, A Polverino, S Montuori, et al. “Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits.” Frontiers of Psychology. April 2018.
RC Cassilhas, KS Lee, J Fernandes, et al. “Spatial Memory Is Improved by Aerobic and Resistance Exercise Through Divergent Molecular Mechanisms.” Neuroscience. 2012.
EA Weaver II, HH Doyle, “How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?” Dana Foundation. August 2, 2019.
T Roehrs, T Roth. “Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
E Badrick, M Bobak, A Britton, et al. “The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. March 2008.
JN Morey, IA Boggero, AB Scott, and SC Segerstrom. “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.” Current Opinions in Psychology. October 2015.
JA Whitworth, PM Williamson, G Mangos, JJ Kelly. “Cardiovascular Consequences of Cortisol Excess.” Vascular Health and Risk Management. December 2005.
AM Chao, AM Jastreboff, MA White, et al. “Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight.” Obesity (Silver Spring). April 2017.

More On

Pregnant During the Pandemic? Here’s What You Need to Know


Pregnant During the Pandemic? Here’s What You Need to Know
An already fraught time can be made more stressful by the risk of infection. Learn why you can mostly rest assured.
How We Got a COVID Vaccine So Quickly


How We Got a COVID Vaccine So Quickly
Many Americans are reluctant to get in line for the vaccine. Learn why its rapid development doesn’t mean it’s not safe.
COVID-19 Seems to Spread More Easily Than the Flu: CDC


COVID-19 Seems to Spread More Easily Than the Flu: CDC
Is the coronavirus airborne? What counts as ‘close contact’? Here are the answers you need to protect yourself and your community.
No Gym? No Problem. How to Stay Fit at Home


No Gym? No Problem. How to Stay Fit at Home
You don’t need fancy equipment to get a great workout. Here’s how to maintain your fitness within your home.
CDC Says Wearing Two Masks Offers Even More Protection


CDC Says Wearing Two Masks Offers Even More Protection
Double masking and ensuring a snug fit dramatically reduces exposure to potentially infectious particles, research shows.