Psychosocial Director GRAHAM FAWCETT delves into our odd relationship with time lately.

Clocks

Our experience of time is weird at the moment. It’s simultaneously seems too slow and too fast. How did we arrive in June when we’ve barely experienced the last three months?

There seems to be a mixture of reasons for this, some of which are to do with how we’re accustomed to experiencing time. And some – possibly – are to do with our stress levels.

For most of us of working age and / or parenting age, we ordinarily have structures that are either imposed on us, or which we set for ourselves. Whether it be the next report deadline or the next feed, we mark time with events which we either place in a calendar or in the sense of time we all have in our minds. These markers help to regulate our place in time, and also often our place in physical space as well.

We also have routines that help us regulate time. Getting up, getting dressed, leaving the house, getting to work on time. Leaving the desk, taking the lift, getting to the meeting on time. These routines are often time-centric and therefore help us function within a time-framework.

We have rhythms that also help us regulate time and place ourselves within it: anniversaries of events; festivals such as Christmas or Eid al Fitr; seasonal activities such as vacations. All of these help to give us a sense of change of pace, which we can anticipate, engage with and look back on. Often such events involve others, involve travel and involve changes to our usual routine.

These dynamics helps us to vary our sense of the passing of time, to mark a period of time, and to reflect on time. And so each of them places us consciously within time.

However, when these structures, routines and rhythms are removed abruptly, our sense of place in time is disrupted. With no markers or reminders, we drift along time with less sense of it passing. And physical spaces can even become blurred as well – there is less time difference between our bathrooms and our first Zoom meeting; between finishing the report and eating lunch; between finishing ‘work’ and settling in to loneliness or to partners and family for the evening.

Time seems to speed up for those of us surrounded by others and by work. And time seems to slow down markedly for those of us in isolation, or furloughed with nothing much to do.

Our sense of time may be muddied further still by the quirks of how our minds work when we’re highly stressed. That’s because as our fear network fires up, we become totally focused on ‘now’ and ‘here’. Fear networks deliberately have little sense of context - they narrow our focus purely on survival.

Notoriously, they also don’t lay down time and place stamps in our memories. For example, memories of traumatic fear incidents are experienced as occurring ‘now’ and ‘here’ rather than at some more or less distant time or place in the past. And to an extent, this is true of other less stressful incidents too. And so we can begin to enter a space where it feels like we've always been anxious, short-fused, angry and lacking focus.

For many of us, as we come out of our respective lockdowns, the artificial rhythms imposed upon us may re-emerge and give us those markers that we need in order to acknowledge and measure the passing of time. For others, we may not be out of quarantine yet, or we may need to return if a second or subsequent wave of infection arrives.

Dealing with this situation then becomes about finding ways of identifying time markers where none are readily available. And so you may wish to create structures, rhythms and routines that help to regulate and mark time as it passes. There will then be more memory hooks for you to be able to say that something happened yesterday, last week or last month.

Of course, some may enjoy drifting in time without the artificial pressure of made-up schedules and deadlines.

But others may wish to assert themselves and re-establish their place in time. Doing this involves making distinctions between different times. This may be as rigid as a timetable or as vague as a rhythm. Both help to act as markers in time by distinguishing morning from evening activities; weekdays (if that is still a thing) from weekends (ditto); sacred days from non-sacred days; laundry or walking days from family days and so forth. 

We may not want to return to the schedules and commuting that were inflicted on us. Work-life balance is now having the chance to put on a colour load or unload the dishwasher between Zoom meetings, rather than on Saturday morning. But we may want to create our own structures, rhythms and routines, both to reaffirm a sense of control, predictability and certainty (see earlier blogs) which in turn will help us to notice, really notice, June now that it’s here.

Read Graham's blog on sleep here.