Denby Fawcett: How Covid-19 Has Warped Our Sense Of Time - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Opinion article badgeI often have trouble remembering if a particular event happened in 2020, the year we became aware a killer virus was spreading across the world, or if something I am trying to recall happened in 2021 when our hopes were dashed that Covid-19 would soon disappear.

People I call for information for my column often have the same reaction. When I ask them for the date of an event they are describing, it takes them awhile to remember. “It’s the pandemic. I have lost track of time,” they say.

“Time is a blur. Each day blends into the next,” said my neighbor Ann Rayson, as we walked around Diamond Head on Saturday, talking about how the virus has distorted our sense of time.

“Blursday” is what my friend Alia Pan and others call the phenomenon.

For some people, the pandemic has been a frustrating period when time seemed to dissolve.

“It’s almost a sense the last two years were wasted or lost, like time just disappeared,” says Clarissa Cosson, a retired civilian worker for the U.S. Navy in Hawaii.

A decade from now, when younger people ask what it was like to live through a global pandemic, one of the memories I will relate is how Covid-19 screwed up our sense of time.

Physical time is invariable: 365 days in a year, 24 hours a day, the pages of a calendar turn, clocks tick on. But our perception of time — how we subjectively experience it — depends on many variables.

Depending on the day and the person living it, time can go either very fast or interminably slowly.

Psychologists and philosophers studying time say a key variable that has confused our normally calibrated sense of time is stress.

During the pandemic there has been plenty of stress with loss of lives and jobs, and disruptions to daily routines all clouded by the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Parents anxiously wonder when it will be safe to send their children back to school; teachers are apprehensive about returning to in-person instruction, and now with the highly contagious omicron variant, people are worried they will get sick — maybe seriously ill — no matter how many precautions they take.

Stressing the body, either physically or psychologically, has been shown to subjectively make time seem to pass more slowly, says Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor and director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami.

In an article in Psychology Today last month, Brogaard explained that our recollection of time can seem to stretch out longer, not just during prolonged stressful events but also in highly pleasurable experiences because both extremes trigger bodily arousal that elevates chemicals in our bodies.

Brogaard says, “Stressful and disruptive periods cause negative, or unpleasant, bodily arousal — for instance, by elevating our stress hormones. Joyful and adventurous periods of our lives cause positive, or pleasant, bodily arousal by elevating chemicals associated with pleasure, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.”

She explains that bodily arousal prompted by stress or joy create temporal markers in the mind that break up what would otherwise be a monotonous, steady stream of experiences — like the passage of time for someone who has been in lockdown at home for months.

Brogaard says, ”By dividing up an otherwise long and undifferentiated stream of content into ‘memorable’ moments, temporal markers slow down how fast your brain replays the narrative content of your memories. These markers thus serve as speed bumps on our ride down memory lane. Accordingly, we often remember time as having passed more slowly when looking back on particularly stressful, joyful, disruptive, or adventurous periods in our lives.”

Even if our lives have not been particularly stressful in the pandemic, almost everyone’s sense of time has been altered by the loss of their personal time markers.

For me, a time marker in January is when friends invite me to crowded restaurants to eat Chinese feasts and watch lion dances in celebration of the Lunar New Year.

The Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo used to be one of the ways to demarcate the passage of time. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

February is when we go to the Punahou Carnival and dine out at a fine restaurant for Valentine’s Day.

In March, we have friends over for Guinness Stout and corned beef and cabbage in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

April is when we dye eggs for Easter and hop on a plane for Hilo to attend the Merrie Monarch Festival. And when we are not experiencing time markers connected to the calendar months, there are the birthdays and anniversaries and graduations that, pre-pandemic, we celebrated all year long.

However, celebrations are rare now with events canceled left and right, often just when they seem ready to resume again. This lack of excitement can add to an unmemorable blandness that makes time seem to pass faster.

We are stuck in what British anthropologist Jane Guyer calls “enforced presentism” — trapped in the present without the ability to plan for the future.

Manoa resident Maura Okamoto says with so much uncertainty, it is difficult to look ahead to the future.

“I feel like I am on kind of a rollercoaster I can’t get off. Just when things seem to be getting better, they get worse. After they get worse, they get better again. I can’t rely on anything. I can’t plan ahead,” she says.

And some of the events that have taken over as time markers during the pandemic have been disturbing news events with optics we wish we could push away, such as the murder of George Floyd or the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

“In these days of COVID, our memories become muddled; they clump in our repeated routines that make every day feel as if it is the same as the day before,” writes psychologist Joseph Mazur in a Psychology Today article,“How COVID-19 Has Altered Our Perception of Time.”

Another downer is that without the distractions of travel and celebrations time can seem longer as some people become mired in the anxiety of painful self-recrimination.

I am disinclined to end this column on an optimistic note because so much is still frustratingly unpredictable in our lives.

But since memories are markers of time, perhaps a modest way to deal with the pandemic’s alteration of our perception of time is to create our own new memories — safe, small, creative events to serve as temporal markers to prevent time this year from disappearing into a muddled blur.


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Anthropologist would say if you lose your land, language, political power and dispersed throughout the world you should not be here. The Jews survived all the calamities above because of a commitment to continuity and to the future to a value beyond death. Mark Twain not the least to comment ,asked in his ironic way: "How are they still here?" We have walked away in the last two hundred years from a vision of meaning that goes beyond the grave. We are a materialist culture that sees the grave as the end and so we have no first principles except the one's we make up for ourselves--the market creates our story. As we speak our churches and synagogues are leaking young people. Our comfort and or personal hygiene are important but are not sufficient to give our society a project that fulfills the soul. We must look seven generations deep and ask will a Hawaiian even exist if we simply allow the Tekplex to tutor our desires. If we no longer believe in the good, the true, and the beautiful as first principles we will continue the crisis of loneliness and intimacy disorder that underlie our present bewilderment and destroy our children's future.

JM · 4 months ago

". . . almost everyone’s sense of time has been altered by the loss of their personal time markers." Agreed. Routines such as Friday lunch dates, game or movie nights and so many other regular activities were abruptly halted in 2020. It's no wonder people have a difficult time remembering things.

Natalie_Iwasa · 4 months ago

Aside from the major holidays, the only dates that stick in my mind now are the dates of my two vaccinations, the date of my booster, the date the kids are supposed to go back to school, and the date they actually go back to school. And as for future planning, just wait 'til you see all hoopla and whoop-de-doo when we can finally gather inside without masks!

hilobelle · 4 months ago

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