‘This effect has also been noticed in explorers have deliberately isolated themselves from society in the wilderness,’ says psychologist
Where we might have once lived our lives tied to a diary - meetings, dinners with friends, exercise classes and holidays to break up monotony - the coronavirus outbreak has rendered calendars somewhat obsolete.
And as the UK settles into its sixth week in lockdown it seems many of us (particularly those working from home) are starting to lose track of time.
Sure, you might be able to mix things up by varying the time of your Zoom drinks or going for your walk in the evening instead of the morning, but every day is pretty much the same when you’re stuck at home indefinitely.
And those working through the pandemic may at least be able to distinguish between the weekdays and weekends, but for the millions of Britons who have been furloughed, it is even harder to separate one day from the next.
Google searches for “what day is it?” have been steadily rising throughout lockdown as people desperately try to recover a semblance of normality.
Likewise, the phrase has been trending on social media, with more than 307,600 posts under the hashtag #WhatDayIsIt on Instagram demonstrating how many people are struggling with the phenomenon.
Why does lockdown confuse our sense of time?
Struggling with time is only normal given the pandemic has ruptured our sense of routine, says Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill, clinical psychology professor at the University of Texas.
“During normal times our days, weeks and months follow predictable patterns,” she tells The Independent. “How we dress, what we eat, when we go to bed and when we wake up are all dictated by our work, school and leisure routines.” This reliance on structure is why certain activities or forms of behaviour have become synonymous with the days of the week.
Hence why phrases such as “for a Monday” and “it’s almost Friday” have become common parlance for describing a certain mood or pattern of behaviours. For example, struggling with motivation on a Monday and being elated on a Friday, McNaughton-Cassill explains.
But in lockdown, of course, many of these cues have been eliminated. Our homes are no longer places to unwind. They are our schools, nurseries, offices, cafes, co-working spaces, bars and cinemas.
“Even when we have time off, restaurants and theatres are closed, and the sporting events that we rely on for entertainment have been suspended,” adds McNaughton-Cassill. “The result is that the days tend to run together, and in the absence of clear differences between the days it becomes hard to tell them apart.”
It’s a similar feeling to when we are on holiday or unwell, and therefore aren’t following our normal routines. This is particularly true for those working from home who would normally structure their days around their office hours and their commute.
“Now, there are fewer work-related cues for people to pace their days,” says McNaughton-Cassill, which is why we don’t simply lose track of the days, but of the time, too.
Without a commute or social plans, we also have more time to spend at home than ever before. Hence why we may find ourselves engaging in comforting and escapist activities to fill that time, such as binge-watching a TV series or spending hours on social media.
“Such activities can also blur time,” says McNaughton-Cassill, “because we aren’t paying attention to the real world things going on around us”. Increased screentime can also hinder our sleep and lead to feelings of “grogginess“, which too can disrupt our sense of time.
This effect of losing one’s sense of time has also been observed in explorers who visit isolated areas, says Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.
“We see it in those who have either deliberately isolated themselves from society in the wilderness or in those who have become lost during their expeditions,” she tells The Independent. “It is also evident in prisoners in solitary confinement.”
Can we do anything about it?
To those experiencing difficulties remembering the time or what day it is, Dr Bijlani suggests enforcing structure and rhythm into your daily routine. “Try to wake up at the same time each day, eat healthy meals at regular intervals and ensure adequate hydration throughout the day,” she says, adding that it’s best too avoid excessive alcohol as this will disrupt your sleeping patterns even further.
Other tips include getting exercise where possible, not remaining sitting for prolonged periods of time and setting some boundaries on your working hours, avoiding working overtime. “Try and create a different structure for the weekend from the weekdays, too,” she adds, “so you are able to differentiate between them”.
Given that we don’t know how long this period of lockdown will last, McNaughton-Cassill explains that it is also important to try and come to terms with this new reality.
“Setting specific goals, and scheduling time to achieve them in addition to our other obligations, can help us to structure the days, and feel more productive,” she adds. This will also provide a sense of achievement, something many of us have been lacking in lockdown.
McNaughton-Cassill remains optimistic that, if handled correctly, lockdown will fly by and before we know it, we’ll be back to feeling anxious about our over-scheduled lives: “Ironically, once we contain this virus and things go back to normal, we may find ourselves missing this less structured time.”