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June 16, 2020

What Day Is It Again? How Georgians Can Overcome Pandemic Time Warp

What Day Is It Again? How Georgians Can Overcome Pandemic Time Warp

Updated June 16, 2020; 2:00pm ET

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. How can we change that disconcerting feeling of time speeding up or slowing down and reclaim control over the calendar, especially with the arrival of summer?

“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, even as Georgia emerges from lockdown—and the days and weeks can drag on. Meanwhile, many of us suddenly have enough leisure time 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 their COVID-19 lockdown, while the other half experienced it as slowing down, according to preliminary data from more than 800 respondents.

If the loss of routines ordinarily set by work, 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 an immersive experience is impossible to attain these days, you’re not alone. Between telecommuting, having kids home for the summer and making sense of social distancing guidelines, there are 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 socially distant Friday night happy hour outdoors 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.

Need a place to go? While access and activities may be limited, Georgia state parks and historic sites are largely open for business. Check the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ State Parks homepage for details and alerts.

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.

Medically reviewed in June 2020.

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