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If you don’t know what day it is, you’re not alone. There’s a term for what you’re feeling: temporal disintegration.
It’s a phenomenon, explains Dr. Alison Holman, a psychologist and associate professor of nursing at University of California, Irvine, in which people are unable to retain and organize information relating to time, how to do things in a sequential order, or what happened yesterday or the day before.
“For people who are staying in all the time,” she said, “the days meld in all together. There’s no distinction between the work week and weekend and you lose sense of time and what time it is.”
Amid a global coronavirus pandemic, people are Google searching “what day is it,” and also tweeting about their confusion. One morning news show in Cleveland has the answer and a timeless scene in the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” that has been repurposed.
The term of temporal disintegration originated with Stanford psychiatrist Frederick Melges, who studied the phenomenon in the ’70s and ’80s. Holman has used the term to describe people who have lost their homes to a fire, a drastic, life-changing event. Some experienced “slowing down at a really odd pace, feeling somewhat disoriented, not having a sense of the future.”
Dr. Ruth Ogden, a senior lecturer and researcher at the school of psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in England, explained that the emotional effects of coronavirus caused by stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates — loneliness, suspicion, purposelessness — create “the sensation of time dragging by.”
“This is because our sense of time is governed in part by the emotions that we experience and the actions we perform,” Ogden said.
People tend to have heavily-regimented days, with set work routines, meetings and social excursions that aid in keeping track of our days. You may have a weekly trivia night with friends on Tuesdays, a pilates class on Thursdays and church on Sundays. This is all lost when we’re stuck at home.
Couple that with heightened stress about our immediate futures, Holman says, and it’s little wonder that we’ve lost track of something as simple as what day it is.
“We don’t know how well we’ll contain this virus, we don’t know who in our families or communities will get sick,” she said. “We don’t know when we’ll get back to work, and for people who have lost their work — (at least) 22 million people — they’re facing the stressor of not just that the virus is in their community, they’re dealing with the fact that they may not have enough money to take care of their children or pay rent.”
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Both Holman and Ogden said that this feeling of days getting mixed together likely will end once we’re able to start making plans and return to our old routines.
But there’s a very real possibility, both caution, that the “new normal” may remain long after we’ve returned to our usual routines. A life-changing event like the ongoing pandemic, said Holman, can alter how an individual lives even when it’s over, especially if they are exposed to high amounts of stress, such as working in the frontlines of a hospital.
“The more intense the stress is, the more they’re gonna have to focus and cope on the present moment, the harder it will be to overcome it,” she said. “This pandemic is a chronic stressor that’s punctuated by acute stressors … the more people experience that stress, the more they’re likely to face temporal disintegration.”
How do I find routine while I’m stuck at home?
There are a few ways in which an individual can regain that feeling of control and routine amid these tenuous times. Ogden suggests creating new routines — going for a socially-distanced walk, video-chatting with friends and family or going to the grocery store on specific days.
Meanwhile, Holman suggests “calling upon your past to help your present.” Recalling moments in the past where you’ve overcome emotional stress and seeing what you can take from those experiences during this pandemic, she said, “can give you control for the present and do something to move toward a positive future.”
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More importantly, she suggests, honing your “core sense of social responsibility” helps you retain a sense of purpose and responsibility during a time where that feels difficult.
“(Take) responsibility for supporting your neighbors, your community. The more you support them, the healthier your community will be (and) the more likely you’ll be protected by that community as time goes on,” she said. “That can give you a future.”
Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote
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