A little over a week ago, a local news anchor in Cleveland, Todd Meany, got a call from his producer about an unusual problem created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nobody could remember what day it was. What could a local newscast do?
Create a morning show segment, of course, with a dash of ’70s-style game show music: “What Day Is It?”
The segment quickly took off on social media, and Meany started receiving grateful messages from people in regions and countries very far from his station, Fox 8, in northeastern Ohio. But just like Clevelanders, his new fans were staying inside, working from kitchens and taking virtual classes — stripped of life’s usual rhythm by the coronavirus pandemic. They had lost track of the time, too.
“In this free-form, kind of weird world that we’re in right now, everybody’s internal clock is thrown,” Meany said in an interview. “There’s just no reference point anymore. Nobody has a calendar in their house. Everybody’s just on their phone.”
Among the stranger consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is how, by unmooring the daily lives of tens of millions of people, it has made time itself feel distorted. Psychologists say the sensation is a result of losing social anchors, chronic stress and anxiety, and drastic changes to normal routines.
Tom Hanks, while hosting last weekend’s remote episode of “SNL,” summed up what it feels like to be stuck at home and to watch, through windows, TV and the internet, as the world changes at a bewildering pace: “There’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore. It’s just, every day is today.”
Searches for “what day is it” have spiked online. Some experts, like those at the University of California, San Francisco, are compiling resources to help people cope. And some psychologists have compared the coronavirus’ effects to the aftermath of a natural disaster, except the disaster is moving in slow motion, taking place everywhere and has no end in sight.
“What makes COVID so weird is that the physical environment looks very normal,” said Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “But we have lost every single social anchor that we would normally use.”
March ended without March Madness, May graduations were canceled, and Friday happy hours have been called off indefinitely, she noted. For those able to work from home, daily cues like commuting and socializing after work have evaporated. Workdays blur together, and weekends are just weekdays with fewer obligations.
“The difference between Friday and Saturday has been temporarily erased,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “You know you’re not going out today.”
She said that people’s perception of time was always relative, and generally depended on the anchors of work and personal life: Time seems to go by more quickly when you’re busy or with friends, but it crawls by when you’re bored or sick in bed. “You probably don’t have as many things to do to fill the time, so the perception is that time is going slower,” she said, calling it a “sense of being adrift.”
For those still going to work, every day is a journey into a dangerous and uncertain world, with new rules about masks, washing hands and staying away from others. For those who have lost work, there are intense new stresses about income, health insurance and the future. “We have a perfect storm for being cognitively taxed,” said Dr. Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s all changing so fast, our body is just on vigilance mode.”
The ongoing stress and anxiety of living on high alert can take a significant toll on the ability to think clearly, Epel said. “Our working memory is fragile and it’s impacted by these things,” she said. “Honestly, I’m having trouble tracking time. Now when did this start? February? That feels like ancient history.”
Having a hard time remembering what day it is can sometimes be a “symptom flare” of stress and overstimulation, said Dr. Christina Weyer Jamora, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She compared it to the physical effects of finishing a marathon.
“At the end of the marathon you might not walk another 12 miles because your legs are done,” she said. “The brain is the same, saying, ‘I’ve taken in a lot of information, I need to take break.’”
And she emphasized that this was entirely normal. “We notice it when we don’t remember what day it is, but we probably at some point do remember what day it is,” she said.
Lots of factors can contribute: Sleep quality suffers under stress, social media and the news can feel overwhelming, and, with routines turned upside down, people have to devote far more energy and attention to tasks that used to be automatic, like groceries and laundry.
“Those old habits, they’re not there anymore to help propel us through the day, so we have to think about all the decisions of what to do,” said Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, and the author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”
She compared learning to live in a pandemic to the uncertainty of starting a new job: “Everything is new, you’re making a lot of new decisions, and it’s tiring. And that disruption in your habits, and having to learn new ones, is draining. Everything just takes more effort.”
McNaughton-Cassill said that those new decisions extended even to small tasks, like brushing your teeth or driving to do an errand. “Most of our daily life is very automated,” she said. “Now everything is disrupted, you have to think about it more, and that takes up bandwidth.”
Even television, for decades a collective reference point for millions of viewers, is another source of disorientation, McNaughton-Cassill said. Sporting events were canceled just as winter was wrapping up and baseball fans got ready for opening day. On streaming services, silent movies from the 1930s coexist with sitcoms from the ’90s and period dramas of the 2010s. On social media, an internet-era substitute for TV, no one’s feed is exactly the same mix of headlines, commentary, photos and updates — some stressful, others supportive.
She and other psychologists recommended setting limits to social media and the news, taking regular breaks from screens, and putting structure in the day, like setting places and hours for working and taking breaks, to try to build healthy habits.
Wood also recommended setting physical boundaries where possible, even within parts of a room. “It’s easy to let everything meld together,” she said, “but keeping some structure so that you have a regular place to go to work and you have regular dinners, those kinds of things are very helpful.”
And this experience will change, too, said McNaughton-Cassill. “A weird thing is that a lot of this that we’re living through now, we’re going to get used to it,” she said. “And when the doors open again and we’re back in a crowded place, we’re going to feel weird again.”