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Perception, Stress and anxiety, Violence and trauma

You’re not the only one who can’t remember 2021

Recent research from the University of Aberdeen finds evidence that the stresses of post-2019 life significantly warped our sense of time.

23 August 2023

By Emily Reynolds

If, like us, you're having trouble remembering much of 2020 and 2021, you're not alone. New explorations by Daria Pawlak and Professor Arash Sahraie from University of Aberdeen, published recently in PLOS ONE, suggest that with more stresses and fewer novelties to anchor us, the pandemic managed to warp our personal timelines. 

In their study, 277 UK-based adults completed a several scales measuring depression, anxiety, boredom, and stress over the pandemic period. In order to measure their resilience, the group also indicated how much they agreed with statements such as "I look for creative ways to alter difficult situations." Daily workload, as well as how demanding their tasks felt during this period, was also probed. 

Participants were then presented with 20 events — five per year between 2017 and 2021 — that were highly publicised in UK media. For example, such as the year Brexit was finalised, and when Meghan Markle joined the Royal Family. Participants responded by selecting a year in the range of 2016 and 2022. 

Analyses of this data indicated that participants' perception of time was significantly distorted by the pandemic. These distortions correlated positively with increased depression, anxiety, stress, and with increased physical and mental load: those who experienced more stress over the years in question could not accurately remember the timing of events that occurred in 2021. 

Those with higher levels of resilience, however, were less likely to have a warped perception of time; they may have been more able to bear boredom, depression, and stress, or indeed experience these things less altogether. Surprisingly, there was no significant link with boredom, which the team suggests may be because "boredom itself [is] not diagnostic, but a product of a wide variety of factors," including the aforementioned depression and anxiety.

Not only were most of us deeply stressed during the acute phase of the covid-19 pandemic, many of us spent a significantly increased amount of time in our homes, with access to many of our typical activities restricted. As the authors note, it is likely that without so-called 'anchor events' to help us create a mental timeline (such as birthday parties, new relationships, or home moves) our internal sense of time passing became warped even further. 

Though the results of this study may intuitively feel accurate, the study does have some limitations. In particular, there was no baseline measure for how participants made sense of time prior to the pandemic. Future research could explore these factors further, as well as whether these distortions in time remain post-pandemic. 

Read the paper in full: