TORONTO -- As the days of self-isolation stretch into weeks, many people may find themselves losing track of the days of the week or forgetting the date after their ordinary routines were dramatically upended by the pandemic.

This disruption in daily life can have a powerful effect on people’s moods and emotions, which in turn, influences their perception of time.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor in the department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Toronto, described these daily rituals as a sort of “anchor” that gives people a sense of where they are in time.

“They are kind of like a rhythm to our lives,” he explained to during a telephone interview from Toronto on Tuesday. “They tell us where we are within a given day, you know if it's lunchtime, but also within the given week, you know if it's Thursday or Friday, they feel very different than a Monday or Tuesday do.”

When suddenly all of those rituals are gone, as in the case of a pandemic, Joordens said it’s easy for people to lose that sense of where they are in the workday or the workweek.

“They also lose sense of who they are,” he said. “This is what a lot of people kind of feel too, is that they feel a little adrift. They’re not really sure what they're supposed to be doing and they have this sort of vague, uneasy feeling.”

Rehman Abdulrehman, a clinical psychologist and the director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba, said human beings depend on routines and variety in their day-to-day lives.

“That seems contradictory, to have routine and variety, but we actually tend to have that every day when we get up and we go to work or we go to school, we come back, there's a routine, but there's a difference in things that we do every day,” he explained.

But as people begin to stay home without those same routines, Abdulrehman said there is a risk they will begin to do one thing on an ongoing basis and lose that important variety in their lives.

“Some people may not be active, may not be engaging in a routine, so you know there’d be a lot of Netflix, it’s very easy for the days to blur together,” he said.

On the other hand, Abdulrehman said even those people who do develop a routine in quarantine may be susceptible to losing track of time if there isn’t enough variety within it.

“They don't know what day it is because it's the same thing every day,” he said.

The predicament becomes even harder, according to Joordens, for those who can’t work from home and have to come up with things to do on a daily basis. He said it’s hardest on them because they don’t necessarily have tasks they must do every day so they don’t get to experience that sense of accomplishment at the day’s end.

“It sounds beautiful to not have to go to work, not interact with those people, have nothing that you have to do, but in fact, it's not good for us mentally,” he explained. “It really leaves us feeling very adrift.”

In addition to the loss of routine, both Joordens and Abdulrehman said that people’s emotions can affect how they perceive time.

While it’s difficult to measure because it’s subjective in nature, Joordens said it’s common for people to feel as if time is going by slowly if they’re not very busy.

“People who don't have a lot of structure and don't have a lot of things to do probably feel like time is going slowly and they probably can't wait to get out from under this,” he said.

Abdulrehman added that certain emotions, such as distress, can also make the passage of time feel longer than it is to some people.

“We know that time flies when you're having fun. Well, the opposite is also true. When we're not really having fun, it just feels like things are taking a lot longer and they’re a lot more difficult,” he said.


Create new rituals

While people’s daily rituals, such as dropping their children off at school or grabbing morning coffee with coworkers, may be over, Joordens said they can still create new ones while in self-isolation. He said people should schedule tasks in their day, whether they’re working from home or not, so that it feels like a regular work day.

“It's very important to us to wake up in the day and think, ‘OK here are the things I have to do today,’” he said. “It really does sort of push us through the day.”

Introduce variety

Because maintaining a routine with variety in it is so important for people, Abdulrehman recommends trying new activities to break up the monotony of life in quarantine.

“The thing here is not that we need to be productive, but we do need to start to try new things,” he said. “Even if you try the sourdough bread and it's a total bomb, it's very important that you try. And that experience will be novel, it'll be interesting for your brain.”

Be creative

Abdulrehman said that people should try to be creative when adjusting to their new reality at home. He said that will look different for everyone, but it will help them feel better about their situation.

“Creativity is the thing that's going to save us,” he said. “Whether it's being creative with a routine, being creative with trying new things, being creative with food, with limited things that we might have, being creative and trying to find ways to connect with people, finding ways to exercise.”

Learn how to relax the body and mind

Because anxiety and stress can affect people’s perception of time in quarantine and how it makes them feel, Joordens suggests confronting those emotions with a mind-body approach.

Joordens, who developed a free online course to help people manage their anxiety during the pandemic, said he recommends individuals try guided meditation to teach their bodies how to easily enter into a relaxed state.

“There are online lessons called guided relaxation, audio files, which will basically walk you through this process of first tightening up your whole body and making it really, really tense, but then really releasing that, relaxing, and feeling what it feels like when tension is released,” he said. “If you can put your body into that relaxed state, anxiety will dissipate.”

For the mind, Joordens said people should focus on being mindful of the impact different activities have on their mood.

“So if you're information hungry, and you leave the news on all day, every moment the news is on, it's telling you that you're under threat, and it's feeding your anxiety response,” he said.

Joordens said people should take stock of these potential triggers for anxiety and schedule time in the day for positive activities, such as singing, dancing, and laughing, to momentarily escape from their reality.

Stay connected

Finally, Joordens said people should allot time in their day for social outreach so they can stay connected to family and friends.

“You want to socially connect,” he said. “I'm a big fan of the telephone. You can hear so much in the tone of somebody's voice about how they're actually feeling and that's the level we need to connect right now is at that emotional level.”

The psychologist said maintaining those connections can really help people dealing with anxiety or stress during the pandemic.

“If you can social outreach to somebody who really needs it, then that'll have special mojo too, because you'll feel like, ‘OK, I'm really helping this person feeling lonely’ and of course, they will really appreciate the connection,” he said.