Regaining a Sense of Time Under a Seemingly Endless Quarantine

May 4, 2020

Under quarantine, days and weeks can quickly melt together into one giant, endless weekend. Feeling unmotivated, unorganized, or untethered is not uncommon - in fact, it's our body's natural response to stress. Murray State professor of psychology, Dr. Michael Bordieri, talks to Tracy Ross about how to alleviate some of that stress through building and maintaining a daily routine.

In the days of working from home, online classes, and social distancing, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of time and routine. Cancelled plans and disrupted 'markers' of day to day life can leave many feeling restless, wayward, and disarrayed. 

"I think we have broader psychological research that would suggest that this is likely a common experience for many of us right now," Bordieri begins. "When we have an event like [the COVID-19 pandemic] that is so extreme that it disrupts almost all aspects of our lives, it's not uncommon to have this sort of sense of detachment from how our lives used to be or what the day-to-day motion of our life is like."

"The magnitude of this event really can't be understated. That alone is a major stressor, of course. We know that the human response to stress often comes at a cost to our day-to-day functioning. Things like losing a sense of time or...sense of forward momentum...exhaustion...[these] are really common responses to stress."

"I think one other piece of this, though, that is likely contributing [to this mental health challenge] is our safer at home status," Bordieri continues. "So many of us now are upending our routines in a way that we're living differently than before. From a psychological perspective, that presents a major challenge. We know humans tend to do well and do best and thrive when they're broadly interacting with the world in lots of different ways."

From a clinical perspective, psychological adjustment is measured by an individual's ability to have lots of different roles and to engage meaningfully and often with the world. These meaningful moments often require moving geographically. Under social distancing guidelines, "the markers or ways we can even interact with the world have changed," Bordieri explains. "I think that's where the sense of loss comes from."

"The good news, though, is we don't necessarily have to wait until it's physically safe to be out in the world again to build back some of that sense of routine and some of that sense of purpose that I think many of us are struggling with right now," Bordieri says. 

Quarantine is difficult, but not impossible, to handle. "One area of wisdom that I've seen reported in some really tremendous, powerful interviews have come from folks who have been incarcerated and been in solitary confinement," Bordieri says. "Unfortunately, we're becoming increasingly aware of the psychological toll that isolation has on individuals, especially in the form of 23-hour-a-day lockdown as in our criminal justice system."

Many of these individuals credited building and maintaining a routine as to having helped them endure prolonged isolation. "Obviously, our current situation is nowhere near as extreme as that. [It's not] a direct comparison," Bordieri explains. "But we can take some of the wisdom from those folks that have survived and been in situations like solitary confinement and apply that same logic to our lives."

"Routine absolutely is essential," Bordieri continues. "Building a sense of purpose each day. Really simple things like getting up and getting dressed. We can all wear our pajamas right now, or at least many of us can, but that doesn't mean we should. At the very least, adapt. Have a morning pajamas and an evening pajamas," he laughs. 

"Simple things like the cues of taking a shower, putting on clean clothes...those really do contribute to our psychological well-being. We see this in medical settings as well. The more we make hospital settings look like homes that have day-to-day routines, the better folks do in them."

"In fact, that was a major innovation in the treatment of psychological disorders. It happened not too far from here in Anna, Illinois," Bordieri explains. After witnessing the effects of an activity-less, interaction-less life of patients of the Anna State Hospital, the late Ned Azrin and others developed a program of ways of incentives to get patients in the hospital engaged in meaningful activities.

"Simple things like making your bed, brushing your teeth, participating in a program, eating with others. It turned out that when folks did this, not only did it improve their day-to-day quality of life, they actually recovered faster," Bordieri says. "Their functioning in the world improved. I think we can take research like that and the experience of others who've been in these isolated states and take some tips for what we can do ourselves to build a sense of routine and, as much as possible, find ways to engage with the world each day. Even if we don't have to."

"I have no doubt that humans will adapt. We know we have a tremendous ability to adapt to new circumstances," Bordieri says. He explains that one thing to keep in mind while moving forward with the eased restrictions of social distancing state to state is "recognizing that we're going to have to do something differently when we're out. It's not going to be as if one switch just magically flips and everything's back. It's going to be in stages. It's likely going to require us to do things a little bit differently."

"I think it's important for us to maybe temper our expectations. Look for ways to embrace and get back to the world in a way, but also make sure we stay safe," Bordieri concludes.