“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
― Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
In the past month, you have probably read more about social and physical distancing than you ever thought was possible.
Rest assured, you won’t find the phrase “6-feet apart” anywhere (else) in this post.
Instead, let’s talk about something you may not have heard of before, but are likely already doing.
You are time travelling. Every day.
Well, okay, let me be more specific. We are time traveling…mentally.
Humans have the remarkable ability to engage in mental time travel, where we can reflect on the past or imagine the near and distant future.
It’s easy to take this ability for granted because we do it every day, and it’s often unconscious.
If you are a daydreamer like me, you’ve spent hours living in your head, dreaming about whimsical and fun scenarios that put a goofy smile on your face.
Or maybe you are thinking about finishing your work so you can put your feet up with a cozy mug of tea and finally find out how that crazy good book actually ends.
In this post we will examine this ability, because it may be partially what is getting us through these tough times!
Temporal Distancing: Explained
These days, many of us are thinking about what we are looking forward to doing when it’s safe to engage again with the people and places we love.
This ability to mentally distance ourselves from the stress and emotional toll of this pandemic is called temporal distancing.
Temporal distancing relates to our ability to adopt a broader time perspective.
Here is a relatable example: Say you go in to interview for what seems like your ideal job. Unfortunately, the interview does not go well and it’s pretty clear that you won’t get the position.
You decide not to dwell on how dejected you are feeling in the present. Instead, you reflect on how you might perceive this interview at later time points.
You contemplate telling a friend about it over coffee next week, and how she will surely laugh at how the interviewer offered you tea but then never made it. You may also focus on how you’ll perceive this interview 10 years later as a tiny bump on a long and interesting road.
In other words, adopting a broader time perspective, or temporally distancing yourself from the current distressing events, helps you cope better with tanking the interview.
What is it about temporal distancing that makes it easier to deal with life’s sorrows and stresses?
A group of researchers sought to answer this question. Their work will inform the rest of this post!
Don’t Avoid It, Re-frame It
How exactly does mentally distancing ourselves from the realities of life in the age of COVID-19 help us deal with it? It seems to contradict the idea that we should face our troubles head on, rather than avoid them.
Temporal distancing is NOT the same as avoidance though.
Think of it like re-framing instead!
Here are 3 ways temporal distancing helps re-frame our reality:
Negative Events Are Not Forever
Temporal distancing helps us realize that emotional pain and stress is impermanent.
Adopting a narrow temporal view of current negative events allows them to occupy our headspace more deeply and intensely. Our reactions to stressful events are often concrete in nature. They occupy our thoughts with the specifics of the event, and enable us to relive the negative feelings.
Conversely, using a broader future frame (i.e. thinking about how we will remember these months 5 years from now or how we will show greater appreciation for our health and freedom in the future) opens up the possibility that these difficult days and the struggles they are bringing up will fade with time too.
Temporal distancing allows us to live through our current circumstances more mindfully.
When we understand that the intensity of this pandemic will wane with time, just like anything else, we may find more peace in the present moment.
An important component of mindfulness is the heightened awareness that all thoughts, feelings, and events are transient. Re-framing the pandemic as another event that will pass, encourages us to observe our experience without judgement, much like a feeling that we accept and allow to pass through us.
This perspective is helpful if you are feeling like you are ‘doing quarantine wrong’ unless you are doubly productive, perfecting a skill, or learning a new language.
Lovingly reminding yourself that there is no right or wrong way to live through a pandemic is possible when you can observe your experience mindfully.
You may have heard of rosy retrospection, the tendency to reflect on past events as more positive and meaningful than they felt at the time.
Researchers have found that we also have a tendency to view our distant future with rose-coloured glasses.
We envision our distant future as brighter and more positive than our near futures. This occurs because we tend to emphasize concrete aspects less when thinking about a far future. Instead, we think in more abstract and overarching terms that are not specific to our current stressful circumstances.
To use the job interview example from above, you can still imagine yourself to be happy in 5 years with a rewarding and well-paying career despite having performed poorly in a job interview.
I can PERSONALLY attest to that feeling!
The tendency to contemplate the distant future with hope and optimism may lessen our current distress around COVID-19.
Time Heals All Wounds
This oft-repeated phrase captures the idea that emotional pain fades with time. However, this realization usually becomes clear to us in hindsight.
Can we draw on this insight to help manage our distress while it is occurring? Say, for example, while we are living through a trauma event such as a global pandemic?
Our main study of interest confirms that yes, we can. The results revealed that when asked to reflect on how they would perceive a serious personally relevant stressor, participants who saw the stressor through a distant future lens reported less negative emotion.
Additionally, another study supports the benefits of temporal distancing.
Researchers found that when participants thought about how they would be affected by a negative event (i.e. you fail an important exam) in the distant future, they experienced less emotional arousal and better emotional regulation. In short, they didn't feel so bad about it.
Many of us are having challenging days as we wrap up week 5 of quarantine, anxiously in hopes of the numbers to show us that things are getting better and we can resume normalcy.
We hope this post helped you realize that temporal distancing is something you are likely already doing and could be helping you cope with these tough times.
If not, we invite you to think of a distant future perspective on this situation by focusing on a hopeful vision of the world that may emerge from this passing event.
Doing this may just allow you live through these times with less distress and more compassion for yourself.
What positive futures are you focusing on to get you through COVID-19? I'm curious to know, leave me a comment!
If you need some assistance in navigating this challenging time, feel free to reach out to me and I will help you.
Until next time,