A little less than three years ago I was quite sick for eight months. I struggled to have more than two decent days in a row, and often it was more like two decent hours. During this period it seemed like my situation was going to last forever. The hours felt like days and the days felt like months. It was hard to see any way out.
Fast forward to today and, looking back, those eight months don’t seem like such a long period of time at all. I actually remember them as a smaller speck. My experience is common. Research shows that when we are in the midst of challenging experiences our perception of time slows immensely. But when we look back on those challenging experiences, they seem to have passed quite quickly.
This change in perception occurs because during struggles each minute tends to be filled with lots of distressing thoughts and feelings. Called the “decompression of time,” this makes each minute feel longer, since more is happening in each minute. (This is contrary to flow experiences, during which time flies because you are having a blast, in the zone, and hardly thinking at all.)
But when we look back on challenging periods, we remember them not as second-by-second moments of distress, as we experienced them, but rather as broader chunks of time. As such, they don’t feel as devastatingly long. If anything, they feel more like small moments.
We also tend to remember experiences based on how they felt at the end. Coming out of a struggle, be it internal or external, you are, well, coming out of it. Those last few not-so-bad memories, or even better, moments of relief, tend to be what sticks. (For more on this, see Part Two of Daniel Pink’s latest book, When.)
The implications are as follows: When we are in the midst of struggle and suffering, our first and foremost job is simply to get through it with as much grace and grit as possible. What feels like forever now won’t feel like forever later. We need to keep showing up and doing the best we can.
Secondly, we’d be wise to try to compress our experience of challenging periods. This often means less thinking and worrying about something and more taking action, more doing. There’s a reason that behavioral activation—science speak for simply getting up and doing something—is so powerful in treating depression.
Whether you are saddened because of the state of the world, because your athletic event or season just got cancelled, or because the big project you were working toward is now on hold (or all of the above), hold on to the knowledge that what you are feeling is real AND it won’t seem so bad or all-consuming in the future. Be patient. Do the best you can. Be kind to yourself and others. And keep showing up. It’s as simple and as hard as that.