Traumatic events disrupt our perception of time, BIU study finds

Science and Health

Being exposed personally or just as a citizen to traumatic events can disrupt our perception of time, according to a new study at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan.

The article, just published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy under the title “The dual role of time perception in trauma-exposed individuals: A conceptual review,” presents an extensive theoretical literature review that aims to conceptualize and establish a new theoretical understanding regarding the relationship among exposure to trauma, disruption of time perception, and clinical symptoms.

The research was led by Chava Treitel as part of her master’s thesis under adviser Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi from BIU’s Faculty of Education and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.

“It seems that the issue of time perception changes as a result of exposure to trauma and, since October 7, it is being experienced not only on a personal level but also on a national-collective level,” the researchers suggested.

A new understanding of time to cope with trauma

Their proposed solution is to adopt a renewed understanding of time perception that could help alleviate post-traumatic symptoms without the need for direct reprocessing of traumatic content.

Photo of Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi (credit: COURTESY BAR ILAN)

“The ability to perceive time allows us to synchronize with our environment behaviorally and emotionally, as well as to assess danger and our ability to deal with it,” they wrote. “Perception of time affects us in two parallel ways. On the one hand, various experiences dictate our perception of time. Positive experiences pass very quickly (for example, we don’t just say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ or feel like a vacation ends too quickly – we mean it).

But negative experiences slow our perception of time – for example, when people are asked how much time has elapsed since they called an ambulance until it arrived, they usually give a wrong estimate and think that more time has elapsed than has.”

Wounded Israeli soldiers from the south arrive to the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem, October 7, 2023. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

On the other hand, the perception of time dictates the type of experience, the researchers continued. “When we feel that time passes quickly, we tend to label the experience as good and positive. This happens when we are immersed in something that flows smoothly. When it seems that time doesn’t pass, we will usually label the experience as a negative one (for example, ‘I was stuck in traffic for hours, or I waited in line for hours, what a nightmare’); the feeling of continuous time by itself creates and intensifies existing negative feelings.

THE RESEARCH shows how the perception of time may affect the development of post-traumatic symptoms through two parallel pathways. First, due to the dual role of time, traumatic events cause disruption and slow down our time perception. Their negative valence affects our experience (every day seems like a week), and this time dilation intensifies the negative feelings.

“Second, our brain encodes traumatic events in an elemental manner and hence each element may evoke negative feelings and slow down our time perception. Specifically, positive events are encoded holistically. For instance, if we enjoyed a family dinner, we would remember the entire event – people, location, smell, time of the day – as a whole. Altogether, this event is associated with a positive feeling.

Understanding how the brain responds to trauma

 However, traumatic events are encoded in an elemental manner – so if we had to stay in a shelter for many hours, each element of this experience (the structure of the shelter, the smells, and the sounds) is independently associated with our negative trauma-related feelings. Therefore, each element may evoke it even in the absence of the other elements.

This may explain why children who had to stay in a shelter for many hours during the October 7 attack may develop a fear of being closed in small rooms – even if they are aware of its safety – and why soldiers who return from the battlefield may feel anxious when they hear fireworks – even if they are safe in their hometown.

A small-structured room or loud sounds are both neutral stimuli, but since they were also part of the traumatic experience, they are associated with the traumatic reaction and may independently evoke it, even in safe situations.

Taken together, a chronic slowdown in the perception of time may arise, something that serves as fertile ground for the development of post-traumatic symptoms that last over time, the authors suggested.

After exposure to trauma, these two mechanisms create a cruel trap whereby both traumatic and neutral events continue to disrupt our time perception. In this situation, even without further exposure to traumatic events, reality is painted in gloomy colors. Every experience, no matter how neutral, takes on a traumatic tone and reproduces the negative feelings from the initial event. This encourages the formation of additional post-traumatic symptoms that persist over time.

A targeted clinical intervention that enables the development of awareness of time and its disruptions may be an innovative intervention pathway that allows the relief of post-traumatic symptoms without the need for repeated exposure to emotional content linked to the traumatic experience, they explained.

AS A result of their research, the BIU team members suggest using a clinical intervention based on metacognitive awareness that has been found to have a positive effect on time perception and reduce post-traumatic symptoms.

Metacognitive awareness includes relearning how to evaluate time, which allows for the reduction of disruptions in the perception of time that characterize people during and after exposure to trauma. The study presents, for the first time, findings indicating that this method has the potential to alleviate post-traumatic symptoms, such as impulsivity or aggression, without the need for a renewed and direct processing of the traumatic content.

“It can be argued that the trauma of October 7 created a slowdown in the perception of time, such that every day feels like an eternity. Even now, three months after that terrible day, the perception of time for many of us remains distorted. On the one hand, it seems that we experienced it only yesterday, and on the other, there’s a feeling that the war was always here, and it is difficult to remember and connect to events that occurred before the war. It’s also difficult to grasp that even though it is an ongoing situation, it is also ultimately limited in time,” said Levy-Gigi.

Paying conscious attention to the passage of time may help. For example, continuous counting of the days the hostages have been held captive in Gaza helps us place the traumatic event and more accurately measure our distance from it, they suggested.

Other exercises that could help include consciously directing attention to periods in the day – for example, a clock that rings every hour and helps us accurately perceive time, or comparing the period that has passed to the experience of periods of similar duration (for example, the time that has passed since the seventh of October is about the same in duration as the time between the end of one school year and the beginning of another).

Finally, looking at the period from a broad historical perspective, by comparing this war to other wars throughout history and realizing that some of them were also long but, in the end, they became points on a timeline. Similarly, the current war will also be a clear and relatively short segment in the history of humanity and the State of Israel and within the person’s life experience.