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  • Writer's pictureJessie Huang

Why PTSD Makes Time Feel So Slow

One reason I stopped indulging in marijuana was because the substance seemed to make time slow down to an agonizing rate.

With PTSD, and the hypervigilance that comes with it, the perceived slowing of time is an everyday reality. This experience is otherwise known as "subjective time dilation."

For many, it's non-stop. And perhaps why countless people with PTSD fall victim to vices like drugs and alcohol (including me).

Minutes feel like hours. Days feel like months. Months... an eternity.

At face value, it may seem time dilation occurs as a result of slower cognitive processes.

In my personal experience, I propose the exact opposite.

PTSD-related time distortion due to cognitive overload

PTSD is associated with symptoms aplenty. Most prominently:

  • Racing thoughts

  • Overthinking

These two symptoms, I submit, are the causal culprits behind subjective time dilation. They are most likely byproducts of heightened arousal and reactivity -- classic traits associated with PTSD.

In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognizes heightened arousal and reactivity as one of the "most familiar symptom group of trauma-related symptoms."

Here's a logical line of argument to back into the conclusion that racing thoughts and overthinking trigger subjective time dilation in PTSD sufferers:

  • By definition, racing thoughts and overthinking cause more thoughts than average

  • Let's say a non-PTSD mind experiences X thoughts per hour

  • Given heightened arousal and reactivity, a PTSD mind experiences 10X thoughts per hour (hypothetical multiple)

  • One 24 hour day for a non-PTSD mind would constitute 24X total thoughts

  • One 24 hour day for a PTSD mind would constitute 240X total thoughts

  • To think a thought is a mental exercise and implies a subjective use and experience of objective time

  • More thoughts = more mental exercise = significantly increased usage and subjective experience of objective time

  • Increased usage and subjective experience of objective time suggests a perception of time passage feeling slower, due to higher demand for mental flexing

  • Therefore, people with PTSD experience higher frequency of thoughts, causing the subjective experience of objective time to feel significantly slower than average

Possible counter-argument and response

A counter-argument and -example may be the phenomenon of being "lost in thought." It's not uncommon for someone to become so engrossed in their whirlwind thoughts, that subjective time passes by in a flash.

But it seems such instances of "time flying" are typically associated with pleasant or productive thoughts (e.g. brainstorming meaningful gifts for loved ones).

Perhaps, then, it is the content of the thoughts and emotional state in which they occur that truly matters, which can be boiled down to 2 plausible scenarios:

  1. Positively valenced thoughts contain desirable content, and imply an optimistic emotional state.

  2. Negatively valenced thoughts contain undesirable content, and imply a pessimistic emotional state.

PTSD is directly linked to trauma. Traumatic experiences elicit individuals' fight-or-flight response mode, in order to deal with stressful events.

Arguably, our bodies are evolutionarily wired to immediately interpret traumatic events as undesirable and negative.

It's scientifically theorized that people with PTSD exhibit measurable brain changes, which throw their biological fight-or-flight reactive mechanisms out of wack. In essence, a PTSD brain interprets benign events to be threatening and undesirable markedly more often than a "normal" brain.

As a result, PTSD produces pervasive (and often unwanted) thoughts that are negatively valenced at a very high rate and frequency. This causes those with the disorder to experience time as unbearably slow, which is amplified, in part, by a pessimistic emotional state.

Takeaways and tips

If you have PTSD and experience subjective time dilation...

  • Know that you are not alone.

  • Try and develop positively valenced coping mechanisms and activities for days when time feels at a standstill.

  • Consider medication. I've benefitted greatly from SSRIs.

  • Figure out effective methods to distract yourself (e.g. mindless doodling).

  • Try and shift thoughts to the present by mentally taking stock of things around you (e.g. "I see a blue chair. I hear my fan humming").

  • Be kind to yourself. Minimize self-criticism. It's not your fault.

  • Call or text a hotline. There are many resources here.

  • Talk to trusted friends who understand, won't judge, or won't trivialize what you have to say.

  • Depending on your personality, engage in introverted or extraverted activities.

  • Embrace it as a superpower: you get to live a subjectively longer life than others!

  • Remember that the moment and feelings will pass.

The effects of PTSD on internal time perception can be debilitating, especially when the painful thoughts and memories won't stop.

I wish I could provide a solve. But the most I can offer are explanations, empathy, and words of encouragement in solidarity.


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