Dan Gorodezky

Everyone experiences time differently, and according to a recent study conducted at the University of Montreal, the way you experience time may predict your level of stress.

Researchers administered a survey to 67 participants to place them in subgroups representing different “Time Perspective” profiles. They then put the subjects through the Trier Social Stress Test, a well known assessment that involves, among other things, participating in a stressful mock job interview and performing mental arithmetic. Throughout the test, researchers measured participants’ levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in response to stress, via saliva samples. The study was published in the journal Biological Psychology on Sept. 8.

“This was the first study that specifically addressed Time Perspective profiles in terms of how those profiles can predict the way cortisol is secreted in relation to a stressor,” said Lening Olivera-Figueroa, first author of the study and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

Coined by Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo, Time Perspective is typically broken down into five categories. They are: past-positive, looking positively at one’s past; past-negative, looking negatively at the past; present-hedonistic, living in the moment; present-fatalistic, trapped in the present; and future-focused, or forward thinking.

“[Time Perspective] is one’s whole conceptualization of time,” said Robert Levine, professor of social psychology at California State University. “It’s not only that orientation towards past, present or future, it’s the preference for the rhythm and pace of one’s life.”

This study compressed those five profiles into two: balanced and unbalanced. A balanced Time Perspective consisted of high levels of future-focused and past-positive thinking, as well as moderately high levels of present-hedonistic thinking. Conversely, an unbalanced Time Perspective included high levels of present-fatalistic and past-negative thinking.

The findings were surprising, said Olivera. Those with a more balanced Time Perspective profile had higher levels of cortisol, indicating more stress while those with an unbalanced Time Perspective profile had lower levels. In other words, people who experienced more negative thinking were less stressed. Logic would suggest otherwise, said Olivera — that people with unbalanced Time Perspectives would have higher cortisol levels.

While these results were surprising for Olivera, others took issue with the study’s implication that there is only one “right” time perspective.

“I think that certain Time Perspectives may be more beneficial in certain kinds of contexts than others,” said Alison Holman, professor of nursing science at the University of California, Irvine. “There isn’t any one best way to be, I think it depends on what the circumstances are.”

Levine agreed that there is not a correct answer to the question of an optimal Time Perspective profile.

Holman also suggested that one Time Perspective category for future-oriented thinking may not be enough.

“There are people in the world for whom the future is negative,” she said. “The future can be other than just planning ahead. It can be worrying.”

Olivera said he hopes his findings will be applied to monitor progress of patients undergoing psychotherapy. He thinks, he said, that measuring cortisol levels before and after treatment will provide doctors with more quantifiable indicators of improvement.

Although the results establish a link between Time Perspectives and cortisol, Olivera does not discard the possibility of other factors influencing cortisol levels.

“A lot of mental health professionals have tended to rely on self-reported measures [of stress],” he said. “Cortisol is a more objective way of determining stress levels in a person.”

In addition to cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are the other major hormones involved in stress.