Over Memorial Day Weekend, a tree tried to kill me. I was sitting on a park bench with a friend, drinking a few clandestine beers, when one of its enormous boughs snapped off at the trunk and crashed to the ground beside me, its leaves brushing my arm on the way down.
After two terrifying months in New York City, it struck me as darkly funny that I could have survived living in the epicenter of the global pandemic, only to be felled by a random bonk on the head while clutching a Coors Light. My response to the near-death experience was both instinctual and embarrassing: I grabbed my phone so that I could take a photo of the giant branch and tweet about it. But as I lined up the camera, my phone sailed out of my hand and clattered to the sidewalk, spiderwebbing part of the glass.
Better my iPhone than my skull, but the shattered device wasn’t an anomaly. It was only the latest casualty in a series of mishaps that have haunted me since the start of quarantine. First, some haphazard storage decisions atop my refrigerator flung a pitcher to its demise on the tile below. Bottles of cold-brew coffee, pickle relish, and cocktail sauce practically leapt off their shelves. Several times, I have grabbed something out of the fridge only to send a plastic container of leftovers to the floor, and I have knocked over too many cans of seltzer to remember the specifics. Every time something breaks or food pools on my floor, I race to get a towel or a broom or a vacuum while bellowing at my chihuahua to stay away, lightly traumatizing us both.
I have abundant personal deficiencies, but being a bull in my own personal china shop usually isn’t among them. Since the pandemic hit, I have broken, dropped, and bumped into things not only at home, but also out in the world, while setting up a picnic or loading groceries into my cart. Every time I complained to someone about denting, cracking, or obliterating another object, they chimed in with their own recent examples. One had smashed his phone screen on two separate occasions. Another, along with his wife, broke four wine glasses in the space of two months. A co-worker broke a window trying to open it, scared herself, and jumped back into a mirror, breaking it as well. Whether these people were working from home or spending more time there because they’d been laid off, spilled Tupperware and bruised knees abounded.
Friends’ tales of accidental destruction are so common that they seem as if they might be part of a pattern instead of just random acts of clumsiness, even though an actual trend would be difficult to demonstrate. Spilling or dropping things is often an embarrassingly individual experience, but could those isolated incidents have a common cause? It’s possible that the pandemic has turned you into a klutz.
Determining whether people have actually become clumsier during the past six months is basically impossible. Stubbing a toe or chipping a mug doesn’t generate any easily collected and analyzed data, even if it produces a lot of unfortunate anecdotes. But based on another known effect of the pandemic and how it might influence behavior, the theory seems plausible: Namely, Americans are very, very anxious and stressed out. In one survey released this summer, more than half of respondents reported feeling more stressed in May than they had in January. According to a May report from the Census Bureau, the rate of American adults who say they have symptoms of an anxiety disorder has more than tripled since the same time last year.
Stress and anxiety are mental processes, but they can have unmistakably physical manifestations, such as sweating and heart palpitations. The internet is full of pop psychology about stress’s potential to interfere with fine motor skills—potentially making it harder to securely grip an object or avoid obstacles in your path. I thought I might have solved the mystery of a thousand messes in one quick Google search.
That’s not quite the case, according to Gerald Voelbel, an occupational-therapy professor at New York University. When I asked him if stress affects motor skills, he responded with an emphatic no.
What stress and anxiety can affect, Voelbel told me, is spatial awareness: your ability to accurately perceive where your body is in relation to the things in the world around it. “Are we conscious, are we alert, do we have the attention that we placed [our glass] at this point here and not three inches away?” Voelbel asked. When those little mental processes are hampered by stress, he said, your grip might not be as well targeted as usual, or you might bump into a glass instead of grasping it. Stress and anxiety are also very effective distractions, which is why you might forget that the bowl you’re about to elbow off the counter is there at all—even if you put it there yourself, 30 seconds before.
Whether your clumsiness has actually escalated in the past six months might also be a matter of expanded opportunity. If you’re among the millions of Americans now working from home—or sequestered there while looking for work—the most easily obliterated objects you regularly encounter are probably in your kitchen. When cooking your own meals, pouring your own drinks, and washing your own dishes, you’re giving yourself more chances to snap a wine glass than if all you had to do was be served at a table, eat an office desk lunch out of a plastic container, or grab a paper sack full of takeout. If you’re also caring for children while at home, homeschooling via Zoom while you also try to work and keep your house in order, that would potentially ratchet up both your stress level and the number of people available to grab imprecisely at breakable objects or bump into things that might fall over. Voelbel compared this phenomena to the old statistic about most car accidents happening close to home: Being stuck in your house might make you more complacent in comfortable surroundings. It might concentrate your usual clumsiness and, when it comes to your dishes, do so in a highly apparent way.
Voelbel told me there might also be an emotional element to why everyone I know can rattle off a list of all the things they’ve accidentally destroyed lately. Things don’t have to be happening more frequently for them to be more noticeable. Many accidents are frustrating, but when people are already highly agitated—by, I don’t know, a pandemic—these incidents can cause an outsize emotional reaction, which makes them stick out in people’s minds. It’s like an emotional sunburn: You’re already red and raw, and when you bump into something when you’re in that state, it hurts far worse than it would have under normal circumstances.
It would be difficult for any particular person to determine if their accelerated quarantine clumsiness is real, a function of their attention, or both. No matter what, it seems unlikely to decline soon—for the foreseeable future, many Americans will be working and parenting from home, laboring within a pressure cooker of stress. With summer nearly over, much of the country will soon lose the opportunity to spend lots of time blowing off steam outdoors. In the meantime, it might be smart to get a case for your phone and some hard-plastic drinking glasses. Think of them as safety gear for the long haul.
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