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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.
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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.