Clumsier Than Usual? Blame Social Distancing Stress

by JR Thorpe
A broken planter on the floor, knocked over as a result of coronavirus stress making people clumsier
Oliver Helbig / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Right now, there's likely a steady hum of stress running in the background of your work-from-home routine, or your Zoom happy hours. "These are stressful, if not all-out traumatic, times," Dr. Alexa Mieses M.D., a family physician, tells Bustle. One unexpected side effect of your coronavirus stress? You might find yourself dropping a lot of plates, bumping into your coffee table, or burning dishes you've cooked hundreds of times. Stress, research shows, can actually make us clumsier.

"Stress can have significant cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physiological impact on our functioning," Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. It can also make motor functioning, the brain's control of movements and awareness of the body, go haywire.

"When our body is in a stress state, our ability to concentrate, to regulate our breathing, to regulate our blood pressure and heart rate are impacted," Dr. Klapow says. "Our muscles tend to contract as well." This is part of the body's fight-or-flight reaction, a set of responses that we've developed over millennia to cope with threats like saber-toothed tigers. It makes our reactions faster when something dangerous happens, but it can also mean we're over-stimulated and don't coordinate our muscles properly. "Heightened physiological arousal and muscle tension can hinder our motor skills, making us temporarily clumsier," Dr. Klapow says.

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The pressure of being in a confined space all the time may also mean we're feeling clumsier right now. "For people like me in a tiny NYC apartment, you may not have much space; wherever you live, you may feel confined by the walls of your home," Dr. Lori Nathanson, Ph.D., a yoga teacher and emotional intelligence researcher, tells Bustle. This confinement can alter our sense of balance and coordination, she says.

Studies show that the higher the anxiety level, the bigger the impact on motor skills. Complicated motor skills, like putting a key in a door or operating a coffee machine, are particularly affected by anxiety, but even simple movements like picking up a cup can be impacted. A study published in Journal of Neuroscience in 2011 showed why: a single dose of high emotional stress can affect the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls our coordination and movement. Even one hard conversation or bad day can make you more likely to drop a pan on your foot.

Stress is also distracting, Dr. Klapow says. An anxious brain can't focus, and often finds it difficult to pay attention to what's happening around it. If you're preoccupied with something, you aren't necessarily aware of what you're doing with your body — and that results in, say, knocking over a coffee cup, or running into a door.

Trying your best to reduce stress can also lower your risk of knocking over your new plants. Dr. Mieses recommends a regular sleep routine, alongside physical activity, chatting with friends, and blowing off steam with something creative or rewarding like cooking. "As a yoga teacher, doing yoga poses helps me find balance and feel more graceful," Dr. Nathanson says. "Pairing movement and breath helps me move mindfully and feel less clumsy.” Mindfulness exercises, where you pay attention to your breathing and try to center your focus, might also help you be more aware of your body — and stop bashing it against the door handle every time you go into the living room. (Ouch.)

Studies cited:

Anderson, G. S., Di Nota, P. M., Metz, G., & Andersen, J. P. (2019). The Impact of Acute Stress Physiology on Skilled Motor Performance: Implications for Policing. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2501.

Devilbiss, D.M., Jeniso, R.L., Berridg,e C.W. (2012) Stress-induced impairment of a working memory task: role of spiking rate and spiking history predicted discharge. PLoS Comput Biol. 8(9):e1002681. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002681.

Metz, G.A., Jadavji, N.M., Smith, L.K. (2005) Modulation of motor function by stress: a novel concept of the effects of stress and corticosterone on behavior. Eur J Neurosci. 22(5), 190-200.

Savtchouk, I., Liu, S.J. (2011) Remodeling of synaptic AMPA receptor subtype alters the probability and pattern of action potential firing. J Neurosci. 31(2), 501-11. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2608-10.2011.


Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist

Dr. Alexa Mieses M.D., family physician

Dr. Lori Nathanson Ph.D., yoga practitioner and researcher