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A Russian Psychologist 100 Years Ago Tells Us Why We Are Having Trouble Coping Now

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

While sitting in an Austrian restaurant, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noted that the wait staff could clearly remember details of orders for patrons who had not yet paid. But as soon as the check was closed, the servers could not remember the order or the amount of the bill.

So what, you say?

This noted psychologist then conducted an intriguing number of controlled experiments involving interrupted tasks as well as completed tasks. Interestingly, participants in these scientific studies could recall the details about the interrupted tasks twice as often as they could recall details about the completed tasks.

Zeigarnik and other investigators postulated that there is a tension, an anxiety about tasks that are interrupted, and we inherently seek closure and the need to connect the dots and close the files.

Her experiments were conducted about a hundred years ago, but the significance of her findings continues today. Consider the unresolved plot lines in books and movies, creating tension and drama with the audience. A nagging sense of incompletion until the killer is arrested or the lovers unite.

Today, we all feel the unease without closure for COVID-19. No end in sight. No plot line to resolve. No vaccine. And as we move into the fall and winter with the prospect of continuing uncertainty, we feel a tension that’s showing up as fatigue, headaches, irritability, insomnia, weight loss or gain, forgetfulness, procrastination, anger, and frustration about “small stuff.”

With concern about masks, school starting, unemployment, working from home, social isolation, limited activity, lockdowns looming, no wonder that our brain circuits get overloaded. We cannot process and absorb a bewildering amount of conflicting information while our lives are becoming even more chaotic and frenetic.

From a practical standpoint, what does this is really mean and what can we do about it?

As I have connected with many individuals, that enthusiasm for flattening the curve has dwindled under the crushing recognition of the virus. Our energy, focus, and drive have been sapped, and there is just a vague anxiety that something is not quite right (the tension of the unresolved tasks Zeigarnik documented).

Our lives are hanging, and let me share some examples:

  • A twenty-four-year-old son of a neighbor has a BA in English and works as an entry-level copy editor for a marketing company. He was encouraged to get a master's degree, had filed the usual applications, arranged for interviews, but he then became indifferent because of the profound economic insecurity of the industry. Why connect the dots if there may not be any payoff at the end of graduate school?

  • A high school teacher from church acknowledged being indecisive and devoid of enthusiasm because no one can say for certainty what the upcoming school year will look like. Face-to-face classroom, virtual studies, or a combination thereof? No one knows. There is a profound sense of incompletion and the recognition of the threat to her health by going back into the classroom.

  • In January 2020 a professional couple we know purchased a condo requiring a major overhaul in a large Midwestern city. They had done their homework, had signed contracts, and looked forward to starting the project in February. Work was well under way when COVID swept down on the project like a vulture and everything stopped. The condo is in total disarray, and there is no clear completion date in sight. The files remain open, the dots are unconnected, and something is clearly missing.

  • Patients have delayed or put off routine health surveillance such as mammograms and screening for colon cancer because of fear of traveling to the Mayo Clinic and other major healthcare institutions in the midst of the pandemic. Medical itineraries for tests and evaluations remain incomplete, and some studies estimate that thousands of patients may die over the next ten years because of these missed opportunities. Potentially serious conditions may be curable if detected early. There is incompleteness in their management.

  • On a far more mundane note. I know very little about cars but I do know the importance of regular maintenance. Especially an oil change and having tires rotated periodically. In the upper corner of our windshield is a sticker from the dealership: “June 1, 2020. Service appointment.” The message was right in front of me day after day, and I missed it. Now, months later, like most individuals I feel a palpable preoccupation with just the stuff of life and COVID is right at top of the list. Almost everything that we do whether personal or professional is filtered through the lens of COVID-19.

What to do: When we check off a to-do list, when we complete reasonable goals, this clearly enhances self-esteem and confidence. In these days of overwhelming COVID concerns and just life alone, we are well advised to put stuff away, to have a list and complete tasks, bring closure to something you can, to be reasonably organized and forward thinking.

Otherwise, our cognitive abilities becomes overloaded, and we can miss some crucial commitments that have a profound impact on our health and well-being.

Bottom line: We are now well into the “new normal,” and those who adapt will hold the keys to the kingdom.

Photo courtesy of Tom Liggett, author of Mozart in the Garden (

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