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OPINION

Finding hope in the messiness of the coronavirus pandemic

With our loved ones on top of us in close quarters, or accessible only through a screen, things will inevitably be messy. Yet these challenges can help strengthen our personal resiliency.

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Simone’s anxiety shot through the roof whenever the hour of a work-related Zoom call approached. Her neck muscles clenched, and her pulse raced. As a single mom to 3-year-old Chloe, she and her daughter had developed a predictable routine that blew apart in a disorganized mess when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now Chloe descended rapidly into an all-out tantrum the instant she lost her mother’s attention to the computer screen.

But in a trial and error process, Simone discovered a creative solution. When she used her headphones and the screen of her cellphone instead of the laptop, Chloe would play happily at her side for the entire call. Chloe felt her mother’s presence just enough to stay calm and content.

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A week before this discovery, in a team meeting check-in with her fellow mental health counselors at a group practice, the team leader asked how people were spending their time. While others described walks with their families or baking bread, when Simone’s turn came she had answered simply, “Crying.”

In the quiet that followed, the other “Hollywood Squares” faces appeared concerned and the group gave her space to do just that. When Simone found her voice, she shared that Chloe’s relentless need for attention was wearing her out. She knew other toddlers could play independently and feared there was something wrong with her daughter. The group listened, then reassured her that Chloe’s behavior was typical and expected. Some offered to cover her work for the day. But Simone said that the opportunity to “let it out” had fortified her. She would be OK.

For most of us, the pandemic is testing our resilience like nothing in our lifetimes. As days pass into months and weeks pass with no clear end, how do we find our way forward without becoming overwhelmed with sadness and fear? How do we find hope?

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An understanding of the nature of resilience, as seen in the story of Simone and Chloe, offers an answer. For resilience is neither a trait we are born with nor one we access in the face of overwhelming catastrophe. Rather resilience develops in moment-to-moment interactions in relationships over time, beginning with the first love between parents and infants. While numerous studies demonstrate a correlation between resilience and genetic factors, research in epigenetics reveals our development as a process of ongoing interaction between our genes and our environment.

A classic psychological experiment from the 1970s, known as the “still-face paradigm,” demonstrated the tremendous capacity for connection infants bring with them into the world. This groundbreaking discovery by developmental psychologist Ed Tronick (full disclosure, we are co-authors of a book on relationships), along with the decades of research that followed, showed that we develop a core sense of hope when we move through countless moments of mismatch and repair in the typically messy interactions that characterize these first relationships. Tronick offered evidence for the concept described by pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott of the “good-enough mother.”

Beyond simplistic reassurances that parents should be OK with mistakes, both Winnicott’s concept and Tronick’s research reveal a more profound truth. Errors are necessary because they give opportunity for repair. The pleasure of repair provides the energy needed to fuel growth and development.

When Simone navigated that painful encounter with her colleagues, she found a new source of strength. In turn, this repair fortified her to move through the challenges with her daughter. Simone’s muscles relaxed and her breathing slowed when she found joy in Chloe’s independent play nearby while she worked. Both mother and daughter experienced a sense of competence and confidence as they found their way from mismatch to repair. Their trust in each other grew.

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With our loved ones on top of us in close quarters, or accessible only through a screen, things will inevitably be messy. Yet these challenges can serve as a source to help strengthen our personal resiliency. Moments of meeting, when we navigate through mismatch to repair, preserve a sense of calm and safety both in our minds and in our bodies. Strung together over time, these moments offer a path forward.

Relationships, with all their inevitable imperfections, can buffer us from the harmful effects of stress. When we let the discord happen, we gain energy to not only survive, but to move on to whatever comes next. When we can be in a difficult moment while holding onto the knowledge that at some point — tomorrow, next week, next year — things will be better, we discover hope.

Dr. Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician and coauthor, with Ed Tronick, of “The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust.”