When the Worst Thing That Ever Happened to You Turns Out to Be the Best

Reframe when you’re stressed or struggling by thinking of a specific time in your past when you overcame an obstacle.

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Courtesy of British Medical Journal
Courtesy of British Medical Journal

Eleven years ago I was given the gift of a debilitating condition that stopped me sitting or standing for longer than 30 seconds for nine months. I was relegated to a life of only being able to lie flat 24 hours a day. “Gift!” I hear you say, “What is she talking about?”. A decade on I know that the experience gave me a new lease of life and a reference point to always mentally return to when life presents unexpected and inevitable challenges.  

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Sitting at the kitchen table as a child refusing to eat your dinner and a grown-up would tell you to “think of the starving children in Africa.” Or perhaps when you’ve felt job frustration and someone says, “Just appreciate being employed and having a steady income, it could be a lot worse.” Or you’ve been dumped and a well-meaning friend says, “Well at least this happened now and not in a few years’ time when you could have had a mortgage and children to think about.”  

Of course, there are always people worse off than you, of course your situation could be more dire but that doesn’t help mitigate the stress, upset and fear you feel when we are in the midst of it. However, what can help is to visualise a past moment when you were worse off than yourself right now.

Let me tell you about my experience and how it helped me to reframe. So back in 2008 I had a flu-type virus which showed all the symptoms of meningitis. The doctor gave me a choice — either wait a few hours to see if I felt any better or have a painful lumbar puncture which would show if I actually had the disease. Meningitis is uncommon, but if I had it, those few hours could have been the difference between life and death.  

So I chose to go for it, which set me on a new journey, one that led me to become a pretty rare medical case. A lumbar puncture involves making a little hole in your spine and draining off some spinal fluid. My hole decided not to heal, so when I tried to sit or stand spinal fluid leaked, giving me instant nausea, a splitting headache, and blurred vision. I had every scan, procedure, and drug in the book, but I wasn’t getting any better. Without a definite prognosis the doctors told me I would probably get better in time, but it could take years. 

Meanwhile I just needed to be a patient patient. Meditation was a lifesaver. Luckily, I had already been practising it daily for many years and it helped me to keep calm, to disconnect from my ailing body and I took comfort from knowing that 98% of the atoms in our body regenerate every year. Our thoughts and actions today shape the mental and physical body we have tomorrow.  

Fortunately, nine months later I was able to return to normal life. I will never forget the sheer joy I felt when I could walk five minutes to my local coffee shop without having to lie down on the street to stop the head pain. Something that I had taken for granted for all of my life until that point became the biggest achievement of all. On that walk I felt the fullest awe and wonder for life that I can remember, and when I recall the memory, it’s like watching a film in Ultra HD in my mind.

So now, when I’m feeling frustrated, tested, stressed, I close my eyes and go back to that moment when I overcame my biggest challenge. 

So what was yours? Maybe it was also recovering from illness, getting a new job after being made redundant, finding a lasting partner after a disastrous relationship. When you’re feeling stretched play back in your mind the turning point. Use all your senses to recreate that moment in time — recall the sounds around you, the colours, smells you associate with that instant. Notice how your body feels when you remember, where in the body you feel the breath most strongly and even focus on the taste in your mouth. By recreating the memory in full 360 you can use the strength of that moment to help you with your challenge today. You can do it, you just need to remember it. As the great poet Rumi said, “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favour.”

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