Turn obstacles into opportunities

It’s the secret to enjoying life—even when things ‘go wrong’

No one’s life is without challenges. No matter how hard we work or how carefully we plan, the unexpected can still happen. The Covid-19 pandemic is a recent case in point. Before it struck, I don’t know anyone who had planned to spend 2020 at home social distancing. But, “When you come to a wall in the road, life is telling you to make a turn.” (This is another of my “Inspirations.”) So, we pivoted, learning and adopting new words, practices, and acronyms, like Zoom, InstaCart and WFH.

My life has encountered plenty of unexpected obstacles that turned into opportunities: immigrating to the United States as a child; exchanging a life of relative comfort for one of poverty in Queens; putting myself through college, pharmacy school, and medical school; launching a clinical skincare line against the advice of my peers at age 50; going through a divorce; suffering a detached retina and having to keep my chin on my chest post-surgery for nearly a month; and of course all of the routine obstacles and upsets that are part of Cultural Stress—the stress of modern living.

Nevertheless, whether by temperament or the example set by my resilient parents, I’ve always had an ability to reframe obstacles and see them as opportunities. To me, there’s really no other option. Once an obstacle has blocked your path, you can either let it stop you or figure out how to get around it. Rather than crash stubbornly into the wall, or call the journey to a halt, why not accept life’s invitation to try a new course? Maybe you thought you were going to be an actress, but instead you’ll work with children with disabilities. Maybe you thought you’d travel to Italy this year, but instead you’ll hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is what makes life an adventure, rather than a predictable trajectory from birth to death. It’s when life presents us with the unexpected that we have the opportunity to really get creative.

Obstacles also give us is the chance to stop and reflect. As psychologist Dr. Nikki Martinez writes, “Sometimes obstacles allow us the opportunity to reflect on how we could do things differently, and to examine what did and did not work right the first time around.” What we initially thought of as a disaster—a sudden job loss, or an injury or illness that forces us to put our normal life on hold—can actually give us a precious opportunity to re-evaluate our life and priorities. As Dr. Martinez says, “Obstacles can open up time and opportunity that we did not once have: time to decide on goals, time to learn a new skill, or time to complete tasks that you never had the time to do prior to this obstacle coming into your life.”

Obstacles can even cause us to revise our dreams and set a new definition of success. That’s what happened to me when my year of treating the wounded in Vietnam convinced me that I didn’t want to be a surgeon after all. I didn’t give up being a physician, however; I rerouted to become a dermatologist. Imagine how different my life would have been if I hadn’t made that turn!

By reframing obstacles as opportunities, we can transform distress (stress we define negatively) into eustress, stress that motivates us to be better. (For more about this, read my post on “How to Make Stress Work for You.”) Often, it is not the stressor itself that determines whether we experience eustress or distress, but the meaning we give to it.

Another of my “Inspirations” is the saying: “We are each born with a unique commodity called life. It is stressed by the environment, and it is up to us to make the best of it.” Not only is “making the best of it” a more positive and productive approach than letting obstacles defeat us, it’s an approach that also has positive health benefits in:

  • Overall healthStress is not only implicated in most chronic diseases, but also in about 60–80% of primary care visits, as measured by the percent of office visits that resulted in some form of stress management advice or counseling. People don’t typically seek medical attention for stress they perceive as positive; only for experiences that cause distress. This isn’t magical thinking; it’s understanding that the physical symptoms one may be experiencing are related to growth, not illness.
  • Post-operative recoveryStress—e.g., distressslows post-operative wound healing. Positive reframing of the surgery and its results, however, can speed recovery and improve outcomes.
  • Mental healthPositive reframing has been shown to relieve anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Simply put, we don’t get nearly as depressed or anxious over experiences we view as positive. We may feel butterflies of excitement, but we are not likely to suffer clinical anxiety or depression. (In fact, just renaming feelings as “excitement” rather than “anxiety” can help.)
  • LongevityPeople who are able to reframe challenges as opportunities typically feel more optimistic about their prospects and the future. That’s an advantage in itself;. The bonus is that optimistic people live up to 15% longer!
  • Life enjoymentWhen you have trained yourself to see opportunities where others see only obstacles, life becomes more enjoyable—and others enjoy being in your company. Add this to benefits in overall health, mental health, and longevity, and the ability to turn obstacles into opportunities becomes one of life’s most valuable skills.

One thing’s for certain: the future is uncertain! But if we trust ourselves to respond creatively in the moment to whatever life presents, then we can move forward with confidence…and even a sense of adventure. After all, “Life always throws curve balls. But we can learn to hit them out of the park.”

That’s Modern Wellness!

 

Want to know more about conquering Cultural Stress and living a longer, healthier, happier life? Read my book on the subject: Conquering Cultural Stress, available on Amazon!

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