Focusing on Gratitude During Difficult Times

I have made a point to focus on gratitude in the last few years and doing so has made a big impact on me. Recognizing gratitude has brought more joy into my life, and it has helped me block out negative emotions like envy and resentment.

The act of focusing on gratitude actually changes your brain chemistry, allowing you to focus on the positive and let go of the negative thoughts filling your mind. The more you focus on positive things in your life, the stronger those neural pathways in your brain become; and the less you focus on the negative, the weaker those neural pathways become. Indeed, research has shown that grateful people are more resilient and satisfied with life. Keeping a gratitude journal as a way to channel gratitude actually performed as well as antidepressants did in one scientific study. I started keeping a journal by my bed and it has really changed my mindset in a major way.

Appreciating gratitude is a choice and it requires practice to train your brain to think that way. Being grateful is easy to do when life is good and everything is going your way, but it’s much more difficult when going through tough times. Looking back on one’s life at a distance offers some clarity that simply isn’t there when you are going through something difficult. It’s a great exercise to try to find what you can be grateful for on a daily basis and challenging yourself to find the silver lining even out of difficult situations.

Years ago, I saw a job posting for what looked like an amazing opportunity. It was a position working on site at a large company that was well-known for treating its employees really well. I applied but I didn’t get it. I was bummed and later on I would think of that job often. Years later, I was at a networking event and I met the person who got that job. She described it as it had sounded in the ad; great quality of practice and a full-time generous salary for part-time work. What happened though was that company made cuts and her position was eliminated, the same position that I had wanted so badly! She was scrambling to find a job at that point and it was impossible to match the offer she had before so that was discouraging for her. It made me grateful that I didn’t have to go through that. What seemed like a setback then was God/the universe pointing me in a different direction.

A job loss can have a silver lining, though. When my husband Mike was laid off from his job unexpectedly, we were devastated. It was an uncertain time not knowing what was next for him and how long he would be unemployed. Looking back though, it was such a blessing. Mike really wasn’t happy there and being suddenly jobless allowed him to focus on finding a new job and finishing his MBA.
Years ago, I was needing a change in my career and I leaped WAY out of my comfort zone and accepted a job as a surgical PA. I had been in primary care for almost 10 years at that point and although it can be hard to teach an old job new tricks, I was up for the challenge. Unfortunately, it ended up being a terrible fit. On top of long hours and a long commute, there were, let’s say, MAJOR clashes with the person I was hired to work directly with. It was a toxic environment and for the sake of my own mental health I had to quit that job after about a month with no other job lined up. I had NO IDEA what I was going to do and it was terrifying. I was providing a huge chunk of my family’s income at the time. I was emotionally wrecked and I feared that I would never be happy. I ultimately figured it out and landed in another job soon after, but this experience was the beginning of an awakening inside me. I yearned for more control over my life. I felt trapped in my career, the career I had always wanted. I realized that I needed to start my own business in order to get more control and have more options in my life. I’m glad I had that terrible job because it helped me realize that.

When I was a senior in college, my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 55. Anyone who has supported a loved one through cancer treatment knows what a roller coaster ride it is. Ups and downs. Good news and bad news. My family had excellent health insurance through my dad’s job, my dad’s employer was incredibly accommodating, and he received world-class medical care at the University of Minnesota. Dad needed a bone marrow transplant and they INVENTED bone marrow transplants there. This facility also happens to be in our same city so we could spend time with him at the hospital during the day and sleep in our own beds at night. Many people fighting cancer have to relocate or commute back and forth to cities far away. Not everyone is as lucky as we were.

Despite fighting a great battle, my dad died at 56. Losing him was the worst time of my life. He was such an incredible man and was loved by so many people. His funeral was packed with people that knew him from all stages of his life. I was so proud that he was my dad. Even though I only had 23 years with him, they were 23 awesome years. Many people don’t even get that. I am SO grateful for those years. I’m also so grateful for the angel on earth that is my mom. If there is one person who can fill two parent’s shoes, it’s her. I also have a great relationship with my brother and we had a huge support system of family and friends.

Mike and I got married 2 years later. Even though my dad wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle or to dance with me at the reception, I’m grateful that Mike got to know my dad before he died and the two of them got along great. On one of the last days my dad was alive, Mike asked everyone else to leave the hospital room and he asked my dad for his blessing to marry me. Dad enthusiastically said yes and he was so happy about our future life together. Our wedding was a beautiful occasion and my mom walked me down the aisle. I feared I would be a sobbing mess but I held it together.

Timing is important and I doubt I would be able to come up with the list of things I was grateful for right after he died. 15 years have passed since then so it’s easier now. It’s normal and expected to feel sad and grieve. That is necessary for healing, but seeing life through a grateful lens will allow you be more resilient and to more easily find joy again in your life. I challenge you to make note of what you are grateful for every day. I highly recommend using a gratitude journal. Do you count your blessings? What has it done for you? Do you use a gratitude journal? I would love to hear from you. Comment below or email me at

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Ann Marie Strong is a certified physician assistant who practices primary care medicine in the Minneapolis area, is a skincare consultant and blogs at

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