A few months ago, I was in a bad car accident. The at-fault driver blew through a four-way stop going well above the speed limit, hurling my mom and me into a house on impact. Our car was totaled, but luckily no one was seriously hurt. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, a moment that threw my life into a terrifying tailspin in a matter of seconds. Thoughts and emotions came and went too quickly to process, my mind clouded by shock.
But amidst all of that, something strange happened—all of the anger, pain and fear were eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
When I came home that day, I ran up to my dad and hugged him tight. I was grateful to be alive. Grateful for all of the people who brought us water, help, and comfort. Grateful for the police and EMTs that came to help. Grateful for the car that died so we could live.
And it was through that gratitude that I was able to heal.
It’s a feeling unlike any other—one I’ll never forget. Because of that experience, I began to think deeper about gratitude. I found that there are many studies on how gratitude can “rewire” your brain and improve your mindset, so I began to ask even more questions. Why was gratitude so powerful at that moment? How can it help others going through similar situations? How can showing gratitude “rewire” your brain?
I had the pleasure of speaking with Licensed Professional Counselor Amanda Trost in an effort to learn more about the complexities of gratitude and why it’s so powerful. Trost works with teens and adults with depression and anxiety at Solace Counseling and Coaching, specializing in adults with childhood trauma.
Trost touched on the “rewiring” aspect of gratitude, explaining how gratitude can become second nature if we use it enough. She compared brain pathways to paths in a park. If you had a choice between a clear, well-kept path and an overgrown, unkempt path, you’d choose the clear path. In the same way, our brains will choose the more familiar pathway. “[If] I have practiced gratitude over and over and over again, that pathway is strong,” Trost said. “And I’m going to automatically feel grateful.”
I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. For a few years, I’ve made it a habit at the end of every day to think about what I should be grateful for. But in the days before the accident, it felt like all I did was complain. I thought about everything trivial I didn’t have. Why won’t that guy text me back? Why can’t I have the newest iPhone? Why can’t I get better at writing faster? The accident was a wake-up call, reminding me of how good I have it and how little those things matter.
Gratitude kicked in because that pathway had been so strong due to years of practice. Even if I fell into a few weeks of self-pity, that still didn’t untrain my brain to ultimately respond with gratitude in the face of adversity. It’s fascinating how the brain can do that, adapting to different conditions based on past responses.
Trost said that while gratitude on its own could be life-changing, its impact can be made more pronounced when combined with other concepts. “I think when we pair it with optimism, that’s where we get some neat stuff,” she said. “And it could be we’re grateful for the change and to recover and to heal, or we’re grateful for opportunity in general.”
She also explained that the frequent usage of gratitude, along with other factors, can help an individual more easily overcome difficult life events. “There’s factors that make us more resilient. Some of those things are our support system, our belief system, and not necessarily religion, but our views and paradigms on life,” she said. “Sometimes we can weather very difficult things if we have a lot of experience with gratitude and hope and optimism and with resiliency.”
It goes back to my car accident—because I utilized gratitude and optimism, I was able to recover quicker. But Trost suggested that my support system may also have played a role in my resiliency. Because I had that support system, experiencing the better parts of humanity, my gratitude for that increased. It goes to show that many factors in one’s life determine an individual’s resilience and capability for gratitude in any given situation.
While gratitude does have many benefits and is often viewed in a positive light, Trost warned that gratitude can, at times, be weaponized to hurt us. “A lot of times [my clients] fall into people telling them, or they tell themselves, ‘I should just be grateful, I should just be happy, it could’ve been worse.’ And I think gratitude is dangerous in that aspect,” she said. “[It’s] one way we beat ourselves up.”
This toxic spin on gratitude is something I haven’t considered before, but it’s something that I think many have experienced. On a few occasions, I’ve been told that I should just shut up and be grateful, and that hurt. It’s understandable how that could be detrimental to one’s mental health after a while, especially in individuals that have experienced a lot of trauma.
It’s a good reminder to be cautious with gratitude and to make sure it’s truly genuine and from the heart. Gratitude shouldn’t be something that’s forced, rather a choice made by individuals when they are ready. It’s a balance like most things in life.
Trost said that gratitude means something different to everyone and has a different place in each individual’s life. To her, gratitude goes hand-in-hand with optimism for the future. “We get that glimmer of ‘there’s a chance here I can do something successful.’ And that’s kind of what gratitude is for me. I’m thankful for the experiences that led me to know that I am capable, that I can do things, and it’s that optimism of what comes next or that gratitude of knowing that I have chances in life,” she said.
I found Trost’s idea of gratitude powerful because it mixes past, present, and future. It acknowledges where she was, where she is now, and where she hopes to be. It’s centered around hope, which raises gratitude up a level by allowing you to push forward to change and grow rather than simply being content and static.
And to me, that’s what gratitude should be. It isn’t an excuse to settle and stave off ambition. It’s a balancing act of acknowledging the things you do have while continuing that lifelong journey of creating a better life for yourself and for the world.
Gaining that awareness of gratitude—how it can be beneficial, how it can be weaponized, how it’s experienced differently by everyone—is truly invaluable. It allows us to see gratitude from a whole new perspective. It causes us to realize its power and use it wisely. Because if it’s genuine and is used right, gratitude could change your life.
You can connect with Trost on her website, solacecounselingandcoaching.com or through her co-therapist Zen the Therapy Cat’s social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok) @zenthetherapycat.