The great religions have preached it for centuries. At home, parents endorse the act every time they urge a child to say, “I’m sorry.” Forgiveness is the cornerstone of belief systems for nearly all humanity. Is it all just common sense or does science back up the practice of forgiving? Is forgiving good for you?
Life Is Complex
The average human being encounters thousands of people throughout their lifetimes. We bump into each other, have conversations and, sometimes, engage in conflicts. This can lead to feelings of betrayal, resentment or even vengeance. While both short and long term negative feelings have their effect, it’s the long, drawn-out negativity that can damage your health.
It’s much more than just feeling angry. In fact, studies show that the act of forgiveness can reduce your risk of:
- Heart attack
- High cholesterol
- Sleep problems
- Pain disorders
- Immune system problems
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety, depression and stress
- Lower mortality
Who Hasn’t Felt This?
When you feel you’ve been wronged, what happens? There’s a reason we say things like:
- He or she drives me crazy.
- It’s eating away at me.
- I can’t stand the sight of him or her.
People even say things like, “I wanted to kill him or her.” In many cases, these reactions occur because we feel threatened or see someone we care for under attack. This sets into motion the classic “fight or flight” response. Powerful emotions are completely human, but when left unresolved, they come with a high price.
Biological Damage of Unforgiveness
The natural human response to stress is to release special hormones into the bloodstream such as cortisol and adrenaline. This prepares your body to unleash an attack, run away or resist injury. These days, conflicts are not usually resolved with violence, but our bodies still react in the same manner.
When we harbor resentment, these feelings well up inside us again. This generates the same stress response, and the hormone levels in your blood stay elevated. Chronic stress of any kind can do long-term damage, especially to your blood vessels. This may be why the chances of heart attack and stroke are higher with chronic stress.
Accumulates With Age
Like many health issues, the longer they last, the worse they get. If you’ve held a grudge for years, that means your body has endured years of stress. As people age, the benefit of forgiving increases. Older adults don’t need more stress as many already struggle with other health issues. The best advice is to seek forgiveness and move toward health.
Forgiveness Is Protective
Professor Loren Toussaint conducted a study about forgiveness and uncovered something quite surprising. Being forgiving not only prevents health problems, but it also protects you when you are exposed to stress.
His study involved 148 young adults, and the results confirmed that greater levels of life stress led to worse mental and physical health. However, there was also a subset of people who were more forgiving, and they were able to cope with stress much better. This means that if two people have identical external stresses in their life, the one that is more forgiving is healthier. Still, the final results are even more surprising.
For those that had a forgiving attitude, external stress had essentially no effect on mental health. It’s as if forgiveness completely blocks the stress that comes from the outside. Toussaint says, “We thought forgiveness would knock something off the relationship [between stress and psychological distress], but we didn’t expect it to zero it out.”
Forgiveness Is a Decision
When you’ve been hurt, forgiving the other person can be tremendously difficult. Still, one of the most important things to realize is that forgiveness is a decision. To help with this process, it also requires knowing what might not be part of forgiveness. For instance, forgiveness does not have to be:
- Reconciliation: You don’t have to get close to or be friends with the person you forgive.
- Forgetting: If harm was done, it’s a fact. Still, you can move past this emotionally.
- Lack of justice: When someone does something wrong, there are always consequences. Forgiving can be a process outside that occurs apart from justice.
Remember, if you decide not to forgive, you give the person or situation power over you and your health. Another misconception is that not forgiving may, in some way, force someone to change. The truth is, there’s no guarantee that what you do ― forgive or not ― will change the other person. If you decide to forgive, however, you can be nearly certain that you will be much healthier physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Steps to Forgiveness
The process of forgiveness goes through various stages. It’s not just about saying, “I forgive you.” Even people who have a hard time forgiving can improve over time. When you understand the process, it makes it easier to get to a place of healing.
Step One: Understanding Your Feelings
The first step in forgiveness is to understand where you are coming from. Some questions you might ask yourself are:
- What is it exactly that offended or hurt you?
- How did the process unfold?
- How would you describe your reaction?
- Does the other person know about what they did?
- Does the other person know about how you feel?
- How do you feel about the situation now compared to before?
It helps to talk to someone about your feelings, and it’s even better if it’s someone trained in mental health or forgiveness therapy. Also, many find it helpful to write things down in a journal since it might be hard to express your deepest feelings with spoken words.
Step Two: Decide to Forgive
As mentioned before, forgiving is more of a decision than a feeling. If you rely on your feelings only, then you lose control over the situation. You might also be led to exaggerate the offense or complicate relationships with other people who treat you well.
In some ways, forgiving is like quitting an addiction. It can be very difficult, but without a conscious decision to forgive, it may be impossible. When you finally decide to forgive ― even if you don’t feel like it ― then the process can move forward meaningfully.
Step Three: Understanding the Other Person
Once you’ve made the decision to forgive, you can begin to try to understand the other person. This does not mean you excuse their behavior, but you can seek an explanation for it. You might ask questions like:
- What sort of background does the person come from?
- Do they have a history of stress, abuse or neglect?
- Are they struggling with addiction?
- What stressful circumstances might they be facing?
- What possible role did you play in their behavior?
This step begins the process of developing empathy with the person that hurt you. It means putting yourself in their shoes to understand why they may have done what they did.
Step Four: Being Compassionate
The beauty of forgiveness is that it not only offers healing to yourself, but it also offers the possibility to heal the other person. This isn’t something that happens all the time but, without forgiveness, it’s much more difficult. Still, even if the other person doesn’t change, your emotional health will be much better after you have offered forgiveness.
After you’ve passed through the first three steps, you’ll begin to understand at an even deeper level the hurt that the other person is experiencing. In almost every case, when we hurt someone, it’s because we have been hurt by someone else before.
Put in the Time
Even for people that find it nearly impossible to forgive, if they invest the time, there’s a good chance that things can get better. In every case, more time and effort placed in working towards forgiveness leads to lower levels of stress and anxiety.
Dr. Toussaint also conducted a study looking at the benefits of prayer in the process of forgiveness. The study included 151 participants to see if prayer for their romantic partner made a difference in their relationship. The results showed that those who prayed for their partner were less likely to engage in motives of retaliation for potential offenses.
Draw the Line
Numerous studies have shown the mental health benefits of forgiveness are real. Even in situations of spousal emotional abuse, forgiving leads to emotional healing. This doesn’t mean that someone should remain or tolerate an abusive situation, but the process of healing goes beyond just distancing oneself from pain.
Another aspect of forgiveness that should be taken into account is how it affects others around you. If you hold onto feelings of resentment or vengeance, those who interact with you feel your pain. You might be short-tempered or withdrawn, or even downright mean to someone who has caused you no harm.
Forgiving Makes You Free
By forgiving, you break the power the offense has over you. Plus, you treat those around you with more care. Now, instead of carrying around heavy emotional baggage, you are free to be healthy ― even to the point of bringing health to others.
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Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it
Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692
Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/01/ce-corner.aspx
Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25139892
The effects of brief prayer on the experience of forgiveness: An American and Indian comparison. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijop.12139/abstract